— Brent Bynum, a Philadelphia man who learned, after purchasing a copy of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, that Beacon is not a real person but a composite person whose face is a model's and whose name is partly stolen from Mavis Staples. Of note: The cover model had three-inch fingernails at the time of her 1986 cover shot, which seems like a bad choice if you're a typist.
"I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something. There really is no Mavis? I can't believe it."
The tutor who became a multi-millionaire edutainment innovator because she went to the wrong restaurant
As you can guess by that statement, the goal of entertaining was always secondary to education at Davidson and Associates. And while lots of kids have good memories of Math Blaster and other games of the edutainment era, it's a game that receives a surprising amount of retrospective criticism from developers today.In fact, there's a surprising nickname for games of its ilk: "chocolate covered broccoli."
People always ask us why, when we sold Davidson & Associates, our educational software company, and entered the world of philanthropy, we chose to work with gifted children. Our reply is that we have always wanted to help children become successful learners. Even before founding Davidson & Associates, Jan taught English at the college level and tutored children of all ages. Bob's ideas for our math and reading software helped thousands of students discover that learning can be as much fun as playing video games. We want all children to have these "Aha' moments. So we searched for the population that traditional schools serve least, the population that is least likely to learn and achieve to its potential. We believe that highly gifted students are that population.
"Whereas in the 1980s Nintendo released an average of one or two new Mario titles a year, the 1990s saw a flood of ill-conceived Mario spin-offs, such as Mario Teaches Typing, Mario's Game Gallery, and Mario's Time Machine. Although some of the worst titles were produced under license by third party developers, such as Philips and Interplay, the onslaught of mediocre Mario games nearly destroyed Nintendo's most valuable franchise."
"Chocolate-covered broccoli": An evocative term that has come to define the edutainment era
The subject of edutainment is a common one for mockery. Blizzard Entertainment—which, remember, was purchased by an edutainment giant in 1993 and likely owes much of its early success to the additional distribution gained from that move—once created an April Fool's parody called Blizzard Kidzz that mocked games like The Oregon Trail and Mario Teaches Typing. (A bit unfair, but funny!)But just because the games of the era were kind of terrible doesn't mean that's the upper limit for edutainment. It makes sense that educators have recently found more luck with introducing Minecraft to the classroom than Math Blaster. Often, the best education isn't deliberate.That lesson was hard to find two decades ago, when Mattel found it had purchased a lemon from Shark Tank loud guy Kevin O'Leary with The Learning Company. Mattel spent $3.6 billion on the business, only to sell it off a couple years later for basically nothing. Not even the fact that The Print Shop was part of the purchase could save the deal.It worked out for O'Leary, who is dabbling in Canadian politics these days, but the edutainment space never really recovered.In comments to EdSurge, Lee Banville of Games and Learning noted that The Learning Company's failure shows the complexity of the problem."The Learning Company showed that mixing games with education is a powerful tool, but it also showed how difficult it is to grow that business and diversify and evolve," Banville said.The Learning Company deserves more credit than it's getting in the modern day, and so, too, does Jan Davidson, who uncovered a genuinely important trend with Math Blaster.But, to be clear, you can't just put Mario on a boring game and hope that kids learn something in the process. Considering how sophisticated games are getting these days, that's not good enough.And you can't do that hundreds of times over with little variation and hope that it sticks—which is what the edutainment market felt like in the 90s.Kids are way smarter than that.