After a year-long search, historians tracked down and interviewed Van Mai, the woman who programmed Wabbit for the Atari 2600, notable for being the first console game with a playable female character who could actually be called a “character.”
The history of playable women in video games is surprisingly complicated and is the subject of an ongoing series of investigations by historian and YouTuber “Critical Kate” Willært. In short, the first playable female character was in an arcade game called Score, which had a gender swap on the front of the cabinet. The first games with dedicated female leads were slices of eroticism with titles like Streaking and Beat ‘Em And Eat ‘Em. Ms. Pac-Man innovated with the novel idea of giving a female character a name, though whether a yellow circle with a bow actually counts as a playable female is a debatable issue.
At the game’s release in 1982, Wabbit protagonist Billie Sue was the only female character on a console who was human, playable, and had a name. Billie Sue is a young girl who wants to protect her vegetable crops from a horde of hungry rabbits. She is basically Space Invaders on a farm.
Wabbit was created by Van Mai, though that was before she took her married name. Like most early game releases, her work was uncredited and her name had been misremembered by colleagues as “Ban Tran”, a mix-up that ensured the search for her would take over a year, until historians thought of check Apollo’s bankruptcy records. the company that published Wabbit.
As detailed in a report published by the Video Game History Foundation by Willært and fellow researcher Kevin Bunch, Mai was a refugee from the Vietnam War. Living with her family in Dallas, she took night programming courses and applied for a job at a company called Apollo, which had recently entered the video game market. A colleague of Mai’s recalled thinking that she didn’t seem like the kind of “nerd” who would apply to a tech company in the ’80s.
In the VGHF report, Mai says that she pitched Wabbit as an Atari game for little girls. “I don’t think my teammates or my boss said anything about [the theme]”explains Mai. “Everything was up to me, I designed it, all the animation and all that. They seemed to really like it.”
After Apollo filed for bankruptcy (he would not receive his last royalty check for nearly seven years), Mai spent a short time in the games industry before earning a computer science degree and landing a job with a telecommunications company. Now, she works in the banking industry.
Without a great deal of work by historians, Mai’s work in creating a major milestone in the industry would never have been recognized.
If you want to have some fun with game history, check out our guide to best retro games.