Dona Bailey is an American game programmer who, along with Ed Logg in 1981, created the arcade video game Centipede. As a young programmer Bailey was hired by General Motors and trained in assembly language programming.
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I'll be happy to answer your questions about the long ago old days at Atari in the coin-op division, as well as my more recent experiences programming using Unix and then teaching an array of subjects. I always like to answer questions on reading and writing, too. I earned two master's degrees starting when I was 48 years old, so I also understand being an older, nontraditional student. Ask me anything!
Just to get things started...
I did a nice little video with VICE last year that you can check out here for more info on my background: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/meet-dona-bailey-the-unsung-programmer-behind-centipede
Links illustrating some of my more recent work:
My short video titled "Navy Blue Tautology," which defines a rhetorical term: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NYptcqF-LM
My short video on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Rhetoric and Writing department: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQmZWmlntPg
Current writing projects:
I'm working on three film scripts --
1) A movie inspired by the original 1966 Beaker Street program on KAAY.
2) A movie inspired by the life and work of Dr. Andrea Lunsford, a giant in the field of composition and writing.
3) A movie inspired by the work of Dr. Lori Baker, forensic anthropologist, and Jen Reel, producer of the digital project titled "I Have a Name."
Some of my favorite fiction:
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton
Best science book I read last year:
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Favorite photography collection in a book:
The Imaginary Photo Museum by Renate Gruber, L. Fritz Gruber, Michael Rollof
I'm excited to be here, and thanks for having me! Oh, and I'm always open to hearing about your video game ideas. :-)
Welcome! Of of the cool things I love to read about with early programming, especially on the Atari, is the clever "hacks" that had to be done to get around issues of limited memory, cpu cycles, etc.
What's the hack/workaround that you're most proud of? Do you think these creative solutions are a lost art now?
Hi! I worked in the coin-op part of Atari from 1980 to 1982, so my experience was in arcade games. I needed a ton of help from programmers around me who had much more experience and training than I had, in order for me to be able to program Centipede and make it look different from other video games at the time. I had to be taught every hack and workaround that was used in Centipede. The problems were the ones you listed--limited memory, limited cycle time, and so on. It took determination on my part to learn to work with Atari's great custom hardware and with the 6502 microprocessor in order to realize the visual effects I wanted for Centipede.
Maybe I'm most proud of what I call "happy accidents." One of those happy accidents was needing a trackball for a control since I was terrible with buttons, which had been used in the past. A second thing that was an accident, but turned out well, was the discovery of a differently tweaked color palette, which I think gave the game an edge in the long run.
I don't know if creative solutions in video games these days are accidents! Have you heard anyone talk about accidental discoveries that make a current game better? Interesting question...
What are you most proud of?
Hello! Do you mean what am I most proud of in my entire life so far? If that's your meaning, I believe I am most proud of reinventing my work in my late 40s. When I was in my late 40s, I wanted a different direction after 25 years of programming and systems analysis work. I earned two master's degrees beginning when I was 48, and I worked hard to earn a position as a faculty member at a university. It's hard to take up a new profession later in life, and I'm proud of that work.
What is your favorite game to play?
Did you mean video game? If that's your meaning, I think the video game I've played and enjoyed most over the many years is Tetris. I first played it on a PC in the 1980s, and then I've played it in many other forms over three decades now. It's simple but it never loses its appeal in my view. My current favorite games are word games on my phone. I always liked word games in the past--on paper and board games--and I love having a lot of choices of word games on my phone now. What a treat!
How original at the time was your work with Centipede?
Both as the concept with the game, what you were doing with particular hardware and things you were doing in code.
Hmm, that's hard for me to sum up. Centipede looked different from any other arcade game at the time, and I suppose the concept of shooting bugs made the game different from any other game at the time.
However, the board used for Centipede had been used before, and it was great hardware--stable, efficient, effective. I tried to learn to use it well, but it had been pushed and used well before Centipede. I was taught how to do everything I used in the code I wrote for Centipede, and I didn't write big pieces of the code that were drawn from other existing games.
While I worked on Centipede, I was inspired by playing Galaga, which I found visually delightful at the time. Any Centipede inspirations that seem to be derived from Galaga are tributes to my love of Galaga back then.
