A Brief History of Typing Games — From Alien Zaps to Zombie Attacks
Note: This is a word-for-word transcript of the documentary of the same name, available to watch now on YouTube.
It’s the late seventies. Freelance writer Dick Ainsworth receives a call from Bally, a manufacturer famous for their pinball and slot machines. Bally was king at extracting quarters from adults all across the world. When video games hit the coin-op scene, they became just as good at taking quarters from children. Bally was now looking to bring the arcade into players’ homes. They want Ainsworth to make their home console “look like it’s educational”.
The “Bally Professional Arcade” was a home computer system that specialised in arcade games. It was originally referred to as the “Bally Home Library Computer”. However, Bally didn’t like the word “computer” included in the title, nor the advertising. They thought such a complicated word would scare off customers. And yet they recognised the power of educational content in marketing. By making the console look educational they could make customers feel less guilty about their purchase.
Ainsworth designs a program that’s actually useful. It’s a 2-player game called “Bingo Math”. The goal is to be the first to score a bingo, by selecting the correct solutions to math problems on a bingo sheet. In addition to helping children understand the basic rules of maths, it provides a reasonable challenge for players of all ages. It does this by adjusting the difficulty level according to the player’s skill. Such a principle had already proven successful with the coin-op game designers at DNA. For example, one of their most popular games, Amazing Maze, generates mazes adapted to the skill of the player. Such a principle ensures that games appeal to both novices and experts alike.
Bingo Math includes the first use of interval timing, a major breakthrough in interactive computing. The game monitors how quickly players solve math problems, and adjusts the difficulty based on the response time. This ensures the player is constantly learning new facts. With focused repetition, these new facts are gradually shifted to motor memory, allowing them to be retrieved instantly without conscious thought. In Ainsworth’s words, “I was using the computer for programming people instead of the other way around.”
Ainsworth later tries to convince the Bally executives to market the Arcade as a PC. The device has the potential to be a powerful home computer, the expanded system allowing users to write their own programs. Why just play games when you can make them? The executives listen and they listen. And eventually they decide to withdraw the system and build a casino in Atlantic City.
On a freelance writing assignment in Albuquerque, Ainsworth meets Bill Gates and Paul Allen of the recently formed Microsoft. They’ve just developed a version of the BASIC programming language for a microprocessor chip. They want Ainsworth to write the instruction manual. While finishing the final draft, Ainsworth suggests to Bill to create a computer program to teach typing. He argues that the advantage of a program over a book is that it could adjust the exercises according to the typer’s ability. This would make learning faster and maybe even more fun. Gates gives him the go-ahead.
Microsoft Typing Tutor becomes the first educational software for the PC. It relies on the same core concept of Bingo Math, monitoring the user’s response times and adjusting the lessons accordingly. The TRM, or Time Response Monitoring system, is a major selling point. The program can tell your typing accuracy, words per minute, and which keys you’re slowest at typing. Just like Bingo Math, the program shifts slow-speed responses into the high-speed memory lane.
Typing Tutor arrives when the PC is transforming from a casual gaming box into a machine for professionals. Executives are turning to computers to make financial forecasts. Spreadsheet software proves popular among executives and accountants alike. However, many of them can’t type. Typing Tutor is embraced as an effective teaching tool. It becomes an immediate best seller.
The first typing game comes a couple of years later in 1981. MasterType mixes a typing mechanic with an arcade action game. The arcade action is inspired by Space Fortress, the goal of which is to defend a base from alien missiles attacking from north, east, south, and west. MasterType instead has alien invaders encroaching from the four corners of the screen. The keyboard replaces the joystick. Each invader has a word assigned to it. Type the relevant word then hit the space bar and the invader gets zapped to nothing.
