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Dani Bunten changed video games forever 

The story of a (largely) forgotten game designer from Arkansas.

If you've never heard the names Dan Bunten or Dani Bunten Berry (the name Dan Bunten took following gender-reassignment surgery in November 1992, after which she added her mother's maiden name), you can be forgiven. Though Dani Bunten is one of the most celebrated pioneers of the multi-billion-dollar video game industry — a Little Rock designer whose theories about the social appeal and cultural promise of gaming have been proven correct again and again since her death in 1998 at just 49 years old — the American memory is particularly short when it comes to the medium of video games. While old films like "Casablanca" and "North by Northwest" will probably screen as long as mankind has access to electricity and a white wall to project them on, gamers' respect for individual video games tends to bloom and fade as quickly as young love. Other than a few beloved titles like the original Super Mario Brothers and Pac Man, video games usually fascinate the public imagination exactly as long as it takes for the next flashy system or groundbreaking title to come along. After that, most games quickly retreat to the bargain bin before disappearing down the memory hole, and usually take the names of their creators down the hole with them.

It is a measure of Dani Bunten's genius and enduring legacy, then, that Bunten is still considered something of a rock star among game designers and those interested in the history of games. For Bunten, an engineer who grew up loving family board games like Risk and Monopoly, the social aspect of gaming was the thing, as was the belief that a human opponent was always going to present more challenge and fun than even the best computer brain. That fueled Bunten's passion for multiplayer games at a time when the technology for making multi-play happen was so primitive that almost no one else in the field saw a future in it.

With the continued rise of the Internet and online gaming since Bunten's death, however, that message looks more and more prophetic as the years go by, leading her to be more revered than ever in certain circles.  Though 14 years (and several quantum leaps in graphics and gameplay) have passed since Bunten died, hundreds visit "The World of M.U.L.E." webpage at worldofmule.net every week to discuss and reminisce about the most influential game created by Bunten's Little Rock design house, Ozark Softscape. Vintage copies of Ozark Softscape games, even those for long-defunct systems, routinely sell for many times their original price on eBay. Celebrity game designer Will Wright dedicated "The Sims" — still the best selling PC game of all time — to Bunten. When PC World Magazine named the 10 greatest PC games ever in 2009, Ozark Softscape's "M.U.L.E." — which they called a "strategic masterpiece" — landed at number five. EA Games, the gaming goliath that Ozark Softscape helped get off the ground with its groundbreaking outer-space-mining title "M.U.L.E.," raked in $3.8 billion dollars last year, and today, Bunten is enshrined in almost every Hall of Fame and museum created so far to celebrate video game design, and won a 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award by The Computer Game Developers Association. She was posthumously inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame 2007, and a permanent archive of her personal papers at the International Center for the History of Video Games resides at the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y.

While selecting pronouns is difficult in any recounting of Dani Bunten's story, Bunten throws a long shadow in the gaming world, and it's getting longer every time a kid picks up a controller for the first time.

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  • Play Bunten's "M.U.L.E." at Game Ever

    February 10, 2012
    We wrote about Game Ever, Noel Franks' West Little Rock video game arcade/museum/day spa/temple at 400 N. Bowman Road, a few weeks back, and my 12-year-old has since become a regular, spending at least three Saturdays since the story came out fragging other kids at "Halo: Reach," eating pizza, playing ping-pong and generally having a safe, fun afternoon while his Parental Units get some Hang Time. /more/
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