In the ’80s, she was a video game pioneer. Today, no one can find her

Computer game historian Kevin Lot keeps in mind sending out a lots letters over the mail in 2019, every one resolved to the exact same name. The white envelopes travelled throughout various addresses in Texas, some reaching their location securely, others returning with an intense yellow note: “RETURN TO SENDER. ATTEMPTED — NOT KNOWN. UNABLE TO FORWARD.”

However even the letters that made it didn’t discover their real target. The post might have been opened by individuals with the precise name Lot had actually documented, sure, however they weren’t the particular individual he and numerous others have actually been attempting to locate for over a years now.

Her name is Restriction Tran, and I’m thinking you have no concept who she is, or what she needs to do with computer game. It’s a pity, too, due to the fact that Restriction Tran made a quite noteworthy contribution to the video gaming market, and yet she’s been eliminated from history.

Real, the video gaming market is infamously poor at protecting its own history. Even modern-day video games can be lost to the ether as services go defunct, or titles stop being printed or supported. It’s even worse the further you return, specifically when it concerns ladies. It’s not simply that ladies in tech regularly get neglected, though that definitely plays a part in this secret. It’s that cultural standards around marital relationship make it more difficult to monitor them.

“One of the hardest parts about writing about women in gaming history,” video gaming historian Kate Willaert stated, “is when they take a new name after publishing some work, and suddenly their body of work is split in two, or it’s ‘erased’ entirely.”

A young girl playing on the Atari 2600

Image: Getty Images

Some ladies in the video gaming market inform Polygon that they’ve actively kept their surnames after weding, due to the fact that existing credits in delivered video games describe them in a particular method. Need to these ladies divorce, crediting ends up being a headache in between what legal documents state, what the web prints, and what a video game credit lists. There are steps to assist strengthen identities, with market sites like MobyGames showing various aliases for video game designers. However some ladies don’t wish to take the possibility — not in a market where video game credits identify whether you’ll get the next job.

“I feel like it shouldn’t matter,” one developer said, “but in this industry you never know.”

Another wrinkle here is that Ban Tran is a very common Vietnamese name; in Texas alone, the white pages show over 100 results. Bunch tried sending letters only to folks who could theoretically fit the age bracket, but that still leaves plenty of room for error.

Why look for Ban Tran in the first place? Let us start with a pop quiz. Who is the first female character in video games? Many would say Ms. Pac-Man, but she’s not an actual person — she doesn’t even have her own name. Truthfully, it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly should get the honor here, because it entirely depends on what criteria you use, and whether or not we’re considering the entirety of arcade games, consoles, and PC games.

“The first on-screen playable female character is probably in an arcade game by [game developer] Exidy called Score,” Willaert said. This, too, was almost lost to time. There’s no way to play the game anymore, and there are no screenshots of Score online. Print ads or flyers promoting the game don’t actually show what Score looks like. We only know of what’s in the game from descriptions in trade magazines, which according to Willaert say the game is a “battle of the sexes.”

“We can’t even find a working cabinet, though a few Exidy collectors and historians are keeping an eye out,” Willaert said.

If Ms. Pac-Man is ruled out, and there’s barely proof that Score existed, the next-best example is a game called Wabbit. Released in 1982 by Texan developer Apollo, Wabbit is a title for the Atari 2600 that holds the distinction of being the first console game with a named playable female character who isn’t off-screen. In Wabbit, you control Billie Sue as she tries to protect her carrot crops from pesky rabbits. It’s a shooting game where you try and compete against the rabbits for a high score.

“It’s colorful, it’s got these pretty identifiable objects on screen, it’s speedy, and it’s pretty unique,” Bunch said. “Wabbit is probably one of the best games the company put out.”

Wabbit’s existence is a curiosity not just because of what it depicts, but in how it came to be. According to Willaert’s research, Ban Tran got hired by Apollo after mailing in some “outrageous” game concepts to the company — ideas that were well beyond the capabilities of video game hardware at the time. Despite her outlandish ideas, or perhaps because of them, Tran got an interview.

We don’t know what Tran’s background in tech was prior to this, but she must have had some experience, because she jumped right in and made a game on her own. While one former worker said that Apollo didn’t require experience to join, Tran’s quick ability to come up with “intense” game concepts surprised those around her, especially since there weren’t many ladies making games at the time. Also, Bunch noted, “The [Atari 2600] is not an easy machine to develop for!”

Wherever Tran came from, her stint at Apollo didn’t last. The company went bankrupt about a year later, and while Tran stuck it out for a while working on other projects, nobody knows what happened to her next. She may not still be in Texas, and she may not still go by Ban Tran. Is she still around at all?

Willaert is determined to find out, because she’s in the middle of producing a 50-part YouTube series on playable female protagonists.

“Most of these characters are treated as footnotes in gaming history — if they’re mentioned at all — so I wanted to challenge myself to dig up enough information to give each one their own ‘chapter’ in this series,” Willaert stated.

She’s been working on this project for a decade now, which is also about as long as she and other internet sleuths have been trying to find Tran. So far, despite tapping other gaming historians, putting out a call on social media, and sending many physical letters, the search for Tran has hit a wall. We can’t ask Tran if Wabbit was influenced by the existence of Space Invaders, or what her other wild ideas apparently were. We don’t know what she went on to do, or if she’s still in tech at all. We don’t even know if she’s still called Restriction Tran.

Willaert and Lot have many more questions, because what little we do know is totally flimsy. Firsthand accounts from the few Apollo developers with an online presence don’t even remember who she was, exactly, other than knowing she was Vietnamese and determined to get hired. These developers assume she must be called Restriction Tran, because that’s what fan sites say her name was. But they’re not sure; they can’t quite recall. Where did the fan sites get the name in the very first location? Like Score before her, Tran’s contribution to computer game is hanging by a thread.

“She seems to have become something of a ghost,” Bunch stated.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.