Dona Bailey graduated high school early and started attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock at the age of 16. She accelerated her education by taking classes year-round and in the summer, and by the age of 19, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in Psychology with three minors in English, Math and Biology. She continued her education further by earning a master's degree in Math. As a young programmer, Bailey was hired by General Motors and trained in assembly language programming. She worked there for two years on displays, and microprocessor-based cruise control systems. Bailey's first exposure to video games came from when she first heard the song "Space Invader" by The Pretenders. A friend told her the song was inspired by the arcade video game Space Invaders. After becoming interested in what a video game was, her friend took her to a nearby bar which had a Space Invaders arcade cabinet. Bailey noticed that the display on Space Invaders resembled the display she worked with on the Cadillac at GM. She found out that Atari was using the same microprocessor in its games.
In 1980, Bailey joined Atari's coin-op division, where she was the only woman. In an interview Bailey recalled that Atari had a notebook of possible game ideas at the time. Of the 30 or so entries the only one without "lasering or frying things" was a short description of a bug winding down the screen. "It didn't seem bad to shoot a bug". Within a four-person team, she became the software developer and software engineer on Centipede.
Bailey left Atari in 1982 and went to work at Videa (later renamed Sente Technologies), founded by three former Atari employees. In 2007, she was the keynote speaker at the Women in Games International Conference. In 2008, Bailey taught as a faculty member in the department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock until her retirement. Bailey wrote a screenplay titled Sunnyvale based on her experiences at Atari as a programmer on Centipede.
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