A female video game pioneer was lost to history — until now

Video game historians Kate Willaert and Kevin Bunch have been searching for Van Mai for years. They’ve sent letters across Texas, where Mai worked for Wabbit developer Apollo, and searched the internet and all kinds of records. And now they’ve found her.

As it turns out, Mai’s name was not remembered exactly right: For some time, the historians thought they were looking for a Vietnamese woman named “Ban Tran.” With the Video Game History Foundation community on a Discord channel dedicated to finding Mai, a group of collaborators realized the Wabbit developer they were looking for is actually Van Tran, who now goes by her married name, Van Mai. The group found her by searching Texas bankruptcy records; when Apollo went bankrupt in the early 1980s, there were records of former employees filing with the court to get their royalty checks. Mai was one of those employees.

Willaert and Bunch had been looking for Mai because of her involvement in Wabbit, the first video game for home consoles with a human female protagonist. Released in 1982 on the Atari 2600, Wabbit stars a character called Billie Sue, a girl who’s protecting her carrot crops from rabbits.

“I don’t think it’s any great secret that the video game industry has been male-dominated since its inception, but that doesn’t mean that no women have made games, and I think it’s important to push back against that narrative by celebrating the women who have indeed been there from very early on,” Bunch told Polygon.

Mai told her story to Bunch and Willaert, which you can read over on the Video Game History Foundation website. (The video version of the story is embedded above.) Born in Vietnam, Mai came to the United States as a refugee at the end of the Vietnam War. She eventually learned computer programming — and was hired at Apollo after seeing an ad for the job in a local newspaper. She hadn’t made games before, but her concept, which was specifically targeting little girls, impressed the studio. It took four to six months to make, but Apollo filed for bankruptcy soon after its release.

It’s huge that the world knows her story now; as Polygon wrote in 2021, the gaming industry has had a particularly hard time preserving its own history — even with modern games. Understanding women’s impact on early game history, too, has been overlooked.

“A lot of people out there think that video games are and have always been created by guys for guys, when before the Genesis era games were typically marketed to the whole family, and women weren’t blocked from making them as long as they knew how to program,” Willaert told Polygon. “Women being discouraged from learning to program is a whole other story, of course. But the reason its important to write about women who’ve been erased from gaming history is the same reason its important to write about women who’ve been erased from history in general: to prove that women aren’t, like, biologically incapable of doing these things if given the opportunity.”

Finding Mai was a huge relief, Willaert said; for quite a while, the team thought she might have died. “Several people had found a news article about a Ban Tran who was brutally murdered in the mid ’80s,” she said. “I’d sort of come to terms with this being how the story ends, if we could just find confirmation it was definitely the same person.”

Willaert continued: “The ‘Van Tran’ breakthrough was such a major shift my in my reality. Even when Kevin told me he heard back from her, it almost didn’t seem real!”

After Apollo closed, Mai went on to work with former colleagues at MicroGraphic Image, Willaert and Bunch wrote. After a few months working on an Atari 5200 port of Solar Fox, she left the video game industry, making for a short but impactful career.

“In Van Mai’s case, here’s someone who not only made video games, but purposely made a game specifically for young girls, a demographic that even today is pretty underserved,” Bunch said. “And it’s good, which honestly you can’t say about most of Apollo’s output!”

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