clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

40 years on, videogames icon Rebecca Heineman found herself beyond her ‘escape’

Heineman became the first national gaming champion in 1980 but didn’t truly begin the process of finding self-worth until recognizing she was transgender in the 2000s.

Rebecca Heineman
Rebecca Heineman
Netflix

Much can change in 40 years: generation-defining technological advancements; cultural movements that continue to widen the arms of inclusion and acceptance; and personal journeys that allow one to turn inward and find self-worth where it wasn’t thought to exist. Celebrated game developer Rebecca Heineman is the rare case representing all of the above.

Tuesday marked the 40-year anniversary of Heineman’s victory at the Atari National Videogame Championship, the first event of its kind for competitive gaming. She was crowned the best Space Invaders player in the country that day at the age of 16, a moment that, unbeknownst to her, would prove to be the launch pad for her influential career.

Heineman’s victory and the tournament itself were groundbreaking, signaling what would ultimately evolve into the booming esports industry of present day. It all started with Heineman’s supreme Space Invaders skill, but she didn’t even recognize how talented she was at one of the hardest arcade classics heading into the tournament.

“I thought everybody was playing Space Invaders for hours on end with just one quarter,” Heineman told Outsports. “That’s how ignorant I was in my own ability.” Heineman knew herself to be the effective gaming champion of her neighborhood growing up, “creaming” her friend in Atari 2600 classics like Slot Racers and Space Invaders consistently.

She was untouchable, which meant everyone wanted to challenge her. It was an advantageous place to hold because it kept her immersed in the medium. “I put all of my psychic energies into playing videogames. When I started playing, I went right into the zone which made me unbeatable,” Heineman said.

To the outside world, games dominated Heineman’s mind because of her skill and incredible knowledge of what made those games tick. She even learned to reverse-engineer Atari games and taught herself how to code and produce homemade Atari cartridges from her bedroom.

Rebecca Heineman
Rebecca Heineman
Twitter

For Heineman herself, games represented an escape from an abusive homelife and an internal battle with gender dysphoria. Heineman didn’t come out publicly as transgender until 2003, but said she’s known since a very early age that she was not like the boys she knew. “I kind of knew something was different about me back when I was six or seven, but I just thought it was because my parents kept telling me I was worthless, useless and kept beating me up all the time, ” Heineman said. “Now, in hindsight, it makes sense. I’m a girl. But, as a boy back then, obviously something was wrong with me because I was effeminate and liked to play with Barbies instead of G.I. Joe.”

That abuse dominated Heineman’s childhood, cratering her self-image at the same time her struggles with gender identity emerged. The two quickly began to feed into one another. “Because I was trans, I just assumed I deserved it because I was different,” Heineman recalled. The abuse got so bad that Heineman ran away from home, living in a dumpster for a period before ultimately returning home. “I was tired of having my legs broken, my head bashed in and being thrown through a plate-glass window… my dad was beating me up and [my mom] was happy that he was beating me up and not her.”

Heineman found an oasis from the physical and mental abuse when videogames gained popularity in the mid-70s. And she poured herself into them. But she didn’t recognize how good of a player she was at the time because of the toll her abusive household took on her self-worth.

It came off as nonchalance to those around her, including the judge of the Los Angeles regional tournament she won to qualify for the national championship.

“I started playing the game and got bored pretty quickly, so I started talking to the guy saying, ‘How’s the weather? What’s it like here? Do they do this often?’ I wasn’t even looking at the screen,” Heineman said. “About an hour went by and finally, because I really didn’t pay attention, the aliens landed on me. When that happens in Space Invaders, it’s over… I asked ‘What’s the score?’ and he said, ‘88,000 points.’ My first reaction was ‘Is that good?’”

Rebeca Heineman
Heineman after winning the Atari National Championship
Netflix

It was better than good. She had quadrupled the score of the current leader and her winning score doubled the ultimate runner-up. It was such a feat that the tournament organizers held off posting Heineman’s score until the last half-hour of the tournament because “they were afraid it might intimidate people.”

“I was flabbergasted because the game was so easy for me. How can I possibly be better than everyone else? That’s not possible,” Heineman said. “But that gets back to my parents bashing into my head that I’m worth nothing.” The win in Los Angeles provided a fleeting moment of self-worth to Heineman, but it also paved the way for what would ultimately get her out of her parents’ purview altogether: the national championship in New York City.

Atari provided the plane ticket. She just had to figure out how to get there without her parents’ knowledge. “I got on the phone to call some of my friends and ask, ‘What do you do? How do you get to the airport?’ because I wasn’t going to tell my parents that I was going anywhere,” Heineman said. Calling in those favors helped her accomplish her goal, but it soon dawned on her just how uncharted were the waters she was entering.

“I’m going to New York City and I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen to me when I get there,” Heineman recalled. That unease was warranted. Atari’s tournament was the first of its kind, and firsts usually come with a collection of oversights. Heineman pointed out perhaps the most glaring one of all: Atari only paid for the contestants’ travel to the event. “They didn’t even think about the fact that, what if the contestant was a minor? You can’t fly a minor unaccompanied across the country for a corporate event. If something happened to the kid, the lawsuits would be legendary,” Heineman said.

