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The Top Women in Game Design and Development

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The Top Women in Game Design and Development

  1. Kellee Santiago
  2. Dona Bailey
  3. Tracy Fullerton
  4. Jane Jensen
  5. Brenda Laurel
  6. Carol Shaw
  7. Sheryl Sandberg
  8. Gina Trapani
  9. Kathy Sierra
  10. Jeri Ellsworth
  11. Corrine Yu
  12. Jane Veeder
  13. Rieko Kodama
  14. Lydia Kavraki
  15. Anne Westfall

The Top Women in Game Design and Development profiles 15 of the most influential women who’ve been trailblazers in defining, creating, and expanding the game design industry.

These women are experts in video game design, development, and computer programming. Young women may find these pioneers as inspirations to pursue Game Design and Development in education and professionally. It can be done.

Their work has advanced game design and brought women to the forefront of every facet of the game design industry. They have broad experience in academics, programming, and private video game design.

Game design is a popular field where computer scientists, engineers, and programmers design engaging and popular video games. The women on this list have made major contributions to Video Game Design and Development.

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The Top Women in Game Design and Development

1. Kellee Santiago

Education: Kellee Santiago is a New York University and University of Southern California trained game designer. Her education began in amateur theatre where she was interested in telling creative stories through interactive media. Kellee earned her master’s degree in Interactive Media at USC where she began to focus solely on game design.

Brief summary of her work: Santiago’s first video game was Cloud, which won her multiple awards. In 2006 Santiago founded thatgamecompany alongside Jenova Chen. Together they developed games for Sony and PlayStation. While at thatgamecompany, Santiago developed three games: Flow, Flower, and Journey. Each game received high praise from game designers and video gamers across the globe.

In 2012 Santiago left thatgamecompany. Santiago went on to work as a game designer and developer for Ouya, Night Light Interactive, and Google Play Games. She is now the head developer at Niantic.

Notable Honors and Awards:

2. Dona Bailey

Education: Dona Bailey earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock when she was only nineteen years old. In addition to her bachelor’s degree, she completed three minors in Biology, English, and Math. Bailey then went on to complete her master’s in Math.

Brief summary of her work: In 1978, Dona Bailey began programming displays for General Motors. Her work largely focused microprocessors in cruise control systems. Bailey’s first exposure to video games began with arcade games like Space Invaders. After realizing the games used the same programming she used at GM, she began working as the only woman at Atari.

While at Atari, Dona Bailey became the software engineer and developer on the now infamous arcade game Centipede. As the programmer, Bailey was determined to create a game that appealed to a wider audience, including women gamers. Centipede went on to become Atari’s second best-selling arcade game.

Notable Honors and Awards:

3. Tracy Fullerton

Education: Tracy Fullerton is an experimental game designer and director of the University of California Games program. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1988. Fullerton then went on to earn her Master of Fine Arts in Cinema and Television Production from the University of Southern California.

Brief summary of her work: Early in her career, Fullerton worked as a producer and creative director for R/GA Interactive. In this role she developed interactive products for Sony, Microsoft, and Warner Bros. Fullerton then became the president and founder of Spiderdance, Inc. Her company designed popular gameshows like The Weakest Link, History IQ and Inquizition.

Tracy Fullerton is now a professor at the University of Southern California where she runs the Game Innovation Lab. Her lab has designed games like Cloud and Darfur is Dying. She is also the author of the textbook “Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games”.Notable Honors and Awards:

4. Jane Jensen

Education: Jane Jensen’s career in game design started with her love for computers. She earned her Bachelor of Art in Computer Science from Anderson University and began working as a programmer for Hewlett-Packard.

Brief summary of her work: Jensen’s career in game design spans three decades and began during her time as a writer for Sierra OnLine. During her time there, Jensen wrote and designed multiple games before designing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, her first independent project, in 1993. Gabriel Knight became wildly popular, earning recognition throughout the video game industry.

Jensen went on to create two sequel games in the Gabriel Knight triology. In 1997, she published a novel based on the first Gabriel Knight game. She went on to write multiple other novels while continuing her game design. In 2012, she founded the game development studio Pinkerton Road alongside her husband. In her spare time, Jensen writes novels under her pen name, Eli Easton.

Notable Honors and Awards:

5. Dr. Brenda Laurel, Ph.D.

Education: Dr. Brenda Laurel earned her Bachelor of Arts from DePauw University before earning her Master of Fine Arts and Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

Brief summary of her work: Dr. Laurel was one of the first women in game design. She began her career working as a designer at CyberVision before taking a position with Atari. In 1996, Dr. Laurel founded a software company called Purple Moon.

