Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dani: First Female in AIAS Hall of Fame (and why AIAS kept it secret)

If you grew up in the 80’s and were a geek, and you know what the word Zork means in terms of computing then you probably know Danielle (Dani) Berry or at least you know her work. Her best known games were M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold. The two things that made Danielle’s games different were interaction with other people and non-violent games. Her first game, Wheeler Dealer, a business sim for the Apple II, had it’s own created controllers so four people could play against each other (People playing against each other was unheard of at this point - she had to design the controllers to make the game). Unfortunately, buying controllers to play a single game made it a VERY expensive game. Only 50 copies were sold. But she went on to design M.U.L.E., a non-violent exploration/economic sim that could be played against others (Will Wright, the creator of SIMS dedicated the game to her and M.U.L.E.). Danielle was obsessed with getting people interacting with each other instead of just with their computer, back in the days when that was really, really hard (modems had only just been invented). But as she said, “No one on their death bed ever said "I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!" Danielle paved the way for the player to player interaction most gamers see as essential to gaming and that created online phenomena like World of Warcraft and Second Life; doing games with other people is MORE fun than doing them alone.

M.U.L.E. was also the first computer game that appealed to and sold to women; a market still overlooked today, but in 1983? She sums up the difference between M.U.L.E. and traditional (male oriented) games: “It involved taking turns and developing land, stuff that kind of made sense to people not groomed and grown in the joystick world. Look at the kinds of products that Sega and Nintendo are building. They're for pre-teen boys who are just rabid joystick jocks. They just do every damn thing you can do with multiple buttons and push and pull the joystick. Intensity is the word. I'm not going to argue with them; they seem to be enjoying themselves. But I do believe that there's room for some other kinds of fun, also.” I loved Dani’s games; M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold was what convinced me that there were computer games better than Flight Simulator (after all, there are only so many times you can crash into the Sears Tower). In 1994 Electronic Arts wanted to rerelease the game but would only do so if Dani added guns and bombs. Danielle said no. And that was pretty much the end of her career as a game creator. You might have wondered how a woman managed to survive and succeed so long in the overwhelming male dominated world of computer gaming? The truth is, she didn’t. And that was the other reason the game design world took a couple clear steps away from Danielle when she came out of the closet as a woman in 1991-1992; before that people had known her as Dan Bunten.

Suddenly, out of the closet, a game designer of 14 years consistent work; coming out with games once every year or two for the biggest companies (EA, Microprose) couldn’t get a design job. She moved back home to Arkansas saying, "I'm done with this business. I can't deal with this. I give up." She put out her resume and when to employment agencies as a conventional engineer but couldn’t get a job; in fact she only got one call back (welcome to being a female engineer in the south). She talked about the importance of family now, of being a mom, though her oldest daughter and granddaughter were estranged, her oldest son was hostile, but her seven year old son called her mom. All her previous male associates and friends in the business fell away. Her mother and her two favorite siblings immediately “disowned” her: “I thought I was part of a large and caring family (many of whom live in the area) till I did this. One of my favorite brothers suggested that I should have killed myself and if I didn't leave the family alone he'd help me do it!” And while still trying to build and patch relationships Danielle died of cancer in 1998, still estranged.

You may be thinking, 'Okay, a nice and courageous woman by why is her story so important?' It is important because yesterday, the sixteen men making the board of The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS) wiped that story away; and they did it with an award. AIAS is a collection of the most powerful people in gaming software; you can’t even become a voting member until you have demonstrated your excellence in gaming through credits and experience. And annually the members vote to give out gaming awards, while the sixteen members of the Board of Directors decide which single person should be added to the Hall of Fame. This year, that person, inducted yesterday Feb. 9th 2007 was Dan Bunten. You can listen to the Academy’s President in a January interview as he announces that yes, Dan Bunten, great designer that HE was, will be entered into the hall of fame. Sid Meier, creator of Civilization (who worked under Dani), accepted the award on his behalf, talking only about DAN Bunten, "He thought games could become social experiences, I told him he was out of his mind.” The official press release (now reprinted worldwide) from AIAS is that Dan Bunten was honored that night (“Bunten's legacy is more recognized for the gaming technologies he pioneered," said the release by the AIAS.”). The older (estranged) son thanked everyone for honoring his “dad.”

So now, after she had her surgery, had her name legally changed, had her gender legally recognized and after she lived, struggled and died as Danielle. Now, nine years later, her “friends in the industry” honor her by pretending she didn’t even exist. They honor her by giving an award to a person who Danielle admitted with great courage was a lie, and was offered an award that, if she had been alive, she couldn’t have legally accepted in that name. They are “honoring” her by obliterating what she sacrificed her family, her friends and her career to be truthful about: that she was a woman. That seems a pretty crap way to honor someone.

Some, like EA founder Trip Hawkins spoke supportively of how she should receive the award for the work she had done. But the majority of the “old echelon” like the board at AIAS and Sid Meiers, were too afraid to even use the pronoun “she." They show that the “boys club” of computer gaming has a long way to go, as they are currently unable to recognize that the socially interactive games which they honor (and profit from) are the influence of Danielle, who hid behind the face of “Dan”, during a period of Missile Command and Duke Nukem ("Bunten's approach, Hawkins said, "was the antithesis of the 'mindless shoot 'em up.'”). Now unable to defend herself, Danielle is having who she is and was, reworked and rewritten for the emotional convenience of a bunch of aging male gamers. Seems odd that so many designers of First Person Shooters would be such cowards, doesn't it?

