Decades before Fortnite, Dani Bunten Berry saw the future — and built games to bring people together
Bunten Berry insisted that the future of gaming was interconnectedness
The list of technical achievements that Dani Bunten Berry was able to achieve throughout the games she designed is vast, but a key ingredient to her approach was where she was born and raised: Little Rock, Arkansas. Bunten Berry, born Dan Bunten, was the oldest of six siblings and although money was incredibly tight and the family didn't exactly get along all the time, Bunten Berry cherished the time that they would sit around the table playing board games. In a way, she was always trying to recreate that experience on a computer, steadfastly insisting that the future of gaming was interconnectedness — either in person, playing around a computer with friends and family or online. With the limited capabilities of computers in the '70s and '80s, this message didn't resonate at the time.
Watch a clip:
Note: in this clip, different people use different pronouns and first names to refer to Bunten Berry. She herself offered this guidance: "Although to some it may sound bizarre using 'he' to refer to myself in my previous gender, it actually feels more accurate than any other alternative (and it's shorter than 'the previous owner of this body' which I also occasionally use)." In this article, we use female pronouns to speak about her life as a whole.
M.U.L.E. was the greatest game design ever made. No game ever accomplished so much with so little.- Chris Crawford, founder, Game Developers Conference
Decades before multiplayer games like today's blockbuster hit Fortnite came to rule gaming, Bunten Berry's groundbreaking multiplayer game M.U.L.E. was released as part of Electronic Arts's storied launch series of games in 1982. Upon release it didn't light the world on fire, but over the years it has emerged one of the greatest influences on some of the genre's greatest designers.
In 1992, after years of grappling with gender identity, Bunten Berry decided to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, and become Danielle Bunten Berry. Years later, she ended up expressing regrets about that decision, in particular because of the way it impacted her relationships with her family. What's more, she found that an industry that celebrated her as a man generally shunned her as a woman.
It was sad, it changed her status. I was approached by a couple guys who wanted to found a multi-player game company on the internet and they came to me and said, 'Would you like to do this thing?' and I said, 'Why aren't you talking to Dani Bunten?' I mean, Dani Bunten is the world's foremost authority on multiplayer games and they just looked at me and...I knew why.- Brian Moriarty, creator, Loom
Nevertheless, she continued in games and was working on her dream project — a follow-up to M.U.L.E. — to take advantage of an increasingly online world. She was steadfast in her insistence that games at their core should be social.
In 1998, she discovered, after many years of heavy smoking, that she was suffering from an advanced form of lung cancer. Still estranged from most of her family, she died that same year at the age of 49.
Dani was living proudly who she was. To see that you could define yourself by your own greatness, not by the labels people put on you — she set the bar way up here. You could be as good as Dani Bunten if you put your mind on it. That's incredibly important.- Gordon Bellamy, Executive Director, International Game Developers Association
Professionally, as an aspiring designer, I knew that's where I wanted to be — and also as a queer person, to see that I could exist.- Gordon Bellamy
Bunten Berry's impact on the gaming world is undeniable, and her stance on the future of gaming proved incredibly prescient. The gaming industry and the world at large have come to resemble her vision of interconnectedness, with people finding commonality with one another through technology — and as that's happened, even more game designers have begun to realize how far ahead she was. It speaks to her values that she saw that the human connection is ultimately the most important aspect of life.
Or as she once put it: "No one ever said on their death bed, 'Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.'"
Watch all ten episodes of The Artists now, a new CBC Arts series about the video game designers who changed the world.