The mission of Purple Moon was to make video games for young girls that would help them develop real-world skills like decision making. At Purple Moon, Laurel developed nearly ten video games including Rockett’s New School.

Dr. Laurel went on to create the Graduate Design Program at California College of the Arts. She has also worked as a consultant for reputable companies such as Lucas Arts, Sony, and Apple. Dr. Laurel has published multiple books and is very involved in the world of academia.

Notable Honors and Awards:

6. Carol Shaw

Education: Before becoming one of the pioneers in female game design, Carol Shaw earned her Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering at the University of California, Berkley. After her undergraduate degree, Shaw earned her master’s in Computer Science at Berkley.

Brief summary of her work: In 1978, Carol Shaw accepted a role as the Microprocessor Software Engineer at Atari. She went on to develop the game 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers.

During her time working for Atari, Shaw became known as the programmer who helped develop the technology to project pictures onto the video screen. She also developed the Calculator app which was later published in 1979.

Following her time at Atari, Shaw worked as a programmer at Tandem Computers before joining the team at Activision in 1982. In 1982, Carol Shaw designed the game River Raid, which was inspired by a well-known arcade game. River Raid was extremely popular amongst the video game community. Shaw retired early in 1990 and focused on volunteer work.

Notable Honors and Awards:

7. Sheryl Sandberg

Education: Sheryl Sandberg earned her Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Harvard University before earning her Master’s in Business Administration from Harvard Business School. During her time at Harvard, she worked as a research assistant for Professor Lawrence Summers at the World Bank.

Brief summary of her work: After graduating from Harvard Business School, Sandberg accepted a position working as a Management Consultant with McKinsey & Company.

She then went on to work for her former boss, Lawrence Summers, while he was serving as Secretary of the Treasury in 1996. Sheryl then accepted a role at Google where she grew their advertising base.

In 2008, Sandberg was hired as the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. She has been credited with helping to make Facebook profitable through the management of sales, marketing, and communications. She is also promoting Facebook’s Women in Gaming initiative. According to Facebook,

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Founder of Lean-In and Option B shares how Facebook is building the world’s gaming community that encourages and inspires women in the gaming industry.

Sandberg joined the Board of Directors at Facebook in 2012. Sandberg has also written popular books such as Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Notable Honors and Awards:

8. Gina Trapani

Education: Gina Trapani completed her bachelor’s degree at Marist College prior to earning her Masters of Science in Computer Science from Brooklyn College.

Brief summary of her work: Trapani is the founder of the popular blog Lifehacker. She used her blog to write about topics surrounding the world of technology. Her blog posts consisted of “life hacks” to help people better understand the problems they were having with their Microsoft or Apple products.

In 2009, Trapani joined Expert Labs where she developed a social media analysis tool. She became the Director of Engineering at Postlight in 2017. During her career, Gina Trapani has authored four books including Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better.

Notable Honors and Awards:

9. Kathy Sierra

Education: Kathy Sierra’s path into the world of game design happened unconventionally. She earned her bachelor’s degree in exercise science from California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo. She worked in the fitness industry for a decade before realizing she wanted to pursue a career in programming.

Brief summary of her work: Kathy Sierra programmed her first computer game, Terratopia, in 1998. During that same year, she founded JavaRanch, an online community for online Java programmers.

She has published the popular book series, Head First, which teaches programming visually. Her books have earned her numerous accolades including being listed on the yearly top-ten computer books according to Amazon.com.

Notable Honors and Awards:

10. Jeri Ellsworth

Education: While Jeri Ellsworth never earned her bachelor’s degree, her expertise in programming and design is unprecedented. She taught herself how to program by reading the owner’s manual of a Commodore 64 computer.

Brief summary of her work: In 1995, Jeri opened her own computer store, Computers Made Easy, which expanded into four retail chains. Jeri sold the computer chain in 2000 to pursue her career in hardware design.

She traveled to computer design expos and was recognized at one of these fairs by a developer who offered her a job designing a “computer in a chip”. She later developed the Commodore-emulating joystick, which sold a half-million units.

Ellsworth has published many technical articles about how to design computer hardware at home. Her current work surrounds augmented reality, and she has worked with numerous startup companies to develop her work.

Notable Honors and Awards:

11. Corrinne Yu

Education: Corrinne Yu studied electrical engineering at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California. She began her work as a professional programmer in the late 1990s.