Unlike Typing Tutor, MasterType is designed as entertainment first, education second. It’s a typing game for arcade fanatics, rather than the other way around. At the end of each game the player is presented with a list of statistics. What it doesn’t provide is a record of specific mistakes. It doesn’t monitor the player’s response times, and adjust the game accordingly. Still, it’s a hit among action game fans. It’s exciting to play. And it teaches typing in a uniquely fun way. It’s one of the first educational games to be commercially successful.
MasterType isn’t the only eighties game to mix shooting with typing. It’s January of 1983 and video game company Atari is holding a banquet in the St. Francis Hotel of San Francisco. Four finalists are seated to find out who will be the winner of the Star Award, an annual prize given to the writer of a home computer program judged the best. The youngest person in the room is seventeen-year-old David Buehler. He’s one of the finalists. It’s his name that’s announced as the winner. On stage he’s presented with a cheque for a cool 25,000 dollars. His family seems happier than he does. The name of his award-winning program is Typo Attack.
Typo Attack is Space Invaders meets typing. Bug-like enemies descend from the top of the screen in neat columns. Each column is assigned a letter or punctuation symbol. Players must press the corresponding letter to destroy each advancing enemy, before it chomps away at the base down below. To add to the challenge, the characters in each base change randomly.
Typo Attack becomes a leading program in Atari’s “Learning” category. It’s marketed as “an educational game for children and adults”. It receives its own commercial. On top of the grand prize money, David receives a royalty for each sale made. He starts to seem a little happier.
It’s 1987 and Macintosh computers are outselling those from Atari and Amiga. Suddenly everyone needs to know how to type. Californian company The Software Toolworks recognises this need. They come up with an idea for a revolutionary new typing program. The programming job is assigned to three men, who peck out the code in the space of a summer. In the spring of ’87, half a year after planners approved the concept, the product is released.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing features “the finest typing tutor in the world.” Mavis outlines each lesson on a chalkboard before the typist takes to task. The mood is cerebral. Mavis is there to teach. It’s even in the title. The lessons vary according to age range. For the under-eights, the lessons are shorter. For adults, lessons are longer and tougher, even more so for experienced typists. If you start to lose concentration, Mavis will ask you to take a break and come back later. She’s fair as well as flexible.
Mavis fuses the arcade fun of MasterType with the serious design of Typing Tutor. It borrows from the best of both worlds to deliver a program of real substance. One lesson has the typer take part in a road race against a quirky fictional character. The typer must type out the words quickly to gain speed and overtake their opponent. The exciting graphics and novel storytelling encourage repeat tries. Other lessons involve typing out memorable slices of text, ranging from great works of literature to strange facts from the Guinness Book of World Records. The game keeps a constant record of mistakes, speed, problem keys, and more, all viewable in graph form. Like Typing Tutor, the program tailors the lessons to the student’s needs.
Mavis is an overnight success. A glowing review from the New York Times helps boost initial sales. By 1998 the typing program has sold six million copies. Part of this is due to Mavis herself. Her photo graces millions of retail boxes. In promotional material she’s shown surrounded by groups of excited schoolchildren. Soon enough she’s a household icon, and the virtual typing instructor for schoolchildren all across America. Consumers report having seen Mavis win typing contests. Each week dozens of reporters call the developer, requesting an interview with the marvellous Mavis. Customers and sellers see her as the real deal. Except she isn’t real at all.
Former talk-show host Les Crane is a creative partner at The Software Toolworks. One day he walks into Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills to buy some cologne. Behind the cosmetics counter is a beautiful Haitian woman named Renée L’Espérance. Les looks at her and sees Mavis. Renée is paid for a series of individual photo sessions, but receives no residuals.
Mavis’ appearance is regularly updated. The same photo of her is reused for the software’s tenth-anniversary edition. Her old outfit is swapped for a burgundy jacket and cream-coloured blouse. The computer makeover slips by unnoticed.
Les Crane based the character’s first name on the rhythm and blues singer Mavis Staples. The last name refers to a beacon of light, symbolising a source of guidance. Not much is known about the real Mavis. In the nineties she was said to be living a quiet life in the Caribbean. Today her whereabouts are unknown.