So how original was Centipede overall? When you put all that together, it looked different visually, and maybe that's it. :)
How was it like working in the video game industry as it was still developing? What do you think of the video game industry today?
It takes hard work and a lot of concentration and focus to embark on and then complete any creative project, and it was the same back then at Atari. All creative projects demand specialized knowledge and skills, too, as well as daydreaming, inspiration, accidental discoveries, and luck.
All those things were true at Atari in the early days of making video games. Perhaps the one thing that was most different at Atari in those days, that I've never encountered anywhere else in my work, was the feeling of being on a frontier where there is no road map to look to as an example.
Because the video game industry was new, we weren't repeating past successes, we were forging new ground each day. That can be unnerving and lead to feeling lost sometimes, but it is also exciting and innervating at the same time. I remember wanting to have time and energy to dream more and dream bigger. I wanted to find new ways to use games to make people happy and to teach them ideas and concepts at the same time. I think I've continued through the years to want to use digital tools in those same ways.
Who are the most significant pioneers in gaming that aren't necessarily recorded or recognized? Any one you could shed light on?
In interviews, I'm asked often about Carol Shaw, who was leaving Atari in the same month I started working there, which was in June 1980. I never met Carol due to this timing, and I would like to know more about her day to day experiences at Atari, as well as the rest of her professional career, too.
I'm always interested in learning about each individual's life/work balance, and I like learning what people did in the years following their twenties, since so many of us were in our twenties when we worked in the video game industry. In this vein, I'd like to know more about Roberta Williams and Brenda Romero, too.
Who were the oldest people you worked with when you were first staring out? Did you come across people like Ed Roberts or others?
At Atari, we fit into categories pretty well in my time in the early 1980s. Programmers and hardware engineers who did not have other responsibilities were mostly in their 20s, supervisors and management people were mostly in their early 30s, and I think people who were higher up in the administrative hierarchy were in their late 30s and maybe early 40s. I spent most of my time with other people who were in their 20s, just as I was. It's funny, but I had always been the youngest person at any previous workplace. At Atari, where I was 24 to 26, I was not "old" but I was two or three years older than a lot of people. Overall, we were young and frequently immature, but doing our best.
Did you know Roberta Williams? What did you think of her work?
I've only heard about Roberta Williams, and I'm always curious about her experiences. I would like to meet her and hear about how she developed her awesome games.
Did you see Pirates of Silicon Valley? Did it feel accurate to the era? Any films or books that accurately capture the video game world of the time?
I try to watch every film and TV series with any connection to that era. I especially like a documentary titled Silicon Valley: Where the Future was Born because it seems really accurate and exciting to me. I was thrilled when the female programmer in Halt and Catch Fire played Centipede two times in the pilot for the series. And very recently, a charming novel about that era was published, titled The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak. Rekulak's book is a narrative about the kids I hoped would like Centipede, and it was fun to think about the old days as I read it.
Have you read the Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett?
No, do you recommend it for me? Is it a favorite of yours?
Pound for pound, what has been the best gaming platform ever created? What about the all-time best programming language?
Whew! I have no idea, and I'll bet you are much better able to answer those questions than I am. What do you think?
What motivated you to return to school for writing?
I entered into my first master's program because I was teaching at a two year college that was transforming into a four year college, and everyone on the teaching staff needed a master's degree for accreditation. My first master's was an M.Ed. in instructional design, which was perfect for my teaching work at the time. That master's degree was earned because I needed it.
My second master's degree was earned out of my love for reading and writing. I have always been a big reader, and I love writing, too. I adored learning how to motivate students to write better and to write with more confidence and less anxiety. Along the way, I hope I encouraged my students to be better readers, too.
Can you describe your working environment when you were doing Centipede? How did you get user feedback?
At Atari, I worked in the office park setting of 1272 Borregas in Sunnyvale. Coin-op had the first floor of the engineering building. I had a cubicle with a desk where I could write code, and Centipede had a portion of a lab where I could work on the game in a prototype cabinet. During development, all games got user feedback from other people in coin-op, as well as the occasional person from the cartridge department, which was on the second floor of our building. For feedback, I watched other people play, I listened to their comments, and I sometimes took notes about what they tried or if the game seemed to have a bug. Later during game development, we had a formal focus group, led by Atari marketing, where Centipede was played and tested. After using focus group comments and testing for further development, we field tested Centipede in an arcade in Mountain View.
