After a year-long search, historians have tracked down and interviewed Van Mai, the woman who programmed Wabbit for Atari 2600, notable for being the first console game with a playable female character you could actually call a ‘character. ‘
The history of playable women in video games is surprisingly complicated, and the subject of an ongoing investigation series from historian and YouTuber “Critical Kate” Willaert. The arcade game Score had the first female playable character and was equipped with a gender switch. There were a few bits of erotica, such as Beat ‘Em and Eat ‘Em, that featured dedicated female protagonists in the earliest arcade games.
Ms. Pac-Man invents the idea of giving a female protagonist a name. However, it is a matter of debate whether a yellow circle with a bow counts as a woman playable.
On the game’s release in 1982, Wabbit’s protagonist Billie Sue was the only female character on a console who was human, was playable and had a name. Billie Sue, a young girl who wants to save her vegetable crops and from hungry rabbits, is called Billie Sue. It’s like Space Invaders on the farm.
Wabbit was created by Van Mai, though that was before she’d taken her married surname. Her work was not credited. She also misremembered her surname as “Ban Tran” by her colleagues. This led to a lengthy search that took over a year. Then historians discovered that Apollo, the publisher of Wabbit, had filed for bankruptcy.
As detailed in a report published by the Video Game History Foundation by Willaert and fellow researcher Kevin Bunch, Mai was a refugee of the Vietnam War. Mai lived with her family in Dallas and took night programming courses. She applied for a job at Apollo, a company that had just entered the videogame market. A colleague of Mai’s recalled thinking that she didn’t seem like the kind of “nerd” who would apply at a tech company in the ’80s.
In the VGHF report, Mai says that she pitched Wabbit as an Atari game for little girls. My boss and my colleagues didn’t say anything about [the theme],” Mai. It was all up to me. I created all animations and everything else. It was very well received by them. “
After Apollo declared bankruptcy – she wouldn’t get her final royalty check for nearly seven years – Mai spent a short time in the game industry before earning a computer science degree and getting a job with a telecommunications company. She now works in the banking sector.
Without a whole lot of work from historians, Mai’s work creating a major industry milestone would never have been recognized.
If you want to have some fun with gaming history, check out our guide to the best retro games.
Dustin Bailey joined the GamesRadar team as a Staff Writer in May 2022, and is currently based in Missouri. He’s been covering games (with occasional dalliances in the worlds of anime and pro wrestling) since 2015, first as a freelancer, then as a news writer at PCGamesN for nearly five years. His passion for gaming was ignited somewhere between Metal Gear Solid 2 & Knights of the Old Republic. These days, you’ll find him split his time between retro gaming and the most recent action-adventure title.