Californian game developer Brian Fargo is interested in the program. Reading up about Mavis, he finds that over half the people are buying it to teach their children how to type. He starts to think about who might make an ideal typing instructor for children. Not long after he pays a visit to Nintendo and pitches his idea. The executives buy it.
Mario Teaches Typing is the first game where Mario speaks. The gameplay involves typing the on-screen characters to make Mario move right across the level. To keep things entertaining, Mario performs various actions along the way. To make things seem educational, each player, or “student”, gets their very own report card, a basic record of their activity.
The game’s a notable success, selling over 500,000 units on Macintosh. Following its release, Brian Fargo comes across Les Crane, the creator of Mavis Beacon, at one of his shows. Les gives Brian a dirty look. After the show, Brian calls him to find out what he did wrong. Les explains that he’s wrong for having made the Mario spin-off in the first place. Mario is threatening the sales of his educational software. In his eyes, Brian is his rival.
Meanwhile, Nintendo has their own rival in the form of Sega. Games like Sonic help establish the Sega Genesis as a key player in the home console market. Sega is also experiencing big success in the arcade scene. By 1993 the company is operating more than 1200 arcades in Japan. It is fast becoming one of the most recognised brands in gaming.
As the Saturn replaces the Genesis, Sega starts to target a more mature, adult audience. It begins investing in cinematic light-gun games like the action-heavy Virtua Cop. In 1994 Virtua Cop is the second most-successful upright arcade unit of the year. The next two years see the development of a brand new light-gun series.
House of the Dead is built on the same game engine as Virtua Cop. Instead of eighties action flicks, House of the Dead draws inspiration from western horror movies. The scratchy film aesthetic from the opening sequence of Seven is turned into a visual stylistic trait.
Shooting zombies is a violent business. Bodies explode like bloody piñatas, while arms have a wild habit of going missing. In interviews, the director frequently mentions his target audience. This is an experience for “horror fans, gun game fans and adults in their twenties and thirties.” It’s a game “with a more mature atmosphere for grown-ups”. The director stresses the point: “We didn’t want children playing this game.”
Released to arcades in 1996, the game is at least as big a hit as Virtua Cop. A year later and the game has its own sequel, the imaginatively titled House of the Dead 2. The sequel is ported to the Dreamcast to largely favourable reviews. However, the game’s voice acting is not treated so nicely. In fact, it is universally panned. Still, the game cleans up. And, together with Resident Evil, the series helps put zombies back in the cultural spotlight.
Rather than jump straight into a third game, Sega decides to extend the lifespan of the second. This time it’s the work of a second-party developer, called Wow Entertainment. Someone there comes up with the bright idea of fixing the game up with a keyboard, instead of a light-gun. Zombies are shot by typing keys instead of pressing a trigger. The arcade cabinet is equipped with a pair of QWERTY keyboards. It’s the same old game from a strange new angle. The story, cinematics, and animation don’t change, just the controls. It also gets a new slogan: “Type or Die!”
In 1999 the game is exclusive to Japanese arcades. But that’s soon to change. Another Sega developer, Smilebit, is put in charge of making a port for the Dreamcast. During this time, the PC typing tutor market is still dominated by the Mavis Beacon series. Sega wants a piece of the educational pie. After the Dreamcast release in 2000, Sega goes to work on a PC version.
To appeal to a Western audience, Smilebit capitalises on the badness of the voice acting, shifting the mood from one of horror to absurdist comedy. The base game already has its fair share of comical moments. There’s the scene where a zombie drives a car into the side of a bridge. There are action scenes animated with the same physics of a Looney Tunes cartoon. But it might be the villain Goldman who steals the show with his magnificent evil laugh.
