Video game historians Kate Willaert and Kevin Bunch have been searching for Van Mai for years. They sent letters across Texas, where Mai worked wabbit Developer Apollo and searched the Internet and all kinds of records. And now they have found her.
As it turns out, Mai’s name wasn’t remembered exactly: historians long thought they were looking for a Vietnamese woman named “Ban Tran”. With the Video Game History Foundation community on a Discord channel dedicated to finding May, a group of collaborators have made this happen wabbit Developer they were looking for is actually from tran, who now goes by her married name of Van Mai. The group found her by searching Texas bankruptcy records; When Apollo went bankrupt in the early 1980s, there were records of former employees filing for royalties in court. Mai was one of those employees.
Willaert and Bunch had been looking for Mai because of her involvement in Mai wabbit, the first video game for home consoles with a female protagonist. Released in 1982 on the Atari 2600, wabbit plays a character named Billie Sue, a girl who protects her carrot crop from rabbits.
“I don’t think it’s a big secret that the video game industry has been male-dominated since its inception, but that doesn’t mean women haven’t made games, and I think it’s important to resist that narrative, by celebrating the women who were actually there very early on,” Bunch told Polygon.
On May 1st, Bunch and Willaert shared their story, which you can read at the Video Game History Foundation website. (The video version of the story is embedded above.) Mai was born in Vietnam and came to the United States as a refugee at the end of the Vietnam War. She eventually learned computer programming — and was hired at Apollo after seeing an ad for the job in a local newspaper. She hadn’t made any games before, but her concept, aimed specifically at little girls, impressed the studio. It took four to six months to manufacture, but Apollo filed for bankruptcy soon after its release.
It’s great that the world now knows her story; as Polygon wrote in 2021, the gaming industry has had a particularly difficult time preserving its own history — even with modern games. Understanding the influence of women on early game history was also overlooked.
“A lot of people out there think that video games were and were designed by men for men, whereas before the Genesis era, games were usually marketed to the whole family and women weren’t restricted from developing them as long as they knew how to code ‘ Willaert told Polygon. “Obviously, discouraging women from learning to code is a whole different story. But the reason it’s important to write about women who’ve been erased from gaming history is the same reason it’s important to write about women who’ve been erased from history in general: to prove that women are not biologically capable of doing these things when given the opportunity.”
Finding May was a great relief, Willaert said; For a while the team thought she might have died. “Several people had found a newspaper article about a Ban Tran who was brutally murdered in the mid-1980s,” she said. “I’d kind of come to terms with how the story ends if only we could find confirmation that it was definitely the same person.”
Willaert continued, “The breakthrough of ‘Van Tran’ was such a big shift in my reality. Even when Kevin told me he’d heard about her, it almost didn’t feel real!”
After Apollo closed, Mai continued to work with former MicroGraphic Image colleagues, Willaert and Bunch wrote. After a few months of work on an Atari 5200 port of sun foxshe left the video game industry and went on to a short but impactful career.
“In Van Mai’s case, here is someone who not only made video games, but intentionally made a game specifically for young girls, a demographic that is still quite underserved today,” Bunch said. “And it’s good, which honestly can’t be said about most Apollo products!”