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Danielle Bunten Berry (1949–1998)
aka: Daniel Bunten

Danielle (Dani) Berry was a revolutionary computer game designer who specialized in multi-player games at a time when few in the industry were interested in the idea. She is also remembered for breaking gender boundaries in the industry, having been born a male but undergoing gender reassignment surgery late in her career. Berry’s 1983 game M.U.L.E. was listed third on Computer Gaming World’s 1996 list of the best games of all time, and Will Wright, the designer of Sim City, once said, “Ask most game designers what their favorite computer game of all time is, and you’ll get M.U.L.E. as an answer more often than any other title.” She was a major influence upon the likes of Wright and Civilization designer Sid Meier.

Danielle Berry was born Daniel Paul Bunten on February 19, 1949, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the oldest of six children. His family moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1965, and he lived in and around Little Rock until the last years of his life, when he moved to Palo Alto, California. Bunten once said, “When I was a kid, the only times my family spent together that weren’t totally dysfunctional were when we were playing games. Consequently, I believe games are a wonderful way to socialize.” The family occasionally experienced hard times, and Bunten worked at a drugstore and as an assistant scoutmaster for a Boy Scout troop to provide extra money. He graduated from Catholic High School for Boys.

In 1971, Bunten opened a bicycle shop, the Highroller Cyclerie, near the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He received a degree in industrial engineering from UA in 1974. His first job involved doing mathematical modeling of urban systems for the National Science Foundation, which he said “was the closest thing to building games I could find.” In 1978, his first computer game, Wheeler Dealers for the Apple II, was published by Speakeasy Software; one of the first multiplayer games in an era before networking, it was sold with a custom controller to allow multiple players. Wheeler Dealers only sold about fifty copies, but it was followed by three titles for SSI, an early computer game publisher: Computer Quarterback (1978), Cartels & Cutthroats (1979), and Cytron Masters (1982).

In the early 1980s, he founded Ozark Softscape in Little Rock as a venue for his game development efforts. In 1982, he was selected by Electronic Arts (EA), a recently founded company, as one of a handful of “electronic artists” it published, and Ozark developed five games for EA over the next few years. His most well-known game is probably M.U.L.E. (1983), a turn-based strategy game that could accommodate up to four players at the same console. An exercise in supply and demand economics, the game forces the players, who represent settlers on the planet of Irata, to compete over food, energy, and mineral resources. Ozark Softscape also designed Seven Cities of Gold (1984), which sold 150,000 copies; Heart of Africa (1985); Robot Rascals (1986); and Modem Wars (1988) for EA. Shortly thereafter, Ozark and EA fell out over a new version of M.U.L.E. and EA’s insistence that it include combat, which Bunten felt was a betrayal of the game’s intent and aesthetic. His subsequent two games, Command HQ (1990) and Global Conquest (1992), were published by Microprose.

Bunten was married three times and had two sons and one daughter. In 1992, after the failure of his third marriage, he informed his friends, coworkers, and family that he was embarking on the process of gender transformation. He adopted the name Danielle Bunten Berry (Berry being her mother’s maiden name). He underwent gender reassignment surgery in November 1992. For the next several years, Berry withdrew from the game industry to concentrate on the sex-change process and on the exploration of her new identify. In the mid- and late 1990s, she took several consulting jobs in the industry, and in 1997, MPath, an online game service, launched her final game, Warsport.

In the game industry, Berry is remembered as a pioneer, one of the finest developers of the 1980s and 1990s, and a game designer with a particular bent for and understanding of multiplayer games. All of her games, except for Seven Cities of Gold and Heart of Africa, were designed for multiple players, even though networks and modems were rare during the period in which they were released. Her early work was mostly for the Atari 800, one of the few computers to ship with hardware permitting multiple players to use the same machine, and her later games were all designed for play over a modem connection. As she said at a speech at the Computer Game Developers’ Conference in 1990, “No one on their death bed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.’” Despite their age, M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold in particular are remembered as landmark and important games in the history of the field. In May 1998, shortly before her death, she received an award for lifetime achievement from the Computer Game Developers Association.

Berry died of lung cancer on July 3, 1998. In 2007, she was named to the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.

For additional information:
Dan Bunten (Dani Bunten Berry) Papers, 1949–1998. International Center for the History of Electronic Games. Strong Museum, Rochester, New York.

“Dani Bunten Berry.” http://www.anticlockwise.com/dani/index.htm (accessed October 3, 2006).

Gorenfield, John. “Get behind the M.U.L.E.” Salon.com. http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/feature/2003/03/18/bunten/index.html (accessed October 3, 2006).

Hague, James. Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers. http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/ (accessed February 8, 2012).

Koon, David. “Dani Bunten Changed Video Games Forever.” Arkansas Times, February 8, 2012, pp. 14–16, 18–19, 21. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/dani-bunten-changed-video-games-forever/Content?oid=2059426 (accessed February 8, 2012).

Obituary of Danielle Paula Berry. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. July 4, 1998, p. 6B.

Greg Costikyan
Manifesto Games

Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 2/8/2012

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