Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

I wasn't sure about this whole "computer" thing the first time my parents brought home a Tandy 1000 from Radio Shack. They set it up in the basement and told me to type my homework on it, something I sucked at doing.

I really didn't get into it until they brought home King's Quest, a very early adventure game where you were played a little animated knight named Sir Graham wandering around having adventures in a fairy tale-type kingdom and recovering treasures in hopes of one day inheriting the throne of the aging king.

And you died when you screwed up. You died A LOT, which horrified the Chalicerelative.

Unlike previous text games, this was like a cartoon that you were involved in. You could control what Sir Graham did and watch him walk where you told him to. You didn't proceed through a linear adventure arcade-style. You could do a lot of wandering around, and indeed, had to. To little CC, it was awesome, though it sounds completely ridiculous to be praising this stuff more than twenty years later.

King's Quest was produced by the team of Ken and Roberta Williams, and written by Roberta.

Roberta Williams had been a housewife when her computer programmer husband brought home a game called "Colossal Caves," a very popular text adventure game that Roberta started playing constantly. She realized that she could write something similar, and better.

So she did. She wrote a game called Mystery house at her kitchen table. And then she took her husband out for a steak dinner and convinced him to program it for her. It was the first computer game to ever use graphics and its colossal success gave Ken and Roberta the capital they needed to start up their own game company, Sierra, which would be one of the most influential game companies of the 1980's and early 1990s.

Mystery House was released in May 1980. By 1982, Roberta was writing King's Quest, which would also prove to be one of the most important video games of all time.

Roberta wrote and produced so many influential games that ten years ago, Sierra released the "Roberta Williams" anthology, which includes fifteen of the eighteen titles she wrote, excluding two she had written under contract for Disney and her last game Phantasmagoria, which was huge by the standards of the time. (And sold a million copies, which was great at the time, but of course sounds sort of pathetic now.)

Roberta Williams has retired from gaming. She won't comment on other people's games, though every time one plays World of Warcraft, one is doing a bunch of things that people didn't do in video games before Williams. Now, she takes a lot of vacations and she is working on a historical novel.

But her work and her innovations paved the way for the video games we have today.

And they showed one little girl that computers could be pretty cool.


Ps. So far, and Ada Lovelace day is almost over, only one other person has written about Roberta Williams. Here is that post.

And here's one more.


LinguistFriend said...

No doubt computers are pretty cool. I'm not sure that makes up for the number of people (especially in the USA) whose minds are being crippled by inappropriate teaching with and reliance on them, however, as just one aspect of the lamentable condition of US secondary and early university education.

Chalicechick said...

Oh, come now, LF. Surely the computer isn't the only thing that is crippling our minds. Think how powerful our memories used to be before that pesky written word got in the way...


Anonymous said...

I loved Sierra games as a young adult. I was working two jobs, in a mediocre relationship, with no time for outside interests to speak of, but solving mysteries every night after everyone else went to bed made me feel like I got to visit another world for a while. I had found a website where you could download old out of print games for free, and played some of the dinosaurs like Mystery House and King's Quest. Then I braved game stores to buy Gabriel Knight games, and then branched out to adventure or mystery games by other manufacturers like Myst and . Unfortunately, I was coming in right at the end of the adventure game era, and since I don't do shooter games, plus soon had a lot more going on in my life as I dropped that extra job and went back to school, I hardly ever play games anymore. I look at my box sometimes and wonder if they would run on XP or Vista, and if I would still like them if they did. But hooray for Sierra, and the fact that a woman was so integral in the formation of a company who made games this woman seriously dug!

Elizabeth said...

Never heard of her, so thanks for the info!

My Ada Lovelace Day contribution is here: http://bit.ly/eT8a4

Unknown said...

I remember the Tandy 1000. I tried to use the scheduling application to plan my middle school life. Didn't happen. I'm trying now with a second hand Palm. I'm still struggling. :)

Unknown said...

@ LinguistFriend

Being a university instructor, I do have to say that there isn't quite a clear cut line between inappropriate and appropriate use of technology in the classroom. It is a non-trivial effort to figure out where it is for each student. I would use something other that Blackboard Vista, if my administration didn't require that I use it.

On another point, little has been written about the effect of computers on religious views. I am convinced that I would never have become a UU had I not played SimEarth obsessively as a teenager. It altered my view of the world and my place in it.

Robin Edgar said...

Isn't "important video game(s)" something of an oxymoron CC? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I tried to leave a comment on Elizabeth's blog, but blogger wouldn't recognize my Google password, so I will leave it here, even though it's more appropriate to what Elizabeth said:
I like to think I made a small (very small) contribution to computing in that I talked my little brother into going into the field. He invented the term "interaction design". And wrote a couple of books about it. I highly recommend The Inmates are Running the Asylum.

Elizabeth said...

Kim, I've met your brother and heard him speak, and I've read most of the third edition of his book written with R.R. and D.C. Great stuff! If you persuaded him to enter the field, you do indeed deserve credit.

Not sure why Google wouldn't accept your password on my blog. I've heard that from two other people recently, though, so I'm going to ask. ChaliceChick didn't have any problem, though. Strange!

Anonymous said...

My experience is that if I'm already logged into Google, blogs accept it with no problem. But they won't let me log on at the blog site.
Here, I just use the name/URL choice if it doesn't think I'm logged in to Google, but you didn't have that choice.
I don't know if it's the system, or I'm doing something wrong. I'm not very good with computers.