The Secret Writer’s Secret

If you were a junior high or middle school student in the 1980s or early 1990s, it’s unlikely at best that you had computers in your classrooms. Chances are if you had formal instruction involving computers, it was at a special place in the school building like a library or a computer lab. And the instruction, for better or for worse, was likely focused on the art of touch typing. 

But even in those moments, there were two computer games — a mix of education and entertainment — that made computer time one of the best parts of the middle school experience: The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Both pieces of software were both, very clearly, games, and pretty fun (even by non-school standards). And both were, lightly, educational. The kids loved them, the teachers liked them, and the parents thought they were great, too. Kids were learning about technology and history or geography (depending on the game) at the same time — and enjoying themselves. Computers were often seen as the panacea of self-directed education.

Over the next decade or two, many more “edutainment” software titles would hit the shelves. Most of them have been forgotten about, as most games were expensive, required even more expensive computers, and quickly became obsolete as broadband Internet access became increasingly the norm. Oh, and the games were only marginally educational and even less entertaining. 

So if you’ve never heard of the game Secret Writer’s Society, you’re not alone. It debuted in 1998 and no one plays it anymore; the website for the game has been gone since at least 2001, if not before. But when it came out, it was heralded by some as a great way for younger kids to learn how to read and write. For example, in June of 1998, the Philadelphia Inquirer featuredSecret Writer’s Society as one of two recommended titles for summer learning, describing the game as “utilizing clever songs, fun exercises, and an espionage theme to teach creative writing skills to children seven to nine years old.” 

But there was a problem. The Secret Writer’s Society had a secret that not even the game’s developers knew about. 

The software allowed kids to write their own letters in a virtual diary, and, as kids are kids, there’s always a good chance that a kid will type in a dirty word or two. To make matters worse, the diary had a text-to-speech tool, so kids could have the computer read back what they had written — and you can’t have a computer reading off little Johnny’s list of swear words. So to combat this, the software developers added a swear filter to the game — a list of banned words that the game would reject if the kids tried to type them in. 

And that was the game’s downfall. SuperKids, a website that reviews educational software, took a look at Secret Writer’s Society and declared that the much-touted text-to-speech feature “has a flaw so severe, that SuperKids warns parents against purchasing or using this program.” The issue? Kids could access the swear filter in perhaps the worst way possible: if the student’s “passage is a little long and the user impatiently double-clicks the read button, the program proceeds to rattle off a string of obscenities before correctly reading the passage!”

Games blogger Salvador explored the issue further and captured the swearing software on video, which you can watch and listen to, here. (I won’t share the actual words said — I don’t want this newsletter to get caught in your spam filter –but you should give the video a click; it’s funny.) As Salvador explains on his website, at first, an “anti-corporate activist group RTMark claimed in October 1998 that it was a work of internal sabotage. According to their statement, an anonymous programmer contracted by Panasonic said they were trying to call attention to the dangers of parents handing their responsibilities to a computer game.” But that turned out to be a lie — it was just a bug in the software, albeit one that turned an educational game into, well, the wrong type of education.

The game’s publisher, Panasonic Interactive Media (PIM),¬†acknowledged the problem after news of its discovery spread (and it’s very unlikely that PIM was aware of the bug before it hit the news). They offered a free CD-ROM with an updated version of the game to anyone who purchased the swearing version, as you’d expect. That game is long gone and you probably can’t play it today. But in March of 2018, Salvador obtained a copy, and thanks to his efforts, you actually can try out the swearing one; he uploaded a copy of it to the Internet Archive, here.¬†

Bonus fact: The original Oregon Trail game dates back to 1971. Don Rawitsch, a college senior who was also a student teacher at a Minnesota middle school, developed the game (with two friends) to help him teach his 8th grade history class. When Rawitsch’s time at the school ended, he deleted the game from the school’s computers, not wanting to clog up the school computer’s memory. Three years later, Rawitsch was hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), and MECC decided to produce his game. But there was a problem: the game no longer existed on a computer anywhere. Luckily, Rawitsch had printed the whole program’s source code before leaving his classroom back in 1971, and still had the printout in his possession. So, as Wikipedia’s editors explain, Rawitsch “uploaded the Oregon Trail game into the organization’s time-sharing network by retyping it, copied from a printout of the 1971 BASIC code.”

From the Archives: When North Dakota (Briefly) Tried to Secede From the United States: The bonus item is about Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.