Smilebit has the hero characters run around with keyboards strapped to their necks. The three-headed hydra delivers a trivia quiz, as well as slimy punches. The words used to defeat enemies are often ironically juxtaposed to the situation at hand. The game’s extensive vocabulary ranges from types of fruit to sexual innuendos. To further lighten the mood, the zombies carry weapons like spatulas, maracas, golf clubs, and bananas.
To keep things educational, the game boasts new modes like drills and tutorials. The tutorials teach exciting concepts like the home position. Drills test the typer’s speed, accuracy, and reflexes. Weak keys are highlighted at the end of each drill. This means the game can be used as a teaching tool, albeit a basic one.
It’s enough for Sega to start marketing to a wider audience. Office workers and computer fanatics enter Sega’s sightlines. ConsolesPlus, a French games magazine, says that Sega has completely shifted the game “with the noble goal of teaching typing to little Japanese children.” Whether Sega’s intentions are truly noble is questionable.
Sega assures parents the game is fine for children. The official Japanese site says: “There’s even a kid’s mode that suppresses the violent expression of effects so that children can use it with confidence.” Other reviewers are less sure. Electronic Gaming Monthly writes “Somehow I don’t see parents buying this as a typing tutor for their children with all the carnage and horrific themes involved.” The PC version is M-rated. Removing the blood and gore doesn’t distract from the fact it’s a flamboyant horror game. But it’s somewhat educational, and that’s enough.
It’s addictive too. The typing mechanic is moreish. One correct key takes a chunk out of the enemy. A correct series of them sends the monster reeling back. While the game is funny, it’s also genuinely nerve-wracking. Some bosses can only be overcome with near-perfect precision. Typing one wrong letter can be the difference between life and death. And that tagline suddenly starts to resonate.
Most critics enjoyed the ride. IGN called the game “crack cocaine addicting”. Gamezone said the thrill of typing is “better than the thrill of most horror movies.” Gamespot said the gameplay was “unique and extremely fun.” Other reviews weren’t so kind. CVG called the game “stupid” with a novelty that “wears off after a few minutes.” PC World was so unimpressed that they put it in their “Top Ten Worst Games” list. Game Informer named the game the weirdest of all time. One thing reviewers agreed on was that it was weird.
Still, the game finds a following. By 2003 the PC series has sold over 120 thousand units. The franchise becomes a regular part of the Sega pipeline. In 2008 the game is further revised into English of the Dead, a language-learning game released exclusively for the Nintendo DS in Japan. Here the player must translate the zombies’ words from Japanese to English to score a kill. 2012 sees the game remade for iPhones in Flick of the Dead where texting takes place of typing. The original arcade game is a mystery to most western gamers. To this day it might be the world’s only coin-op machine played with twin keyboards.
As more children grow up with a phone in hand, the need for typing games continues to decline. Typing classes, called keyboarding, are no longer a necessary part of school curriculums. Texting and typing have become routine. Interfaces such as speech recognition and virtual reality mean that keyboards will lose further vitality in the future.
Even if Mavis Beacon were to be updated with a new wardrobe, she would still be seen as old-fashioned. That’s not to say typing games have disappeared, just that they have adapted. Modern typing games lean more towards the avant-garde. Some treat the keyboard as an 101-button controller, rather than a writing instrument. Others view the typing game through a lens of parody.
David Lynch Teaches Typing disrupts the framework of a standard typing game, taking the player on surreal detours between occasional bouts of learning. Tongue-in-cheek horror The Textorcist involves typing prayers of deliverance with one hand and moving a priest with the other. In the words of its designer, it’s “a type-‘em-up, a shoot-‘em-up where you fight by typing.”
Newer typing games no longer try to be educational. Instead they are experimental. Similar to modern art, the traditions of the past have been thrown aside to make room for more colourful modes of expression. People are now spoilt for choice. The keyboard’s mission plan has shifted. As a commonplace fixture of society, it must now behave a bit different if it hopes to stand out from the crowd.