Fans track down the pioneering developer who brought female representation to games

After almost 40 years away from the games industry, Van Mai has been found, the pioneering woman who wrote about the Atari 2600’s Wabbit and helped create the first console game starring a human girl.

As reported by the Video Game History Foundation, Polygon began searching for this developer who called herself “Ban Tran,” a Vietnamese woman who worked at Apollo to develop Wabbit before the company went bankrupt in 1982.

Van Mai - Image Credit: Van Mai/Video Game History Foundation

Van Mai – Image Credit: Van Mai/Video Game History Foundation

Tran would leave the company and work on a previously unreleased Solar Fox conversion for the Atari 5200 at MicroGraphic Image, but then apparently disappeared from the industry. There were many who tried to find her, but she was not found until recently thanks to the help of collaborators of the Video Game History Foundation.

A Discord member named SoH, who is part of a channel dedicated to finding Ban Tran on the Video Game History Foundation’s Discord, suggested that someone should contact the Texas National Archives to try and find Apollo’s bankruptcy records.

This turned out to be the golden ticket, as Tran was one of several Apollo employees who went through court to get their final royalty checks for the games they worked on. Once this information was obtained, the Video Game History Foundation was able to contact her and agreed to talk to the company about her story.

Tran, who now goes by her married name Van Mai, was born in Vietnam and entered the US as a refugee after the Vietnam War. She lived in Dallas with her family and would drop out of high school due to the language barrier. While she would eventually earn a GED, before then she began taking programming classes.

Wabbit Cover Art - Image Credit: Apollo/Video Game History Foundation

Wabbit Cover Art – Image Credit: Apollo/Video Game History Foundation

After working for the Dallas Independent School District, Mai applied for a help-seeking ad at Apollo and landed the job, in part, by pitching a game in her interview. Even though Mai wasn’t the type of “nerd” that Apollo used to hire, she quickly made a good impression.

“It was an extremely intense concept and made Night Trap sound like a bedtime story, but it was 20 years ahead of its time and too intense for the VCS,” Mai’s former co-worker Dan Oliver recalled. “I was explaining it like it was a picnic on the beach, so quickly the stereotype began to fall.”

Mai herself doesn’t fully remember what the game was about, but she does remember releasing a game for little girls that would eventually become Wabbit, a game starring a girl named Billie Sue who has to keep rabbits away from her vegetables.

“I don’t think my teammates or my boss said anything about [the theme]Mai said. “Everything depended on me, I designed it, all the animation and all that. They seemed to like it a lot.”

Wabbit's Billie Sue Sprite - Image Credit: Apollo/Video Game History Foundation

Wabbit’s Billie Sue Sprite – Image Credit: Apollo/Video Game History Foundation

Wabbit took about 4-6 months to develop, but Mai doesn’t remember if the game was successful or not. However, she does know that her mother was proud of it and that one of her nieces tried to buy a copy of it at a local mall, but it sold out.

As mentioned above, Mai would leave Apollo after it went bankrupt and work at Micrographic for a while before leaving to pursue a computer science degree. She worked as an Oracle developer for a French telecommunications company before settling in the banking industry, a field she still works in today.

Over the years, Mai had thought about returning to gaming, but understands that it would be difficult to do so again. Despite that, she has fond memories of her time in the industry.

“It was wonderful,” Mai said. “Writing games is the most, I don’t know, I’ll never be able to find a job like that. You just go in there and play for a while to get ideas, and then you sit down and talk to your teammates, just giving each other feedback. It was fun ”.

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Adam Bankhurst is a news writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBankhurst and in Twitch.

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