Rediscovering History’s Lost First Female Video Game Designer
In 1976, Joyce Weisbecker programmed games for an RCA PC and console based on technology created at home by her dad.
by Harry McCracken via Co.Design on October 27, 2017
One of the first video game programmers was a young woman who’d recently graduated from high school.
Forty years ago, consumer electronics giant RCA released the Studio II, a programmable video game console that, along with the Fairchild Channel F, pioneered the use of ROM cartridges as interchangeable game media.
RCA’s console never rivaled the impact of Atari’s VCS, Magnavox’s Odyssey, or Mattel’s Intellivision, and few people remember it today. But the true story behind it is fascinating. Its underlying technology began in 1969 as a personal computer developed at home by one man with a vision, Joseph Weisbecker. His daughter, Joyce, ended up being the earliest known female developer who wrote video games and got paid for it.Joyce Weisbecker’s work—which I was alerted to by a fellow tech historian, Marty Goldberg—is so little known that back in 2011, I declared Carol Shaw, who worked at Atari beginning in 1978 and later designed Activision’s classic game River Raid, to be “the first female professional video game designer.” Though Shaw’s work remains historically significant, it turns out that Joyce Weisbecker’s work predates it by roughly two years.
And she accomplished it without ever being on staff at RCA. “I know there were no other women at RCA doing the programming,” she says today. “A couple of guys did and they were employees. I think I was the only person outside the company that actually got paid to do a video game. So I was the first contractor . . . and possibly the first independent video game developer, because I came up with the idea and pitched it, and they said okay.”
ENGINEERING IN HER BLOOD
Joyce Weisbecker was born in New Jersey in 1958. During her childhood, she recalls watching her dad, a relentless hobbyist, develop logic games, devise stage illusions for local magicians, and build electronic inventions in his basement when he wasn’t working by day at RCA. Her mother, Jean Ann, was a third grade teacher who emphasized the value of education and encouraged her eldest daughter to pursue what came naturally to her.
Whenever she got a chance, Joyce would tag along to her father’s office at RCA to see what was in development. There, the engineers looked kindly on the girl, who seemed to naturally absorb everything presented to her, including a prototype billiards video game developed by playful RCA engineers in the mid-1960s.