Brief summary of her work: Yu got her start as a programmer on the King’s Quest series. She programmed many popular video games including Zombie and Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way. Corrinne joined Ion Storm in 1997 and served as the Director of Technology. After her tenure at Ion Storm, she helped code and design games before founding Microsoft’s Direct 3D Advisory Board.

In 2008, Yu became the Principal Engine Architect for 343 Industries, which oversaw the development of the popular game series Halo. She was instrumental in developing the lighting and facial animation of the game. Yu went on to join prestigious companies like Sony and Amazon before joining General Motors in 2018 as the Vice President of Engineering.

Notable Honors and Awards:

12. Jane Veeder

Education: Jane Veeder completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts. In the mid 1970s, Veeder earned her Master’s in Fine Arts in Video and Filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Brief summary of her work: Jane Veeder began as a digital artist while in graduate school. Her passion for video and digital design launched her career in computer graphics. Veeder collaborated with Phil Morton, a faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to develop a piece called Program #7.

Jane Veeder also worked on many independent projects during her career in computer design. Her video, Montana, was featured at the Museum of Modern art in New York City, the first of its kind. Veeder now works as a professor in the Department of Design and Industry at San Francisco State University.

Notable Honors and Awards:

13. Rieko Kodama

Education: From a young age, Rieko Kodama was passionate about arcade games, design, art, and archaeology. Her multi-passionate approach caused her to leave her university classes and enroll in a graphic design trade program. As a game designer, Kodama adopted the pseudonym of “Phoenix Rie”.

Brief summary of her work: Rieko Kodama began working for Sega, a Japanese video game developer, in 1984. Her first design project was helping to design the arcade game Champion Boxing. During her time with Sega, Kodama developed art for games like Sonic the Hedgehog, and 7th Dragon.

In 1987, Kodama became the main artist for the game Phantasy Star. This project set Kodama apart from other designers as she created the game to have a female hero. Phantasy Star was wildly popular and became a foundational work in the industry. Kodama managed the multiple sequels in the Phantasy Star series before serving as the producer of educational games for Nintendo DS and PlayStation.

Notable Honors and Awards:

14. Lydia Kavraki

Education: Dr. Lydia Kavraki completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Crete in Crete, Greece. Kavraki then earned her Ph.D at Stanford University, where she worked with the renowned roboticist Jean-Claude Latombe.

Brief summary of her work: Dr. Kavraki is best known for her work as a computer scientist focusing on robot design and artificial intelligence. Her work has been recognized as brilliant, innovative, and groundbreaking. She helped pioneer the probabilistic roadmap method using robotics and artificial intelligence.

Dr. Kavraki is a faculty member at Rice University where she teaches electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering. She leads the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice, an institute that fosters research collaborations across academic disciplines like computer science, math, and engineering.

Notable Honors and Awards:

15. Anne Westfall

Education: Anne Westfall began programming in her 30s and went back to school to learn computer programming. Prior to becoming a video game designer, Westfall was a programmer for a civil engineering company.

Brief summary of her work: Anne Westfall worked as the Programming Director for Automated Simulations. Westfall and her husband started the computer game company Free Fall Associates. While at Free Fall Associates, Westfall helped design and program Archon and Archon II. Anne Westfall was very involved with the Computer Game Developers Conference. She served as the Program Director and eventual Treasurer of the conference.

Notable Honors and Awards:


The Top Women in Game Design and Development | Ranking Guidelines

We consulted the Influential People ranking at AcademicInfluence.com to assess the professional influence of these women in Game Design during the years 2000 – 2020. Our ranking list above is the top 15 women who’ve had the most influence in Game Design and Development within this constraint of time. AcademicInfluence.com uses professional citations in their ranking metric, but also statistical analyses of relevant sites with high levels of authority across the web which mention these women in their professional capacities, which results in a proprietary ranking of their Influence in game design and development.

Frequently Asked Questions

What percentage of game developers are female?

According to a statistical analysis at Statista, 24% of Game Designers worldwide were women (as of 2019). While 24% is not a majority, it is a quarter of all game designers in the world. It’s also increasing. In 2014, the percentage of female game designers and developers was 22%.

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Who was the first female game designer?

Carol Shaw is widely accepted as the first female game designer. In 1978, Carol Shaw accepted a role as the Microprocessor Software Engineer at Atari. She went on to develop the game 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers.

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Do girls play video games?

According to Statista, women make up almost half of all gamers, consistently comprising the 40% range. For instance, in 2008 women gamers were 40%, and in 2020 women gamers were 41%. So as gaming grows in popularity in general, female gamers are staying on par with their percentage of gaming through the past 12 years.

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