News & Politics

Secrets of Ms. Gorf

For people who suffer from acute video game nostalgia or who revel in arcane historical knowledge, there is almost no mystery greater than what exactly happened to the game Ms. Gorf.
Ever since my sweetie Charles revealed to me that he is such a master multitasker that he can have cybersex with up to three people simultaneously -- each in his or her own private Yahoo! chat window -- I've been thinking about the kinds of digital secrets that can't be encrypted, even if you use PGP. These are social secrets, not software secrets. And yet they leave traces all over the high-tech landscape, the way backpackers leave quenched fires behind, and thus you can see where the humans have been.

For people who suffer from acute video game nostalgia or who revel in arcane historical knowledge, there is almost no mystery greater than what exactly happened to the game Ms. Gorf. Jay Fenton, an eccentric programmer, invented the original, fantastically popular Gorf in the late 1970s. When Gorf was released widely in 1981, the game instantly became renowned among fans for its five distinct missions (you didn't just keep playing the same mission over and over), as well as a series of extremely weird expletives that Gorf would hurl at players.

In the hypermacho world of video games, Gorf was one of the toughest. The game was so successful that it spawned a spin-off project; Fenton went on to helm the game's long-awaited but ultimately doomed sequel, Ms. Gorf. For a variety of reasons, plans for the game came to an abrupt halt, and now only Fenton truly knows how great the game would have been. Sadly, although Ms. Gorf technically lives on a series of disks, it was developed in a software environment that cannot be reproduced. In short, the game cannot compile. It is therefore worse than lost: it cannot be assembled.

And so fans like me have no recourse but to pester Fenton by e-mail, trying to glean the secret history of Ms. Gorf. Luckily, the elusive designer was happy to meet me and engage in remembrances of games past.

The results of Gorf's sex change may be hidden, but the results of Fenton's are not. Now a tall woman with a thick mane of chestnut-colored hair, she calls herself Jamie Fenton and smiles when I suggest that perhaps Ms. Gorf might have been a transsexual video game. It's possible, she says, but "if you'd told me back then that I would be a woman now, I would have rolled on the floor laughing."

Since becoming a woman about three years ago, Fenton has been very active in the transgendered community. She's a researcher with Menlo Park think tank SRI International, but she still takes time out to go to video game conventions like the blowout E3. In fact, she's just returned from a classic video game con in Las Vegas, where she screened an old video of herself as Jay playing Ms. Gorf.

Looking at some screen shots from the video game, I'm surprised. I was expecting something like Ms. Pac-Man--Gorf with lipstick and a bow. "Yeah, I guess Ms. Pac-Man is a cross-dresser's idea of being feminine," Fenton says. "You know, adding some female clothes or something. Ms. Gorf isn't anything like that." In fact, as Fenton tells me proudly, Ms. Gorf has one of the highest kill ratios of any classic video game. The screen shots show a clone factory that makes multiple Ms. Gorfs, and then a series of low-rez explosions. Perhaps this is a vision of femininity in which women can do whatever they want, including kick major ass. We don't need no stinkin' bows.

Fenton is fond of pointing out that she's not the only chick in the allegedly all-boy world of video game design. "If you could fill the air at E3 with a gas that turned every transsexual purple, there would be a lot of purple people around," she deadpans. She knows "about 18 people" who have gone from male to female in the video game industry, most notably Dani Bunten Barry, author of M.U.L.E., a popular early-1980s strategy game. I ask Fenton if she thinks there's a connection between geekhood and transsexualism. "Well, I've always had a female brain," she replies, explaining that this came in handy when her anti-aggressive ways inspired kids at school to pick on her. "Computers were a safe place for me to go, because they never picked on me, and they were very predictable."

"That's interesting," I reply, "because some people say that only male brains are technical brains, but you always had a female brain that was very technical." Fenton ponders this for a minute. "Maybe I have a transsexual brain?" she asks. "Either way, it's not a male brain, right?" I respond. She nods and smiles: right now, she's 100 percent girl and 100 percent geek.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who devours coins! Long live the Gorfian Empire! Get the gory details at