A history of girls in games wouldn’t be complete without looking at the lives of badass gamer girls. Every object I feature has people at its core; their objects, and the stories they contain, are what is left to us of those who once played and loved games like we do. But there are more than just these nameless (and even faceless) players. There’s also the girls and women who have made their mark on gaming history, so much that we remember their names and lives. These are the game masters.
Our first game master is a woman I wish I had known: Doris Self.
Doris was extraordinary for many reasons – and not all related to video games. Born in 1925, by the age of 20 Doris had already graduated from Burdette College in Boston and taken on a profession common for women in mid-century America: stewardess. Doris was one of the first female flight attendants to graduate from the stewardess program at Easter Air Lines, and went on to fly the skies for over a decade.
But she made her mark in more than customer service. In 1954, she co-organized “The Silver Liners,” the very first association for ex-stewardesses. To this day, the Liners exist as an alumni organization with social and charitable endeavors. You can even see the DC-3 that Doris flew on while visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Doris later married Paul Self, a pilot for Eastern Air Lines, and they had two children. Paul passed away in 1980, at which point Doris discovered video games. She was on an outing with her daughter to Chuck E. Cheese to get pizza, and spied the Q*Bert game. Her life changed forever – and quickly came to involve many late-night visits to arcades to play Q*Bert, her favorite game.
Q*Bert features a daffy-looking creating who hops around on a grid made up of dozens of colorful cubes. The cubes change color with each hop, and the goal is to make them all the same color while dodging a variety of critters trying to devour Q*Bert.
Four years later, Doris accomplished another amazing feat. She entered the 1984 Video Game Masters Tournament, and on July 1 became the first female, and the world’s oldest, competitive gamer. She broke the world high score record for Q*Bert with 1,112,300 points while playing on Twin Galaxies’ Tournament Settings (the most difficult). She was 58.
Doris’s high score was beat in 1985, but she retained the title of “oldest” until 2003, when John Lawton broke the record at the age of 72. Upon her loss of “highest score,” she said,
“I was sad when I lost the title I had held for twenty years. Then I got a call from gaming legend Billy Mitchell, who offered to loan me a Q*bert machine to practice on and win back my title. Billy made me promise that I would give up poker and practice Q*bert everyday.”
Doris stuck by her word. She also developed a strong friendship with Billy, regularly visiting his family’s restaurant in Hollywood, Florida. She even bequeathed him her most treasured item: a stuffed Q*Bert doll that she had placed atop the Q*Bert machine whenever she played.
In the summer of 2005, Doris traveled to London to attend the Classic Gaming Expo-UK in Croydon, UK, and pursue her title again. Though she didn’t win, she did travel to Paris as part of the U.S. National Video Game Team. She helped to hand-deliver an 8-foot tall proclamation signed by hundreds of British video gamers that challenged Paris to a London vs. Paris video game championship.
Also, in 2005, she was featured on CBS’s The Early Show, speaking about her passion for video games:
A year later, Doris was again in the spotlight as she faced off against Kelly Tharp (the current record holder) in a Q*Bert contest in Pompano Beach, Florida. Called “The King vs. Queen Q*Bert Smackdown,” her journey to compete was filmed as part of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters documentary. In the competition, Doris matched scores with Kelly, though neither broke the current world record.
Doris wouldn’t have another chance to reclaim her title. In 2006, she died in an automobile accident while on her way to play games with friends. She had never ceased playing. According to Ann Ennis, her sister,
“Doris would play Q*Bert five nights per week from 1-3:00 AM in the morning as an alternative to taking pills for sleeping. And, on the last night of her life, it was no different. Ann Ennis heard Doris playing for hours, practicing into the night.”
Doris’s Q*Bert machine, and her beloved Q*Bert doll, were returned to Billy Mitchell. A commemorative plaque was installed on the machine by Twin Galaxies, who stated, “The machine will be outfitted with a special memorial plaque created by the Twin Galaxies Intergalactic Scoreboard, that will identify the game as Doris’ Q*Bert machine, commemorating its role in video game history. When the video game industry matures enough to have its own ‘Hall of Fame,’ this machine will become part of its historic collection.”
In 2007, Doris was posthumously recognized by the Guinness World Records Book as the world’s oldest video game competitor.
Sources include “Doris Self Dies in Auto Accident.” Twin Galaxies. November 10, 2006.
Have a question about girls and gaming history? Email me about topics, games, or game masters you’d like featured, or with any other comments of questions you have.