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 assigned male at birth but undergoing gender transition 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. She once said of her career, “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.”
Danielle Berry was born Daniel Paul Bunten on February 19, 1949, in St. Louis, Missouri, the oldest of six children. The family moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1965, and Bunten lived in and around Little Rock until the last years of her life, when she moved to Palo Alto, California. 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. Bunten 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) and received a degree in industrial engineering from UA in 1974. Bunten’s first job involved doing mathematical modeling of urban systems for the National Science Foundation, which Bunten said “was the closest thing to building games I could find.” In 1978, Bunten’s 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, Bunten founded Ozark Softscape in Little Rock as a venue for game development efforts. In 1982, Bunten 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. Bunten’s 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. Bunten’s 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 end of Bunten’s third marriage, Bunten informed friends, coworkers, and family that she was embarking on the process of gender transition, adopting the name Danielle Bunten Berry (Berry being her mother’s maiden name). Berry underwent medical aspects of gender transition in November 1992. For the next several years, Berry withdrew from the game industry to concentrate on her transition, saying, “So, I’m a little more than three years into my new life role as Ms. Danielle Berry, and her career looks to be somewhat different from old Mr. Dan Bunten’s. For one thing I’m not as good a programmer as he was. I’m also not as willing to sit for hours in front of a computer to make something that other people can use to socialize. I tend to need to socialize far more often than he did. Thus, I do design and consulting rather than programming and development.” 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.
Hague, James. Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers. http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/ (accessed December 7, 2020).
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 September 26, 2017).
Obituary of Danielle Paula Berry. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 4, 1998, p. 6B.
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Last Updated: 12/04/2020