AtariWomen wants you to meet the female engineers behind Centipede and Warlords

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Pernille Bjorn (left), a University of Copenhagen professor visiting the University of Washington, and Daniela Rosner, an assistant professor with the UW’s Human Centered Design and Engineering program, have created AtariWomen to celebrate women in technology. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Wocka wocka wocka wocka.

Even if you’re not a kid of the 1970s and ’80s who, like me, erased hours of their youth blasting Atari’s Space Invaders or spinning among crudely-rendered interstellar debris in the game Asteroids, you likely know the “wocka wocka” sound of a chomping Pac-Man. Atari was one of the first video game producers, releasing a slew of iconic games.

My sister, our neighbor Laurie Ronning and I spent countless afternoons straining our thumbs with Atari joysticks, filling the time between reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” and cruising on our banana-seat bikes.

Our passion for Atari aligned with an era when increasing percentages of women were computer scientists. Their ranks grew steadily through the ’70s, with women holding well over one-third of computer science jobs by the mid ’80s. Then something changed.

Pole Position, anyone? The AtariWomen project is collecting Atari game cartridges signed by the women who worked on them. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

“There was this pivotal period in the 1980s where we realized there was this shift in the participation of women,” said Daniela Rosner, an assistant professor in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. “There was a theory that this had something to do with game design, and the way in which gaming was marketing more to boys.”

Since the mid ’80s, the percent of computer jobs held by women in the U.S. has declined year after year to roughly one-quarter today. There are lots of reasons associated with the slide — including advertising prominently featuring boys playing computer games.

The AtariWomen logo is a play on the original Atari logo design.

To help bring attention to those past, higher participation rates and to share the stories of pioneering women in computer science, Rosner has teamed up with visiting professor Pernille Bjorn to create AtariWomen. The initiative is a research project that profiles the women who helped design and build Atari’s games some four decades ago.

AtariWomen is making its debut at Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle on Friday. Rosner and Bjorn, a University of Copenhagen professor temporarily visiting the UW, are hosting a panel at the event. The lineup features women in the gaming industry, including some who worked at Atari and the first U.S. video game champion, winner of the Atari 2600 National Space Invaders tournament in 1980.

They’ll also have an interactive popup exhibit with Atari 2600 game cartridges signed by the women who helped create them. UW students are building an Atari Woman e-textile costume decorated with lantern-like cubes featuring graphics from the games. The exhibit will have a remixed version of Pac-Man with a maze of binary 1’s and 0’s navigated by a cartoon female developer instead of a chomping yellow circle. The ghosts are replaced by stylized bugs representing the software bugs that plague engineers.

Rosner and Bjorn are eager to give the former Atari employees a chance to share their experiences. The history of gaming is dominated by tales of the hard work and success of men, giving shorter shrift to the role of women, the professors said, focused on stories of harassment or stereotypes of women workers. AtariWomen aims to broaden the narrative.

“If people start talking about these stories when they talk about gaming,” Bjorn said, “this will be a success.”

The professors considered profiling the women who were early graphic designers for Apple, the British women who worked on breaking cryptic codes during World War II or the women who programmed the first all-electronic, programmable computer, the ENIAC. The 2016 film “Hidden Figures” is another recent effort to highlight diversity in tech, presenting a fictionalized account of the African American female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the Space Race.

Rosner demos their remake of Pac-Man to feature a female software engineer battling bugs in the code. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

There are plans to take the AtariWomen exhibit on the road, including a show at Seattle’s Living Computers: Museum + Labs and elsewhere.

Rosner and Bjorn chose the Atari engineers in part because many are still alive and given the timing of their employment around the peak of women’s participation in computer science.

The professors explained that the broader goals of their research include boosting the number of girls and women interested in computer science, as well as breaking down definitions and misconceptions about the sector that exclude people by gender, age, sexual orientation, education level and other traits. They emphasized that it is essential that the field is inclusive.

“Technology shapes all kinds of life, work, families, whatever you do in today’s world.” Bjorn said. “It’s essential that the people who create the technology represent the people who are going to use it so you are not leaving people out, or producing technology that has problematic impact, that has unanticipated consequences.”



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