After a year-long search, historians have 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 that you might actually call 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 switch on the cabinet front. The first games with dedicated female protagonists were chunks of erotica with titles like Streaking and Beat ‘Em And Eat ‘Em. Ms. Pac-Man broke ground with the innovative idea of naming a female character, though whether a yellow circle with an arc really counts as a playable female is a debatable question.
When the game was released in 1982, Wabbit’s 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. It’s basically Space Invaders on a farm.
Wabbit was created by Van Mai, although this was before she took her married surname. Like most early game releases, his work was uncredited and his colleagues had remembered his name as “Ban Tran”, a confusion that ensured his search would take over a year – until historians think to check the bankruptcy records of Apollo, 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 evening classes in programming and applied for a job at a company called Apollo, which had just entered the video game market. A colleague of Mai’s recalled thinking she didn’t look like the kind of “nerd” who would apply for a tech company in the ’80s.
In the VGHF report, Mai says 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. “It was all up to me, I designed it – all the animation and all that. They seemed to like it a lot.”
After Apollo declared bankruptcy – she wouldn’t get her last royalty check for almost seven years – Mai spent little time in the gaming industry before earning a degree in computer science and finding a job in a telecommunications company. Now she works in banking.
Without much work from historians, Mai’s work creating a major milestone in the industry would never have been recognized.
If you want to have fun with the story of the game, check out our guide to the game. best retro games.