Like some antediluvian myth, the history of playable female protagonists in video games is often shrouded in mystery. One could argue that Ms Pac-Man was the first or even the female protagonist of the lost game Score” by Exidy. But while Ms Pac-Man may have been the first female representation in video games, she was far from an actual character, lacking personal features, even a name. And the information on “Score”, which supposedly featured the first gender option in history, is very obscure.

Because of the lack of historical evidence, at the time of publishing this article, we consider Billie Sue of “Wabbit” to be the first playable female character in the history of video games.

Billie who? Billie Sue!

She was a fearless farmer who had to protect her carrots by throwing eggs at carrot-stealing rabbits. She was a protagonist of the arcade game “Wabbit”, developed by Apollo for Atari 2600/VCS. Billie Sue was the first to have her own name and clear motivation, and her sprite was distinctive, nuanced and detailed. She had black hair, black eyes, an orange shirt with white sleeves, a blue skirt and black shoes.

Wabbit’s” setting was a carrot field, with rabbit holes on each side and a house in the background.  Billie Sue was the only character in the game, save for her rabbit antagonist. We can deduce from this evidence that Billie Sue probably owned the farm where the game was taking place, and she probably lived alone, which also meant taking care of problems all on her own. According to Video Game History Foundation, “Wabbit’s” target audience were girl gamers[1], which indicates two things. First, the female representation in the video game industry is much older than tend to think. Secondly, the game allowed for gamers to “become” Billie Sue, which means it encouraged women’s empowerment. And it all happened ‘back in the day’.

But who even thought of creating Billie Sue? Just like Score, the name of the mind behind it was almost lost to time. Video Game History Foundation’s search for Billie Sue’s creator was long, but after years of effort they finally found her- it was Van Tran.

Van Tran (now Van Mai) is a former Vietnamese refugee in the USA. Neither her status nor the language barrier could stop her genius from showing. Reportedly, her video game ideas were so advanced that the technology for them didn’t exist yet. It was Van Tran’s idea to make a female protagonist, and she developed “Wabbit” single-handedly.

Van Tran and Billie Sue are living proof that women were always an integral part of the video game industry, so why do we today believe differently?

 

[1] “Pioneer Rediscovered: The Woman Who Brought Female Representation to Games” (2022) Bunch, K, Willaert, K, Video Game History Foundationhttps://gamehistory.org/wabbit/

Suzana Krcmarek (2 Posts)

Suzana Krcmarek is a video game and culture writer for KeenGamer and Old School Gamer Magazine. As a niece of a publisher and a lifelong gamer, she spent her life surrounded by stories, which prompted her to view them with a very critical eye. Suzana started her career as a feminist and bioethics writer, and published a compendium as a contributing author and editor-in-chief. Today she is concentrating on unraveling the mystery of video games: their history, their content and their influence.