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
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