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Illustration of a computer tragic woman on a green background looking at a question mark Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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In the ’80s, she was a video game pioneer. Today, no one can find her

The search for Ban Tran

Video game historian Kevin Bunch remembers sending a dozen letters over the mail in 2019, each one addressed to the same name. The white envelopes journeyed across different addresses in Texas, some reaching their destination safely, others coming back with a bright yellow note: “RETURN TO SENDER. ATTEMPTED — NOT KNOWN. UNABLE TO FORWARD.”

But even the letters that made it didn’t find their true target. The post may have been opened by people with the exact name Bunch had written down, sure, but they weren’t the specific person he and many others have been trying to track down for over a decade now.

Her name is Ban Tran, and I’m guessing you have no idea who she is, or what she has to do with video games. It’s a shame, too, because Ban Tran made a pretty notable contribution to the gaming industry, and yet she’s been erased from history.

True, the gaming industry is notoriously lousy at preserving its own history. Even modern games can be lost to the ether as services go defunct, or titles stop being printed or supported. It’s even worse the farther you go back, especially when it comes to women. It’s not just that women in tech routinely get overlooked, though that certainly plays a part in this mystery. It’s that cultural norms around marriage make it harder to keep track of them.

“One of the hardest parts about writing about women in gaming history,” gaming historian Kate Willaert said, “is when they take a new name after publishing some work, and suddenly their body of work is split in two, or it’s ‘erased’ entirely.”

A young girl playing on the Atari 2600 Photo: Wilkinson/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Some women in the gaming industry tell Polygon that they’ve purposefully kept their last names after marrying, because existing credits in shipped games refer to them in a specific way. Should these women divorce, crediting becomes a nightmare between what legal papers say, what the internet prints, and what a game credit lists. There are measures to help solidify identities, with industry websites like MobyGames displaying different aliases for game developers. But some women don’t want to take the chance — not in an industry where game credits determine whether or not you’ll get the next job.

“I feel like it shouldn’t matter,” one developer said, “but in this industry you never know.”

Another wrinkle here is that Ban Tran is a very common Vietnamese name; in Texas alone, the white pages show over 100 results. Bunch tried sending letters only to folks who could theoretically fit the age bracket, but that still leaves plenty of room for error.

Why look for Ban Tran in the first place? Let us start with a pop quiz. Who is the first female character in video games? Many would say Ms. Pac-Man, but she’s not an actual person — she doesn’t even have her own name. Truthfully, it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly should get the honor here, because it entirely depends on what criteria you use, and whether or not we’re considering the entirety of arcade games, consoles, and PC games.

“The first on-screen playable female character is probably in an arcade game by [game developer] Exidy called Score,” Willaert said. This, too, was almost lost to time. There’s no way to play the game anymore, and there are no screenshots of Score online. Print ads or flyers promoting the game don’t actually show what Score looks like. We only know of what’s in the game from descriptions in trade magazines, which according to Willaert say the game is a “battle of the sexes.”

“We can’t even find a working cabinet, though a few Exidy collectors and historians are keeping an eye out,” Willaert said.

If Ms. Pac-Man is ruled out, and there’s barely proof that Score existed, the next-best example is a game called Wabbit. Released in 1982 by Texan developer Apollo, Wabbit is a title for the Atari 2600 that holds the distinction of being the first console game with a named playable female character who isn’t off-screen. In Wabbit, you control Billie Sue as she tries to protect her carrot crops from pesky rabbits. It’s a shooting game where you try and compete against the rabbits for a high score.

“It’s colorful, it’s got these pretty identifiable objects on screen, it’s speedy, and it’s pretty unique,” Bunch said. “Wabbit is probably one of the best games the company put out.”

Wabbit’s existence is a curiosity not just because of what it depicts, but in how it came to be. According to Willaert’s research, Ban Tran got hired by Apollo after mailing in some “outrageous” game concepts to the company — ideas that were well beyond the capabilities of video game hardware at the time. Despite her outlandish ideas, or perhaps because of them, Tran got an interview.

We don’t know what Tran’s background in tech was prior to this, but she must have had some experience, because she jumped right in and made a game on her own. While one former worker said that Apollo didn’t require experience to join, Tran’s quick ability to come up with “intense” game concepts surprised those around her, especially since there weren’t many women making games at the time. Also, Bunch noted, “The [Atari 2600] is not an easy machine to develop for!”

Wherever Tran came from, her stint at Apollo didn’t last. The company went bankrupt about a year later, and while Tran stuck it out for a while working on other projects, nobody knows what happened to her next. She may not still be in Texas, and she may not still go by Ban Tran. Is she still around at all?

Willaert is determined to find out, because she’s in the middle of producing a 50-part YouTube series on playable female protagonists.

“Most of these characters are treated as footnotes in gaming history — if they’re mentioned at all — so I wanted to challenge myself to dig up enough information to give each one their own ‘chapter’ in this series,” Willaert said.

She’s been working on this project for a decade now, which is also about as long as she and other internet sleuths have been trying to find Tran. So far, despite tapping other gaming historians, putting out a call on social media, and sending many physical letters, the search for Tran has hit a wall. We can’t ask Tran if Wabbit was influenced by the existence of Space Invaders, or what her other wild ideas apparently were. We don’t know what she went on to do, or if she’s still in tech at all. We don’t even know if she’s still called Ban Tran.

Willaert and Bunch have many more questions, because what little we do know is totally flimsy. Firsthand accounts from the few Apollo developers with an online presence don’t even remember who she was, exactly, other than knowing she was Vietnamese and determined to get hired. These developers assume she must be called Ban Tran, because that’s what fan sites say her name was. But they’re not sure; they can’t quite recall. Where did the fan sites get the name in the first place? Like Score before her, Tran’s contribution to video games is hanging by a thread.

“She seems to have become something of a ghost,” Bunch said.