Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment. Previous entries can be found here.
Today we’re brushing up on our language skills with another entry in our ‘fundamentals’ series of edutainment games: Reader Rabbit and the Fabulous Word Factory, released by The Learning Company in 1983. Reader Rabbit was one of the earliest titles released by the studio and spawned one of its most iconic franchises.
This article primarily draws upon two sources: “A Goose, A Boot, and a Thing Called Excellence” by Christopher Cerf, published in Softalk magazine in 1984; and “The Rise and Fall of the Company Behind ‘Reader Rabbit’ and All Your Favourite Educational Games” by Abigail Cain for The Outline in 2018. All other textual and visual sources are cited throughout. The header art is from MobyGames.
While The Learning Company would eventually become one of the largest and most influential producers of edutainment games well into the twenty-first century, its origins in the early 1980s occurred on a considerably smaller scale.
The Learning Company, or TLC, began as a small group of specialists, teachers, and video game developers seeking to improve the quality of educational software in the United States. Among them were Dr. Ann Piestrup, a Berkeley graduate whose interest in education emerged from her work teaching English in low-income schools in New York; Dr. Teri Perl, an educational psychologist with a PhD in mathematics from Stanford University; Warren Robinett, a video game developer; and Dr. Leslie Grimm, a Stanford-educated biologist and computer programmer. These four founding members met largely serendipitously, either through recommendations by friends or based on admiration for each other’s work.
In 1981, Piestrup and computer scientist Barbara Jasinski received grants from the Apple Education Foundation and National Science Foundation toward developing software that would teach geometry and logic to second- and third-grade students. After Jasinski left the project for another venture, Piestrup was in need of a new partner who, like Jasinski, had expertise in mathematics. She soon recruited Perl, whose professional and academic knowledge extended to authoring several books on women mathematicians. Most importantly, as Piestrup noted, Perl “understood that our program had to be fun, as well as educational.”
The duo subsequently brought Robinett aboard, not only for his expertise in software development, but for his reputation as well. Robinett had recently left his job at Atari after creating the influential 1980 video game Adventure, in which he infamously hid his name after the company refused to give him on-screen credit.
Piestrup was particularly interested in how many of the game’s design elements – interlinked rooms, connectable items, movable objects – could be used for educational titles. Robinett shared his new coworkers’ passion for educational software, and even preferred it to video games as a whole:
I’m essentially a game designer at heart. … My primary goal is to make fun programs. But video games don’t have any intrinsic worth. The kind of games I’m interested in are problem-solving games that have some broad educational value.
Piestrup, Robinett and Perl subsequently formed Alternative Learning Technologies, a software developer based out of a one-room office in Portola Valley, California. They were soon joined by Grimm, who was at the time working as a teacher’s aide in an elementary school. Grimm was quickly becoming known for self-created educational games designed “to lead kids towards the answer” to questions, “rather than punish them for not getting it the first time round”. Her work even garnered interest from Apple, who offered to publish her work before their educational software division folded.
ALT’s core team was now complete, and quickly began work on a variety of projects in order to fulfill their grants. These projects would form the first slate of games released by the studio.
Logic Gates and Rocky’s Boots
One such game, Logic Gate Adventure, was first envisioned as an Adventure sequel featuring “different objects you could plug together … to build machines that you could use to defeat the monsters.” Logic gates, a concept typically first approached in college-level courses, proved surprisingly easy for child playtesters to understand. As such, Logic Gate Adventure evolved into Rocky’s Boots, a game in which a dancing raccoon would encourage nine-year-olds to learn about computer engineering.
Naturally, it was a hit.
Rocky’s Boots was published for the Apple II in 1982, won Software of the Year awards from several educational magazines, and sold over a hundred thousand copies (a significant amount for the time). It became, in Piestrup’s words, a “critical darling” and “put [The Learning Company] on the map.”