So, let us celebrate what they seem unable to, a person whose “unconventional” approach and whose dedication to self truth is still, compared to the gaming industry, ahead of her time. Let’s hear it for the 10th inductee to the AIAS Hall of Fame: Danielle Bunten Berry


(^_^) said...
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kathz said...

I looked for comparison to the wikipedia entry on Jan Morris
which is much more open about gender reassignment and tells a far happier story. I wondered about the one "he" but I don't know how Jan Morris tells the story, though I've heard her on the radio on several occasions. I think it's useful to show that the story can be happier - and that a marriage can survive too. (On a sligtly separate subject, I don't know if you came across her or her son Twm in Wales - I believe Twm is a terrific performer of his work but Welsh language only.) By the way, I just tried entering "James Morris" into Amazon and was taken to the early books of "Jan Morris", which I thought was good and helpful (as readers of old editions may not know the author as Jan).

GeekyGirl said...

Wow. I'm a casual-ish gamer and I had no idea. How awful- but considering how the gaming world treats women, let alone transwomen, I'm not surprised. These guys are dragging their heels reluctantly right at the back of social progress.

B.V. Brus said...

I'm not trying to argue on behalf of the awards people or to defend their behavior, but merely offer an alternative perspective: When a person is known for several years as a member of one sex, and then takes steps to change sexual and/or gender identity to the other, it does create a problem for appropriate retrospective references later. As far as historic records, legal documents and public awareness, anything Dani did BACK THEN was accomplished as Dan, a man. Many of those people probably only knew Dani as Dan. Is it appropriate to refer to that person by an identity they didn't really know?

I think most newspapers today have adapted. One of our local police officers (and a member of my neighborhood organization), for example, is a woman who was once a man a few years ago. It caused her no end of trouble in the public eye during the transition -- she handled it with admirable aplomb. And for as long as it was newsy (she had to defend her job security, if I remember correctly), we used phrases such as "then, a man" and proper gender pronouns matched with each period of his/her life. When she joined the force, she WAS hired as a man, after all.

It's unfortunate that Dani wasn't alive to deal with this herself. And we can probably assume at least some of the people involved were nasty bigots of some degree. But it would be unfair to assume the worst about everyone when they might be struggling with matters of changing identity over time.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I understand the logic people use, except that it seems a exceptionally inconsistant form of logic since 1) The person was being honored for not a single piece of work but thier "life work" and someone's "life work" is given to the person who is there at the end of the life, whether the people are as familiar with them or not - This would be for instance like inducting "Cassius Clay" into the Boxing Hall of Fame becuase "I really didn't interact with Mahammud Ali that much" or giving an lifetime Catholic Achievement Award to "Karol Wojtyla" because the people who are giving the award really didn't have much interaction with "Pope John Paul II" - as you see, with any other significant life/name change it would be seen as absurd.

If, to use an example, an author has a psudoneum; and a lifetime achievement award wants to be presented to them, they can sometimes be listed as the name they were known to thier public as along with the name they had at thier death - The AIAS did not do this but gave an award to a single name - NOT the name or gender at of the person at thier death (nor until some later press releases was that even mentioned - some papers, like Canada, according to reporting standards, changed the gender and name markers - most did not. A classic example of that is listening to Gamespot's vocal interview where the interviewer consistantly uses "Dani" and "she" and the programmer being interviewed is going, "I'm not comfortable using calling Dan, 'she'". Of course, post marriage, noone gives awards to a person only in thier "maiden" name, regardless of when thier greatest body of work occurred.

The other major aspect is that transsexuality, like homosexuality is generally considered a life condition which may only present at a later date. Yet, when someone "comes out" and has publicly affirmed that "yes, they were gay all that time and hiding it" it would be really rude to make some public award to "Bob, the Heterosexual." - which is what AIAS is doing here.

Believe me, I understand the logic quite well as when people tell me that "They don't accept that I am married" even though my partner and I have been together 13 years and LEGALLY married in the country we reside for several years - yet I hear this all the time when travelling to the states - but that, like the award, has a lot more to do with the desperate viewpoint of the individuals to hold on to thier bias than it does to the legal or practical reality.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Actually, the recommended reporting standards, if a gender change has occurred is to use the appropriate gender markers life long unless the person themselves does otherwise, particularly if they, as most who undergo surgery do, have thier birth certificate changed, demonstrating that the "state" recognizes the correction of a lifelong condition. Which is why, if they so wish, a person who has had thier birth certificate changed could go back and have every major piece of paperwork in thier life changed to reflect that (though considering how much documentation occurs, that would be an exhaustive occurance"). However, for papers that reprint press releases or smaller papers, journalistic standards will not be the same as say, the New York Times, or the Globe and Mail (As Kathz mentioned earlier, an early book written by James Morris would still be attributed as written by "her", Jan Morris.

B.V. Brus said...

A younger Brian would have kept arguing these points merely for the sake of arguing. But I'm not that guy anymore.

Elizabeth McClung said...

errrr...okay - in that case - YOU want to take me to a Purity Dance?