Even if Heineman wanted one of her parents there, her family wasn’t able to afford a plane ticket. She arrived in New York City as the only unaccompanied entrant. “[Atari] were really trying to take good care of me,” she said. “I didn’t really know what ‘suing’ was at the time … I thought they probably figured out I was trans and they were treating me differently.”

Once Heineman got to pick up her joystick and enter her escape pod, the unease went away temporarily and she accomplished her goal. Sort of. She won the tournament, proclaiming “I’m never playing this game again,” and the grand prize of an Asteroids arcade cabinet, but that meant missing out on what she originally wanted. “Second prize was a fully loaded Atari 800 computer. I really wanted the Atari 800.”

She didn’t walk away with the Atari 800 that day, but her victory caught the eye of the editors of Electronic Games magazine. She wound up writing articles and contributing to books about how to beat different videogames. An offhand remark to her editor about her ability to program Atari 2600 games without access to Atari’s highly protected code thrust her into game development.

Rebecca Heineman
Heineman (middle) with fellow finalists Frank Tetro (left) and Hing Ning (right)
Creative Computing

But that post-victory moment in New York City, before all else, provided both Heineman’s first realization that she wasn’t worthless and absolutely overwhelming as throngs of national media heaved her into the spotlight. “My brain totally short circuited. I was not prepared for anything like that.”

It also provided a way out of the home that kept her so crestfallen. Heineman moved to Maryland to teach Atari 2600 game development at the age of 17. Setting up her own household was a challenge, but it also proved freeing. “It’s nobody but me. That’s when I first started thinking to myself about getting women’s clothes,” Heineman said. “I still kept everything quiet and I dare not let anyone know my true nature.”

That championship was the catalyst for a career marked with a litany of successes. By her own estimation, Heineman has worked on over 250 games, helming the development of critically acclaimed titles like The Bard’s Tale 3: Thief of Fate and Dragon Wars. She co-founded the seminal PC game developer Interplay Entertainment in 1983. She’s worked with nearly every major player in the gaming sector, including stops at Microsoft, Sony and Amazon.

But those successes did little to improve Heineman’s internalized degradation. “I was ashamed of who I was,” Heineman said. “Now I understand I paved the way and created a lot of things I’m proud of. But back then, I was never proud of anything I did because I had no self-esteem whatsoever… I was one of the lowest paid employees at Interplay because I never stood up for myself, even though I was one of the freaking owners.”

This juxtaposition continued for decades, but the growing presence of the internet soon provided an avenue for self-discovery. “It really wasn’t until 2000 before I actually was brave enough to start looking into transitioning and getting therapy,” Heineman recalled. “I was trying to understand what was really going on with me … I started seeing websites and articles about people like me. That’s when it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone. That was the catalyst for me coming out.”

Rebecca Heineman
Heineman posing with copies of The Bard’s Tale 3: Thief of Fate and Dragon Wars
Twitter

“I finally broke the shackles of my parents’ conditioning. That’s when I started saying, ‘Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with me after all,” she added. That process included confronting the source of those shackles. Heineman asked her mom years later about the years of abuse she suffered, and the explanation floored her. “She told me ‘He’s not your dad,’” Heineman said.

According to Heineman, her biological father ran out on her mother when she got pregnant with Becky in 1963. Her Roman Catholic faith didn’t allow her to have an abortion or have the baby out of wedlock, so the church pressured her to marry the man who Heineman grew up knowing as her father. “My dad turned out to be a son of a bitch… I thought he was picking on me because I was trans but, no, it was because I wasn’t his child,” Heineman said. “My mom and dad hated being married, and both of them hated the reason why they were married.”

“This happens in movies, not in real life. It took me weeks to digest it all… I started looking at my life with that information and everything made sense,” Heineman said. “I finally accepted that it was never my fault… that’s when me, as a person, completely changed. The person talking now is nothing like the person who won the Atari championship.”

Heineman’s journey of self-love rippled out into her industry both pre and post-coming out. She pushed for more diverse character representation in games through her work on The Bard’s Tale series. “[Michael Cranford] told me flat out, ‘Men play these games. Girls don’t,’” She recalled thinking. “You don’t know it yet, but you’re talking to a girl and I played these games.” The first thing she did when leading The Bard’s Tale 3’s development was make female player characters. The game went on to win multiple awards and was included in The Smithsonian’s Art of Videogames exhibit.

She served on multiple internal LGBTQ workplace advocacy groups, including Microsoft’s GLEAM, the Sony Rainbow Coalition and Amazon’s Glamazon, and currently serves as a board member for GLAAD. Her path laid the groundwork for the increasingly diverse culture sweeping through game development and esports.

“There is no shortage of [LGBTQ people in games and esports], you just have to go look for them. LGBTQ people really look like everyone else. Unless you ask who they’re dating, they’re pretty indistinguishable, which is why we’re trying to educate everyone else about it,” Heineman said.

Heineman’s journey is far from over. She still loves the escape of programming and playing videogames. She started the game development studio Olde Skuul alongside her wife, Jennell Jaquays, who is also transgender, and is currently working on a remaster of Autoduel. Years of therapy and learning to love herself have made those escapes less of a necessity in favor of believing herself to be the Becky Heineman so many celebrate.

Follow Rebecca Heineman on Twitter @burgerbecky