Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

close to alchemy

An Interview with Dona Bailey


Interviewed by John Lachausse

Dona Bailey is a co-creator and programmer of the 1981 arcade game Centipede, serving as the only woman in Atari’s coin-op division until her departure in 1982. Bailey began her programming career at General Motors, where she programmed displays and microprocessor-based cruise control systems. She also worked at Sente Technologies—formerly Videa—and taught as a Rhetoric and Writing faculty member at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock until her retirement. She is currently at work on a script about her time at Atari. She can be found on Twitter at @dona_c_bailey.

TMR:  Your Twitter bio mentions a script you're writing about working at Atari. What can we know about this project?

DB: For seven months in 2018, I've worked on my script about my two years in Atari's "coin op" division (as we called it at that time—the arcade division).

I'm getting older, and it has seemed important to me to put what I remember on paper. I left the world of making video games in the mid-1980s, and I was mostly revised out of that history as it's been told since. I'm trying to revise myself back into my proper place in that history by telling how the arcade version of Centipede was made. My script begins in April 1980 and continues through October 1982, and I'm attempting to set the record straight.

TMR:  In an interview with the Arcade Attack blog, you mention several other script projects. How did you first come into scriptwriting, and writing in general?

DB:  I've read avidly and constantly since I was very small, but I wish I had developed the discipline of writing each day when I was much younger. I thought about writing for years before I actually made myself put "butt in chair" and get into the habit of daily writing for myself.

I was a college professor for 15 years, and I wrote and taught various forms of academic and professional writing. It's important to learn to fulfill the expected conventions within those academic and professional genres, but for writing that's more fun, I much prefer writing that tells a story. And what's one of the best ways to share a story with an audience? For me, that's been scriptwriting. Because of my work as a computer programmer before I began teaching, I've been especially interested in digital storytelling. I've tried to blend the concepts used in digital storytelling with scriptwriting in order to write as vividly as possible.

No matter how hard I've worked as a writer, I am always a much more determined reader.

No matter how hard I've worked as a writer, I am always a much more determined reader. I read and devour narrative as an essential nutrient. I try to read 40 to 50 books per year, and I've stuck to that expectation for decades. As I've aged, I've developed a problem with my eyesight, and in the past two years, I've needed to teach myself to love audiobooks instead of reading printed books (on paper or on a Kindle). It took one year, but now I fiercely love audiobooks. I've become a good listener, and I notice that I must picture the words as I listen, because sometimes I think to myself, "Did I read that or was I listening?" I have an image in my head of the words I listened to.

TMR: What are some recent reads?

DB:  I notice that my reading selections are somewhat different (maybe a little lighter or more current) this year, and I'm not certain how much of that is due to choosing from audiobooks instead of print books. I tried to think back to the books that made me swooningly happy as I listened this year, and I narrowed my list to these:

Fiction: Stray City, Chelsey Johnson; The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner; Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver; The Overstory, Richard Powers.

Nonfiction: I'll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara (This scared me out of my mind, of course, but the writing is so powerful it made me happy); The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis; Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs; Women in Clothes, Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton.

TMR: When did your programming interests begin? Any formative computer-tinkering experiences?

DB:  I went to college in Arkansas (the state where I grew up) from 1972 to 1975, and although my university did not have a computer science program then, I was lucky enough to be introduced to primitive computing in the psychology department. My statistics course in 1974 was the first class to get to use handheld calculators with a square root function, and we also got to try out SAS computing using punched cards. In an apparatus course, again in the psychology department, we got to play around with a PDP minicomputer that I loved. I went to grad school for the first time in 1975, and I took one Fortran course where we used a terminal instead of punched cards, and I loved that, too.

After those experiences, I always wanted to use any type of computing devices available where I worked. When I moved to California, I was lucky enough to be hired by GM Delco in Goleta, California (next town over from Santa Barbara, where I lived), to program a 6502 microprocessor used in the engine of a Cadillac to improve fuel efficiency. It was a steep learning curve for me to learn 6502 assembly language on the job, but it was fascinating and groundbreaking work, and I enjoyed it.

TMR:  When you worked for Atari in the 80s, how did someone learn how to make a game? How did you learn? Did you ever become a "gamer" yourself?

DB:  While I was working at GM in 1980, I learned about video games. My best friend in Santa Barbara was very interested in new music, and he played the first Pretenders' album constantly. That album had an instrumental song called "Space Invader" on it. I didn't typically like instrumentals, but I heard that one so much, I started really liking it. Finally one night, I asked another guy who was standing around what that song was about, what the title meant, and he got wildly excited and explained it was about this great game called Space Invaders. He said there was one in a bar close to where we worked, and I should go there with him at lunch some day to check it out. We went, he put in quarters, I got killed before I could figure out what I was supposed to do (I remember how frustrated I felt at being unable to even discern what I "was" on the screen). I recognized how much the game display looked like the climate control display I programmed on the car back at work, and that's how I fell in love with video games.

I found out that Atari in Sunnyvale made video games, and I felt certain they used the same microprocessor I programmed at GM, the 6502 microprocessor. I knew there weren't many 6502 assembly language programmers around, and I put all that together in my head—my new love of video games, plus my two years of 6502 assembly language programming—and decided it was kismet. I moved to Sunnyvale in May 1980, determined to get a job as a programmer at Atari.

Before I left Santa Barbara, I played about $3.00 worth of Galaxian at a different bar than the one with the Space Invaders game. I played enough Galaxian to consider it my favorite video game (of the two games I knew by then). I remember when I interviewed at Atari, I presented myself as a "gamer" based on how much I had played board games and word games and card games growing up, combined with my new love of video games (or one video game—Galaxian).

