Within the ’80s, she was a online game pioneer. Right this moment, nobody can discover her

Online game historian Kevin Bunch remembers sending a dozen letters over the mail in 2019, every one addressed to the identical title. The white envelopes journeyed throughout totally different addresses in Texas, some reaching their vacation spot safely, others coming again with a vibrant yellow word: “RETURN TO SENDER. ATTEMPTED — NOT KNOWN. UNABLE TO FORWARD.”

However even the letters that made it didn’t discover their true goal. The publish could have been opened by individuals with the precise title Bunch had written down, positive, however they weren’t the precise particular person he and lots of others have been attempting to trace down for over a decade now.

Her title is Ban Tran, and I’m guessing you haven’t any concept who she is, or what she has to do with video video games. It’s a disgrace, too, as a result of Ban Tran made a reasonably notable contribution to the gaming business, and but she’s been erased from historical past.

True, the gaming business is notoriously awful at preserving its personal historical past. Even fashionable video games will be misplaced to the ether as companies go defunct, or titles cease being printed or supported. It’s even worse the farther you return, particularly in relation to girls. It’s not simply that girls in tech routinely get ignored, although that definitely performs an element on this thriller. It’s that cultural norms round marriage make it more durable to maintain monitor of them.

“One of many hardest components about writing about girls in gaming historical past,” gaming historian Kate Willaert stated, “is after they take a brand new title after publishing some work, and immediately their physique of labor is break up in two, or it’s ‘erased’ totally.”

A young girl playing on the Atari 2600

Photograph: Getty Pictures

Some girls within the gaming business inform Polygon that they’ve purposefully stored their final names after marrying, as a result of present credit in shipped video games seek advice from them in a selected manner. Ought to these girls divorce, crediting turns into a nightmare between what authorized papers say, what the web prints, and what a recreation credit score lists. There are measures to assist solidify identities, with business web sites like MobyGames displaying totally different aliases for recreation builders. However some girls don’t need to take the prospect — not in an business the place recreation credit decide whether or not or not you’ll get the subsequent job.

“I really feel prefer it shouldn’t matter,” one developer stated, “however on this business you by no means know.”

One other wrinkle right here is that Ban Tran is a quite common Vietnamese title; in Texas alone, the white pages present over 100 outcomes. Bunch tried sending letters solely to of us who may theoretically match the age bracket, however that also leaves loads of room for error.

Why search for Ban Tran within the first place? Allow us to begin with a pop quiz. Who’s the primary feminine character in video video games? Many would say Ms. Pac-Man, however she’s not an precise particular person — she doesn’t even have her personal title. In truth, it’s exhausting to pinpoint who precisely ought to get the distinction right here, as a result of it totally will depend on what standards you employ, and whether or not or not we’re contemplating everything of arcade video games, consoles, and PC video games.

“The primary on-screen playable feminine character might be in an arcade recreation by [game developer] Exidy known as Rating,” Willaert stated. This, too, was virtually misplaced to time. There’s no solution to play the sport anymore, and there are not any screenshots of Rating on-line. Print advertisements or flyers selling the sport don’t truly present what Rating appears like. We solely know of what’s within the recreation from descriptions in commerce magazines, which in line with Willaert say the sport is a “battle of the sexes.”

“We are able to’t even discover a working cupboard, although a number of Exidy collectors and historians are protecting an eye fixed out,” Willaert stated.

If Ms. Pac-Man is dominated out, and there’s barely proof that Rating existed, the next-best instance is a recreation known as Wabbit. Launched in 1982 by Texan developer Apollo, Wabbit is a title for the Atari 2600 that holds the excellence of being the primary console recreation with a named playable feminine character who isn’t off-screen. In Wabbit, you management Billie Sue as she tries to guard her carrot crops from pesky rabbits. It’s a capturing recreation the place you attempt to compete in opposition to the rabbits for a excessive rating.

“It’s colourful, it’s bought these fairly identifiable objects on display screen, it’s speedy, and it’s fairly distinctive,” Bunch stated. “Wabbit might be the most effective video games the corporate put out.”

Wabbit’s existence is a curiosity not simply due to what it depicts, however in the way it got here to be. In accordance with Willaert’s analysis, Ban Tran bought employed by Apollo after mailing in some “outrageous” recreation ideas to the corporate — concepts that had been effectively past the capabilities of online game {hardware} on the time. Regardless of her outlandish concepts, or maybe due to them, Tran bought an interview.

We don’t know what Tran’s background in tech was previous to this, however she should have had some expertise, as a result of she jumped proper in and made a recreation on her personal. Whereas one former employee stated that Apollo didn’t require expertise to hitch, Tran’s fast potential to provide you with “intense” recreation ideas shocked these round her, particularly since there weren’t many ladies making video games on the time. Additionally, Bunch famous, “The [Atari 2600] just isn’t a straightforward machine to develop for!”

Wherever Tran got here from, her stint at Apollo didn’t final. The corporate went bankrupt a couple of 12 months later, and whereas Tran caught it out for some time engaged on different tasks, no one is aware of what occurred to her subsequent. She could not nonetheless be in Texas, and she or he could not nonetheless go by Ban Tran. Is she nonetheless round in any respect?

Willaert is decided to seek out out, as a result of she’s in the midst of producing a 50-part YouTube collection on playable feminine protagonists.

“Most of those characters are handled as footnotes in gaming historical past — in the event that they’re talked about in any respect — so I needed to problem myself to dig up sufficient data to provide every one their very own ‘chapter’ on this collection,” Willaert stated.

She’s been engaged on this challenge for a decade now, which can also be about so long as she and different web sleuths have been looking for Tran. Up to now, regardless of tapping different gaming historians, placing out a name on social media, and sending many bodily letters, the seek for Tran has hit a wall. We are able to’t ask Tran if Wabbit was influenced by the existence of Area Invaders, or what her different wild concepts apparently had been. We don’t know what she went on to do, or if she’s nonetheless in tech in any respect. We don’t even know if she’s nonetheless known as Ban Tran.

Willaert and Bunch have many extra questions, as a result of what little we do know is completely flimsy. Firsthand accounts from the few Apollo builders with a web-based presence don’t even keep in mind who she was, precisely, aside from understanding she was Vietnamese and decided to get employed. These builders assume she should be known as Ban Tran, as a result of that’s what fan websites say her title was. However they’re unsure; they’ll’t fairly recall. The place did the fan websites get the title within the first place? Like Rating earlier than her, Tran’s contribution to video video games is hanging by a thread.

“She appears to have turn into one thing of a ghost,” Bunch stated.

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