Robinett departed TLC not long after Rocky’s Boots was released, leaving Grimm as chief designer. Grimm had already contributed to many of the studio’s bestselling titles, including Rocky’s Boots and a couple of puzzle-based titles starring a plucky goose named Gertrude. Her first solo project, Reader Rabbit and the Fabulous Word Factory, would prove particularly influential, launching a lucrative, decades-spanning franchise in the process.
Building the Word Factory
Grimm was inspired to develop Reader Rabbit based on “the methods of a ‘particularly fine teacher’ in a nearby school district who taught students with language disabilities.” To this end, Grimm’s game would include four different activities taking place in a ‘word factory’ where players could sort and identify over two hundred words. Her daughters Corinne and Cindy contributed graphics.
Much like the title character in Rocky’s Boots, the overalls-clad lagomorph in Reader Rabbit cheered for players after they successfully completed each exercise. (The character wouldn’t be officially named ‘Reader Rabbit’ until 1991.)
Reader Rabbit was first released in 1983 for the Apple II and soon became one of TLC’s most recognizable products. As Piestrup told The Outline, “It’s not on people’s wish list to get something that teaches their second grader logic gates. … It’s on their wish list that they learn to read. So Reader Rabbit was a much more popular product.” (The title was also highlighted in the 1983 holiday edition of the PBS program The Computer Chronicles, in which a presenter quipped, “I know it seems boring and I know it seems pointless, but teachers tell me it helps you to read.”) Several updated versions of Reader Rabbit were released throughout the following year, and the game was soon ported for the Commodore 64 and Atari systems.
Above all, Reader Rabbit was a full-fledged realization of the ideas on which TLC was founded. The game’s activities combined Robinett’s desire for software that focused on problem solving but educated players at the same time; taught children to read yet entertained them as well; and rewarded correctly answering questions in a constructive manner. It’s unsurprising that a game created with these principles in mind would become so popular.
The success of the first Reader Rabbit game, among other titles, was a considerable boon for TLC, which saw a profit of one million dollars in its first year. Nevertheless, many complications and difficulties would soon emerge for the fledgling publisher on a variety of fronts – artistic, corporate, and financial.
Despite TLC’s early successes, their financial solvency was hindered by the “prohibitively high” prices of their games. Selling titles such as Rocky’s Boots at seventy-five dollars a copy was a decision made by TLC’s first CEO, Jack Smyth, who was an unpopular figure at the company and replaced after only two years. His replacement was Marcia Klein, who joined TLC in 1983 and “brought some order to the company’s rapid, but haphazard, growth.” She redesigned the games’ boxart, sold them at more reasonable prices, and organized a move to a larger headquarters in Menlo Park. Most importantly, she helped TLC attain a net income, the first time it had been financially in the black since its formation three years earlier.
Not long after, Klein unexpectedly suffered a stroke and was replaced by an unnamed temporary CEO who summarily fired the entire development team. All of the company’s remaining founders either departed the company or were let go in the next few years.
Constant changes in personnel would become a hallmark of the edutainment genre as various studios were merged or sold to larger companies. That said, it remains unfortunate that this turbulence occurred so soon in TLC’s history. Mergers and acquisitions were not a particularly glamorous part of the history of edutainment gaming, but as we’ll see in future columns, they often dictated the artistic direction of educational software from the early 1990s onwards.
Regardless of the volatility occurring behind the scenes during and after its release, the first Reader Rabbit game deserves to be fondly remembered as one of the earliest character-based titles in educational software and for its lasting impact on the edutainment genre as a landmark reading-based game. (A future That’s Edutainment column will focus on a very different, equally as notable entry in the franchise.)
Subsequent editions of Reader Rabbit have garnered increasing amounts of acclaim; as an example, one remake was selected as Editors’ Choice by Newsweek magazine in 1995. Most importantly, in an industry frequently defined by the contributions of men, it is heartening to know that The Learning Company, as well as perhaps its most iconic franchise, were primarily created by women.
Join us next time for our continued journey through the fundamentals of edutainment gaming, as we head off into space with the 1983 Davidson & Associates game Math Blaster! See you then!