She Blinded Me With . . . Software?

Throughout March, we will be celebrating Women's History Month with new photos to the Flickr Commons and a series of blog posts about women in science from the Archives' collections.

One of the things I love about working at the Smithsonian Institution Archives is that I feel like I learn something new every day.  For instance, in 1984, the first game in a series called King’s Quest made its debut on the computer gaming scene.  It was such a success that Sierra On-Line went on to produce seven more games in the series.  King’s Quest was not only one of the best selling franchises for Sierra On-Line, but it helped revolutionize the gaming world.  If you are a gamer of any type, you probably already knew all of this, but did you know that the person responsible for developing this entire series is a woman?  I didn’t either until I digitized the videos from Record Unit 9533 (Mini and Microcomputers).

Screenshot from the opening of Mystery House. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9533, SeRoberta Williams was born on February 16, 1953 in Simi Valley, California.  In 1972, she married her high school love, Ken Williams, and in 1979 they co-founded the company On-Line Systems, which later became Sierra On-Line.  The first video game Roberta wrote, Mystery House, was released one year later in 1980. At the time, all of the existing computer games were text only with no graphic component such as Colossal Cave Adventure which was released in the late 1970s. Williams, a stay-at-home mom who considered herself a writer and not a programmer or even a gamer, wrote up the plot line for Mystery House and created a map of the different rooms in the game in order to determine the graphics necessary for the game.  Ken, who is the programmer in the family, took Roberta’s storyline and graphics and coded them to create the game.  Ken even provided Roberta with a tablet that was hooked up to the computer so she could include her own handwriting on some of the textual elements.  Later that same year, On-Line Systems released another game designed by Roberta Williams called Wizard and the Princess, which became the first computer game with color graphics, and ended up being a prequel to King’s Quest in terms of storyline.

Screenshot of one of the notes included in Mystery House that features Roberta Williams' handwriting

In 1983, IBM approached Sierra On-Line, formerly On-Line Systems, about creating a game for one of their new computers.  IBM agreed to pay all development and advertising costs while providing Roberta and Ken with creative control.  The concept for King’s Quest came from the fairy tale world portrayed in Wizard and the Princess and it involved much more complex graphics, including fully animated characters, based on the capabilities of the new computer.  After the game was released in 1984, additional releases for Apple II and the Atari ST, as well as other platforms, followed soon after, increasing the popularity of the game significantly.

Screenshot of the town of Serenia from Wizard and the Princess. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Re

Roberta Williams continued to design video games for Sierra On-Line until her retirement in 1999.  Although creating computer games is a thing of the past for this revolutionary woman, the gaming world will forever be grateful for her contributions to this male dominated field.

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