I was very determined to be hired by Atari, and I was lucky enough that they took a chance on me. I started working early in June 1980.

At the time I began working for Atari in the coin-op game (arcade game) department, it was typical to use four people on a game development team—a programmer, a project leader, a hardware engineer, and a game technician. I was assigned to a team, and I was told to submit a memo about the game I intended to program. I did not have a game in mind, and I had absolutely no idea how to begin a game. No clue! At GM I had worked with large teams of programmers, and it had not occurred to me that it would be different at Atari. No one worked as a solo programmer in my experience, and I felt lost. I spent a number of days sitting at my desk, worrying about what would happen next.

My first big break was when I was allowed to look through a game idea notebook. The notebook contained pages of loose leaf binder paper with game ideas collected from brainstorming sessions at Atari. My memory is that there were around 40 ideas for laser games (where lasers "fry" planets or cars or tanks or trees or spaceships or abstract shapes—a lot of frying going on), but those didn't appeal to me. There was only one idea that was different, and I liked it. The complete idea was only one sentence, but as soon as I read it, it was as if I could see it in my head. The sentence read: "A multi-segmented bug crawls onto the screen and gets shot, piece by piece." The game title was "Centipede."

I loved the immediacy of writing code that displayed as "art" on the screen in front of me. It was as close to alchemy as I'll ever achieve.

Even with an idea for a game, I knew nothing about how to begin, or what a long process it would be, or how complicated it was to put together all the varied elements of a video game from zero to finished. I needed guidance and help with learning every single day for at least two months. Some Atari programmers I worked with were patient teachers and mentors to me, and some were not. I worked as hard as I could, and I learned as fast as I was able. I appreciated those programmers who were kind to me, and I did my best to tolerate those who were not kind. I remember that by September 1980 I was able to apply what I had learned and to work independently without asking questions for most of the time, and that was a great relief to me. By October I began to enjoy my new abilities, and I felt the first stretches of "flow" or getting lost in my enjoyment of the work. I loved the immediacy of writing code that displayed as "art" on the screen in front of me. It was as close to alchemy as I'll ever achieve, and that remains my favorite thing about programming video games.

TMR:   How could the process of programming inform the storytelling craft, and vice-versa? How did the career transition from programming to writing and teaching play out?

DB:  I taught many forms of writing, including college composition courses, academic, professional, qualitative and quantitative research, new media, documentary scripting, writing for the web, writing for civic engagement, and creative nonfiction. In my department, which was Rhetoric and Writing, we taught various forms of writing, except for fiction and poetry, which were taught in the English department.

My past experience using computers since the 1970s perhaps helped me most in my take on how to teach students to properly use citations in academic writing. I suggested students imagine their reference lists of sources used would be checked by a computer, much like code is parsed by a computer. Any stray or missing punctuation or components of the citations would cause an imagined breakdown of an imaginary machine checking an academic paper. I don't know if this helped any students feel more committed to carefully using proper citation formatting, but I liked the idea of explaining it this way. If code must be written correctly in order to execute properly, why not hold writers in other disciplines to the same standards? Working carefully is good for our brains.

Other than that one imaginary take on how to emphasize careful work, I think my past as an avid reader was more helpful to my teaching practice. It's more narrow and perhaps easier to teach students to write code using a computer language than it is to teach effective writing in all writing's various forms. We write code and we're able to execute and check the outcome to find out if it accomplished the required result. We write for an audience and for a purpose using the most effective and appealing language we can muster, and it's just hit or miss, with no reliable way to check or test immediately if our words are accomplishing their purpose. But oh, the satisfaction of achieving communication or of persuading using words! Words used carefully can be as powerful and as far-reaching as computer code, and I value both concepts, and I appreciated teaching both.

TMR: As a practitioner and educator in the field of composition and writing, are there masterworks of film and/or literature you would suggest for study?

DB: I believe I most enjoyed teaching creative nonfiction writing, which uses all the same elements as fiction in order to tell a true story, and also documentary script writing, which I tried to teach as a highly formatted weaving together of elements that reveal a documentary narrative. Some of the most powerful books I’ve gone back to over and over for advice on writing and teaching creative nonfiction are the following: Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, John McPhee; Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call; Keep it Real, edited by Lee Gutkind; and The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr.

For writing documentary scripts, I'm self taught, and I used my own method for teaching myself later when I taught my students to write scripts for short documentaries. My method for learning was to sit with a notepad while I watched a favorite documentary on DVD. I trained myself to make detailed notes on how each scene from a documentary works to tell the film's story and to advance the narrative. In that way, I learned to recognize how documentaries use interviews, archival footage, historical photographs, newspaper clippings, official documents, court transcripts, location shots, reenactments, animation, and so on to create a narrative. 

Two documentaries I especially enjoyed analyzing in this way are If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Curry, 2010) and Stories We Tell (Polley, 2012). 

I enjoyed my students' work when I assigned a project spanning several weeks of the semester. I began the project by asking my students to read chapters from a book titled How Lincoln Learned to Read by Daniel Wolff, which examines "how we learn what we need to know." After reading, I asked students to write a brief personal narrative somehow akin to the chapters they read, so that they created an explanation on a small part of their own epistemology. After that, I asked them to somehow turn the personal narrative into a script for a short podcast, so they would understand writing for an audio experience. Finally, I asked them to turn the narrative and the podcast into a script for a short documentary, in order to write for a visual and an audio experience. I relished discovering what my students could create in their individually crafted projects.