Roberta Williams: The mother of computer video games

Roberta Williams (pictured above), co-founded video game company Sierra Online in the early 1980s.

Complaints are rife that the video game industry treats female employees and female players as outsiders or worse. But it wasn't always that way.

Laine Nooney, a doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University, has been looking at the contributions of Roberta Williams, who in the early 1980s co-founded one of the early video game companies, Sierra Online.

"[Williams] was actually the designer of the first home computer adventure game with graphics," says Nooney. The game was called Mystery House and was a murder mystery set in an abandoned Victorian house.

As adventure games took off in the early ‘80s, Sierra Online became one of the largest independent producers of home software in the country.

According to Nooney, at the time, developers and players did not see gaming as stictly a "guy's thing."

"[Williams] had a passion project about encouraging families to play together," says Nooney, who notes that Williams railed against the couch-potato stereotype of gamers.

To hear more about Roberta Williams and the early days of video games, click on the audio player above.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio
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How can I get a transcript of this? I'm working on a research project for a class.

How can I get a transcript of this? I'm working on a research project for a class.

How can I get a transcript of this? I'm working on a research project for a class.

How can I get a transcript of this? I'm working on a research project for a class.

I am also a female in my 30s. My first brand loyalty might have been to Sierra. I played as many of their games as my savings account could afford. At one point, they were phasing out 5 1/4" discs for 3 1/2" discs, and were offering the games on the larger discs at a deep discount, so I snagged as many 5 1/4" Sierra games as I could. Willy Beamish! Island of Dr Brain! Kings Quest! Incredible Machine!

I eventually went on to get my PhD in Computer Science. I should have dedicated my thesis to Roberta Williams; there's no doubt her company set me on my career path. :)

Roberta's most famous creation is the King's Quest series of adventure games, still my favorite to this day. You had to play those games together with others, some of the puzzles were just too difficult to figure out on your own! Sadly, the adventure game genre fell out of popularity, and gave way to more male oriented games such as first person shooters and game consoles focusing on hand eye coordination and twitchy reaction times. While games today are much more technologically advanced, they rarely match Sierra games in terms of story telling and imagination. They just don't make 'em like they used to.

I totally squealed with joy in my car this morning hearing someone finally calling attention to the brilliant games of Roberta Williams-- like a lot of women who are in their 30s now, I remember playing the Sierra Online games endlessly throughout my childhood. However, I thought you were remiss in leaving out the modern day continuation of William's dream. Her Interactive is a women-run company that does smart adventure gaming aimed for teenage girls, with a shameless amount of adult women who enjoy the smart puzzles and narrative format. Please check that company out; they'd be perfect as a follow up story. www.herinteractive.com

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