Women’s History Month: Dona Bailey (Centipede)

Dona Bailey is an American video game programmer and educator who, along with Ed Logg in 1981, created Atari’s arcade video game Centipede.

Dona Bailey was born in 1955 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She graduated high school early and started attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock at the age of 16. She accelerated her education by taking classes year-round and in the summer, and by the age of 19, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology with three minors in English, Math and Biology. She continued her education further by earning a master’s degree in Math.

As a young programmer, Bailey was hired by General Motors in 1978 and trained in assembly language programming. She worked there for two years on displays, and microprocessor-based cruise control systems. Bailey’s first exposure to video games came from when she first heard the song “Space Invader” by The Pretenders. A friend told her the song was inspired by the arcade video game Space Invaders. After becoming interested in what a video game was, her friend took her to a nearby bar which had a Space Invaders arcade cabinet. Bailey noticed that the display on Space Invaders resembled the display she worked with on the Cadillac at GM. She later found out that Atari was using the same microprocessor in its games. This inspired her to leave GM and move to Sunnyvale, California with the intention of working for Atari.

In 1980, Bailey joined Atari’s coin-op division, where she was the only woman. In an interview, Bailey recalled that Atari had a notebook of possible game ideas at the time. Of the 30 or so entries the only one without “lasering or frying things” was a short description of a bug winding down the screen. She said, “It didn’t seem bad to shoot a bug”. Within a four-person team, she became the software developer and software engineer on Centipede. Ed Logg, a supervisor at Atari at the time, assigned Bailey to do the programming on Centipede. Logg said he worked on the game’s design, while Bailey did “about half the programming”. Centipede went on to become Atari’s second best-selling coin-op game. Due to the game’s popularity, Atari’s production line was forced to run two shifts to keep up with demand.

Centipede Arcade, Plays Millipede Also-Extra Sharp With lots of ...

Centipede was also one of the first coin-op based arcade machines to have a significant female player base. This was intentional, as Logg and Bailey designed the game to appeal to a broad audience, not just male players. The game’s vibrant pastel colors and the trackball-based gameplay appealed to both male and female players. Centipede’s unique color palette is credited to Bailey. While most games used bright colors, Bailey chose a pastel color palette for Centipede, which was caused by a happy accident when the game’s technician was making adjustments to the game. Bailey said, “I was in front of the cabinet, watching the changes that were cycling through on the screen as he worked. Suddenly the regular primary colors on the screen changed to hot and vivid pastel colors I had never seen before, and I made a yip of approval and asked on technician to keep those colors.” After Centipede, Bailey was working on a game titled “Weather War”, but since processors at the time were so limited, she was unable to make the game include everything she wanted. Bailey left Atari before the game was finished.

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