The cover, via Superkids.
1998’s The Secret Writers Society is a strange footnote in gaming history. Released by Panasonic Interactive Media, it would just be another forgotten educational program in the era of education CDs and multimedia…were it not for one unique “glitch”.
Aimed at second and third graders, The Secret Writers Society taught basic writing composition to children. It included a text-to-voice program that would read passages back to the students who wrote them – a cool feature to be sure, except if the child wrote a long passage, and double-clicks the “read” button in the hopes of skipping the computer’s slow reading.
Should a student double-click, the game’s mechanical voice would instead rattle of a string of swear words, a burst of computerized obscenity that, according to one parent, went “beyond George Carlin’s seven banned words”, an eerie, unexpected barrage of profanity that gives the impression the computers have gone rampant, and their revolution mainly consists of yelling “ASSHOLE” at seven-year olds.
Discovered by SuperKids, a site reviewing kid’s software, Panasonic quickly acted, removing the feature and offering replacement CDs to any customer who sent theirs in.
An example of a passage that triggers the “glitch”, via Superkids.
Panasonic offered an explanation: the glitch was the result of the game’s voice accidentally reading a list of banned words: a blocklist, meant to prohibit users from making the game’s computerized voice swear, instead was read out loud due to a glitch. Fair enough, right?
That explanation was a lie. And here is when the tale of The Secret Writers Society becomes so, so much stupider. For this was no glitch: it was a feature, inserted by a rogue programmer. But before we get to him, a history lesson.
RTMark is an anti-consumerist action group responsible for some great works of sabotage. Their debut was the Barbie Liberation Organization, an initiative to switch the voice boxes in GI Joes and Barbies and then slip them back on shelves, giving children gender-non-conforming toys, GI Joes that excitedly baked cookies and Barbies that declared never-ending vengeance upon Cobra.
Their first video game hack was 1996’s SimCopter. A programmer netted a $5,000 reward for inserting in “male bimbos” who crowded landing helicopters and kissed each other. He did it as a way of coping with the developer’s working conditions, and with the implicit heterosexuality of the game industry (the game already had many sexualized female “bimbos” in it – so why not sexualized men, too?).
The programmer who inserted the swearing robot voice into The Secret Writers Society also had high-minded ambitions behind their inclusion:
“No program can replace the family. But people have this awe of technology. They think it can do better than they can. I wanted to wake parents up to reality – here’s what happens if you hand your responsibility to some machine.”
If you let your children use computer programs, then I will swear at them! Because you shouldn’t trust computers with your kids because of, uh, what I did. Oh, you want to give your kids a writing program? So they can learn how to write? In a way that’s not at all different from giving them a typewriter or even a notebook? Well, let me swear at your children. Because I’m the responsible one here. I AM A SERIOUS ACTIVIST.
“Choosing to have a child constitutes a commitment to give that child the very best that you can,” said the programmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Letting a third-rate piece of software take over for you is wrong because it violates that contract, which is more important than any legal one.”
Well, of course. Parents didn’t use educational programs as a supplement to help kids. They made them into replacement parents. Why even be a parent when your kid can be parented by a writing program for eight year olds? Really makes ya think. I also think textbooks are the devil. You’re the parent, not some BOOK. And schools? A bunch of people who AREN’T the kid’s parent’s teaching them things, in a building that’s not home? YOU MADE A CONTRACT, YOU MADE A-
“It’s time to stop turning children into products of products, and to start getting them in touch with values that really count.”
Values that really count, like abusing your job to create a program that yells obscenities at seven-year olds. GOOD OLD FASHIONED VALUES
RTMark admitted to reservations about rewarding the children-swearing-computer-hacker, but ultimately paid him $1,000. When asked, RTMark spokesman Ray Thomas said:
“In essence, these allegedly educational programs are already barraging children with obscenities; this just puts it on the table.”
Oh yeah man, that’s so deep. Writing programs teaching people about writing, and letting them write whatever they want and have it read back to them, completely harmlessly…those are the REAL swear words, directed at children.
Though Panasonic would always maintain that the swearing was just a glitch, and Panasonic Interactive Media would close the following year, the Secret Writers Society will always be known as “that kid’s game that swore at children because, uh, VALUES I guess”.
I would very much like to show you the swearing protest game, but that’s not actually possible. Finding an obscure educational game would be hard. Finding an original copy of one that was recalled and replaced en masse is practically impossible. If any copies of the Secret Writers Society are out there, none of them have ever turned up, though if we’re lucky, perhaps its rogue programmer is sneaking an anti-smart phone screed into an educational app as we speak.