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.”
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 [ … ]