Women in tech: The groundbreaking career of video game pioneer Carol Shaw

Emma McGowan 21 Mar 2023

Shaw is a key figure in the history of women in technology, and one who paved the way for so many other key women in the field of video game design. 

Ever flown your jet fighter down the River of No Return to blow up enemy tankers, helicopters, jets and bridges? Then you're familiar with the work of video game pioneer Carol Shaw.  

Shaw is the video game designer and programmer behind the classic River Raid game published by Activision in 1982 for the now-retro Atari 2600 video game console. Shaw's game, thanks in part to its complexity, visuals and, of course, fun, went on to sell more than 1 million cartridges. Critics hailed it as one of the best games for the Atari 2600.  

This was just one of the many successes that Shaw enjoyed during a relatively brief, but historically important, career in video games and computer programming. Shaw, who began working at Atari in 1978 as a microprocessor software engineer, was named by the Centre for Computing History as the first female video game designer and programmer.  

She, then, is a key figure in the history of women in technology, and one who paved the way for so many other key women in the field of video game design. 

Growing up with tech 

Shaw, who was born in 1955, attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1977. She completed her master's degree at Berkeley, too.  

River Raid wasn’t the only video game Shaw programmed at Atari. She played key roles in bringing classic Atari 2600 games such as 3D Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers to life. She also collaborated on the Atari 2600 version of arcade game Super Breakout and helped turn the classic board game Othello into yet another Atari 2600 cartridge.  

During Shaw’s career, Atari branched into home computing with the Atari 8-bit line of personal computers. Shaw wrote the BASIC Reference Manual for these computers and also developed the programmable Calculator application that Atari published for these computers in 1979.  

In a 2011 interview with Vintage Computing and Gaming, Shaw credited her upbringing with her interest in video games and computers. She grew up in a home in which technology was celebrated, she told interviewer Benji Edwards. And in school, she excelled in math. A career in computer science and programming became the natural path for Shaw.  

This was the 1970s, though, and there weren't many women in technology careers. Shaw didn't let that stop her.  

"I entered a bunch of math contests and won awards," Shaw said during the interview. "Of course, people would say, 'Gee, you're good at math, for a girl.' That was kind of annoying. Why shouldn't girls be good at math?" 

The birth of River Raid 

Shaw eventually left Atari in 1980, taking a position at Tandem Computers. But it was two years later, when she jumped to game developer Activision, that Shaw enjoyed her biggest success in the video game industry.  

That was when she designed and developed River Raid, one of the most successful home video games of the 1980s. The game sold more than 1 million copies and featured advanced game play and graphics for the ‘80s, especially considering how much information Shaw had to cram into a cartridge that would work on the relatively low-powered Atari 2600.  

This is important: Many of the games designed for the Atari 2600 bore little resemblance to what they were supposed to be portraying. The players depicted in the Atari’s first football game, for instance, looked more like trash cans with eyes than actual NFL running backs and linebackers. The 2600’s version of Pac-Man was derided, too, for its ghosts that flickered on and of the screen and “dots” that looked more like dashes.  

But River Raid? The planes, helicopters, bridges, fuel tanks and ships looked like their real-life counterparts, or at least as close as a designer could get on the 2600. The game earned several industry awards, including Best Action Videogame at the 1984 Arkie Awards from Electronic Games magazine. 

It wasn’t surprising, then, that River Raid became such a success. The owners of other gaming systems demanded it, too, and Shaw created versions of her classic game for Atari 2600 competitor Intellivision and for the Atari 8-bit computer system.  

Shaw’s work on this game, and on her other projects, led to Shaw becoming the first female game designer to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science Hall of Fame. In 2017, she earned the Industry Icon award from The Game Awards. 

An unusual assignment 

One of the odder moments of Shaw's career took place in 1978. That's when Atari asked her to design a video game based on polo, the sport in which riders on horseback try to score goals against each other using long-handled wooden mallets.  

That's not unusual. What was odd was that the game was supposed to serve as a tie-in to fashion designer Ralph Lauren's introduction of its new cologne, Polo, a fragrance designed for men. At the time, Warner Communications owned both Atari and Ralph Lauren. Warner wanted to create a display in New York City's flagship Bloomingdale's store with the Polo cologne alongside Atari 2600 consoles displaying Shaw's polo game.  

The game was another challenge. Again, the Atari 2600 wasn't designed for such a complex adaptation of a sport. But what Shaw designed, critics agree, was impressive. Shaw herself spent long hours researching both polo and physics so that she could create the most realistic game possible, according to ROMchip. This included programming realistic motions for the polo ball after players smacked it with their mallets.  

Unfortunately, Warner changed its plans and never published the game, letting Polo the fragrance debut on its own. The game was not lost, though. Shaw in 2017 donated the original read-only memory chip and printed source code of the game to The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.  

Fans released the game in 1996 as a bonus on the Stella Gets a New Brain CD-ROM, a compact disc holding 13 different games. Fans of the Atari 2600, then, can now play the game that Shaw developed. Doing so is like playing a bit of history: Polo is considered the first documented video game designed and programmed by a woman. 

Shaw also programmed the well-received game Happy Trails for the Intellivision, one of the bigger rivals of the Atari 2600. Shaw programmed the game in 1983 while working for Activision. In this Western-themed game, players guide their characters through a broken maze to collect pieces of gold while avoid the black-hatted Black Bart. 

This puzzle game also earned rave reviews, with JoyStik magazine giving it a rating of five-out-of-five stars. Players who earned a score of 40,000 or more could receive an Activision Trailblazers emblem if they sent a photo of their screen with the score to the company. 

Despite her successes, Shaw enjoyed a short career in the video game industry. She left game design completely in 1984 and retired in 1990 from Tandem Computers, where she had worked as an assembly language programmer. Shaw credits the success of River Raid with giving her the financial cushion she needed to retire early. 

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