Panasonic Interactive Media’s game Secret Writer’s Society was supposed to teach kids how to write well. Instead, it became infamous. The game had a text-to-speech feature that would read back what you wrote, and under the right circumstances in the Macintosh version of the game, it would read a list of obscenities instead.
“Computers are revolutionizing education, sometimes in surprising ways. Now there’s software that can teach kids how to cuss like a drunken stevedore,” raved Robert Cwiklik for the Wall Street Journal.1
According to PIM marketing manager Kari Gibbs, the company had begun replacing copies of Secret Writer’s Society by June 17, 1998,1 four months after it originally shipped on February 10.2 Panasonic officially blamed the issue on “an undetected bug” that would accidentally read words from the program’s language filter if the computer was slow or having memory issues.1,3
But their story doesn’t check out. Andrew Maisel, who was the first to discover the supposed glitch and reported it on his educational software review website SuperKids, says he reproduced it on “healthy Power Macs with lots of memory.”3 And in a shocking, hilarious twist, anti-corporate activist group RTMark claimed in October 1998 that it was a work of internal sabotage. 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. “Letting a third-rate piece of software take over for you is wrong because it violates that contract,” they said. “What I did isn’t a crime. The crime is letting profits get in the way of education.” RTMark says they awarded the programmer $1000 for their action.
Despite this, Panasonic insisted that the rogue program was still just the result of a bug. Elizabeth Olson, Panasonic’s communications manager, told The Independent in November 1998 that “To our knowledge there is no truth to this claim. [RTMark] seem to be claiming responsibility for something they didn’t have anything to do with.” (As RTMark’s Ray Thomas also told The Independent, “It could be that they really do think it’s a bug.”) Either way, it did damage, and when Panasonic Interactive Media was shut down months later in March 1999, Consumer Electronics blamed Secret Writer’s Society for harming the group’s reputation.4
Secret Writer’s Society was quickly forgotten after that – probably to Panasonic’s relief – and has been missing ever since… until I managed to get a copy this week. And yes, it’s the version with the swears. Secret Writer’s Society, the best way to swear at children in 1998 » Read more