What is the most profound thing you know about language/communications?
Hmm, that's a deep one. Maybe my most profound opinion about language and communication is how hard we must work at using language to effectively communicate, and how easy it is to leave out details needed for effective communication. I'm always profoundly moved by how readily and how constantly we shift and adjust our language and forms of communication in order to be appropriate in all our various settings. Learning to do this shifting and adjusting effectively is a life's work in itself, and the resulting efforts are beautifully human.
What do you think of the potential in VR? It has come and gone as the next big thing a few times, seems like it might be waning again.
As a teacher, I very much hope VR will become readily available for students who need to practice skills in an environment where they cannot easily go in real life. There's such a need for practice opportunities as a way to more evenly distribute the future.
What was the most important watershed videogame ever made?
Wow, hmm. What would your answer be?
Back in the old days, I especially admired Robotron: 2084. I thought it was radically different for its time in visual appeal and in gameplay.
On a personal level, what are some of your favorite films?
One of my all-time favorite films is Reds, which was a giant project by Warren Beatty from 1981. I've watched it many times, and I never tire of its epic historical narrative. I especially like the way that Warren Beatty researched and included the "Witnesses" to give his film authenticity.
A favorite documentary is If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front from 2011. I like the way that film uses many elements of documentary to weave a complex narrative.
You are an inspiration! After reading what you've read, I can see you as a definite role model.
Do you feel as if you've accomplished a lot within your life- especially as a woman involved in technology since its earlier days?
Since I'm so used to myself, I tend to see my shortcomings more than my accomplishments. I'm so grateful to have enjoyed technology so much since my first exposure in 1973. I know I did my best at all times, but I wish I had been better at extending myself and inserting myself into situations where I thought I had something to contribute. I guess we call that networking these days, and I was terrible at it when I was young. I'm not really good at it now, but I'm better, plus I'm lucky that people are still interested in me due to my work in the old days.
My advice, looking back, is if you want to work in a field, find an angle for entry and then push as hard as you can to get in. Try to find like-minded people to work with because it will be easier than hitting a wall every day. Never be afraid to tell people what you want. Ask for what you want as many times as necessary.
Are there lessons you learned in programming that have translated in an interesting way to writing?
I have so much respect for the founding mothers of computer science. Why do you think modern computer science sector has taken such a male dominated form as it's matured?
I think my programming experience helps me in academic writing because I am willing to precisely follow conventions such as bibliographic formatting as if they are computer code. It's as if I play a game of it's not going to "run" properly unless I adhere to details correctly.
I too have a ton of respect for women who strive in any male dominated field. I believe that the powerful will always hang on to power as hard as possible in any field. Anyone who wants to enter a male dominated field needs to be ready to fight hard for as long as it takes. I wonder how many other women are not interested in expending energy on fighting long and hard. I've always felt more comfortable and creative when I didn't need to fight--when I could just do my work, try out things, and get on with a full life.
Hi, Dona! First of all, thank you for doing this AMA!
I think it is inspiring that you changed directions in terms of career in a "nontraditional" form.
What type of advice would you give to others that are seeking to change up their current career path?
I think you're never too old to reinvent yourself. Try to get experience in the new field you're interested in before making a commitment to a change you're considering. For example, I taught faculty members in the Cal State system for a long time while I was working in Academic Computing at Cal State LA. I was certain I would enjoy teaching as a faculty member in a university setting due to that experience. After you commit to a change, be sure to get the proper training and education for your new field. It's never too late in life to be a good student.
As a woman in the early video game industry, did you feel that your experience was different from your male colleagues?
Yes, my background was really different from that of my male colleagues and my goals were informed by my background. My primary goal was to make a game that would be visually appealing to me. I wanted to make a game that was beautiful. My male colleagues were much more capable of programming good games, but I was more able to create something visually and topically different.
How much do you get paid ?
Are you asking about a certain time span in my career? Please expand your question and ask me again.