A Salute To Dani Bunten, A Transgender Video Gaming Pioneer

There are plenty of legends in the world of video games whose names will fly off the tongues of casual fans. Nolan Bushnell. Trip Hawkins. Shigeru Miyamoto. Will Wright. Sid Meier. It's a shame, then, that so few can name another of the all-time greats, Danielle Bunten Berry.

Or, as she was known before 1992, Dan Bunten.

The designer born as Daniel Paul Bunten in 1949 is important to video games for any number of reasons, some trivial, some vital to the progression of the entire medium.

Her first game, 1978's Wheeler Dealers, was the first ever PC game to be sold in a printed box instead of a sleeve or plastic bag, a necessity born of the game's inclusion of a custom controller.

In 1983, Bunten's Ozark Softscape released one of the first games for Electronic Arts, and also one of the greatest cult hits in the history of the PC, MULE. A multiplayer... economic strategy... thing, MULE wasn't a big seller, but it was very influential amongst developers, and retains a fanbase and community site even to this day.

In 1984, Bunten released the amazing open-world title The Seven Cities of Gold, a game she only made when she wasn't allowed to make something very similar to what would become Sid Meier's Civilization. Which wasn't released until 1990.

In 1988 she designed Modem Wars, the world's first PC game that could be played across multiple computers in an online environment.

In 1992, Bunten designed Global Conquest, the world's first PC game from a major publisher that could be played across four computers online.

Then, sadly, things went a little off the rails. In the same year, Bunten's third marriage fell apart, and in November 1992 she did something she'd been contemplating for a while: she underwent sex reassignment surgery.

Now known as Danielle (or simply Dani) Bunten Berry, she would never maintain as high a profile as she had enjoyed while a male. While continuing in games development, and continuing to work on pioneering the online interactivity of players, she quickly grew to resent her decision to undergo surgery.

"Being my 'real self' could have included having a penis and including more femininity in whatever forms made sense", she would later write. "I didn't know that until too late and now I have to make the best of the life I've stumbled into. I just wish I would have tried more options before I jumped off the precipice."

In 1997, while working on a new, improved version of MULE for the internet age, Dani was diagnosed with lung cancer, and passed away a year later at the of 49.

Her work never made much money, with only Cities of Gold selling enough to be called a "hit". Wheeler Dealers sold 50 copies. MULE, as important as it was, only sold 30,000.

But Bunten's legacy hasn't been determined by sales. It can be measured in her influence on the industry and the developers who followed in her footsteps.

Nearly every game Bunten designed or worked on turned out to be well ahead of its time, especially when it came to the possibilities for bringing multiple people together in the same game. That kind of vision made her a star to other developers.

"That was something kind of visionary of his: that he kind of saw the day when games wouldn't just be for hardcore gamers," says Civilization creator Sid Meier, a friend of Bunten through thick and thin. "People would play more casual games - people playing together, people playing on networks, people cooperating instead of being competitive. He kind of saw this evolution of gaming that was still pretty far off in the future."

In 1998, just before she passed away, she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Computer Game Developers Association. In 2007, she was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.

And perhaps most touching, when completing the blockbuster The Sims, designer Will Wright dedicated the game to Bunten.

Dani Bunten is survived by her three children (from previous marriages as Daniel Bunten), who now operate a company which trades under the name Ozark Softscape (Bunten's old development studio), and which "manages their father's intellectual property and digital legacy".

If you'd like to read more on Bunten, this recent Arkansas Times piece gives a great insight into not just her legacy, but her personal life as well.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.


    Damn its sad that someone with such an advanced design brain wasn't more successful, a classic case of being ahead of your time

    Not to be a troll but it can be considered offensive to refer to a transgender person by their former gender (he and his instead of her and she) and use their old gendered name.

    It's always more appropriate to refer to thier current gender, in this case female

    Great piece, but yes-

      I've changed the pronouns (I believe that is what the US site has also done).

    I'm just going to assume Luke has a special connection to the LGBT community. ;)

    Dani was my friend. We transitioned at the same time and same place in 1992.

      Robyn, I'm sorry for your loss. I've read Dani's story before in connection with MULE but not the essay linked in this posting. It sounds like she received a *lot* of negative reactions, responses and consequences to her transition, more than she'd expected certainly. I can't imagine being thankful for even partial contact with my kids; that alone would be enough to question the practicality of almost anything. I wonder what she'd have been like if she'd gone through whatever she needed to in a more accepting environment...

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