It may not mean much to you on the reader end, but the fact this article didn’t take me 10 hours to pound out solely through the blood and sweat of my index fingers is thanks largely to a classic educational program called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.
I still remember sitting in front of an Apple II in the elementary school computer lab, working on pinkie shifting exercises with my fellow students as the visage of Mavis Beacon herself beamed down at us from a box on the shelves. I don’t think it mattered so much to me then as a kid, but in the future I would come to think back fondly on that image.
The association of Mavis Beacon with the typing program added a personal touch to its purpose, and just by looking at her it was plain to see she was doing this with you in mind. Dressed in a neat, gold business suit, she gazed at a point far off the box like a visionary, exuding a mixed aura of business acumen and near-maternal warmth. This was a woman you could easily see looking up one day from her job as a legal advocate for puppy orphanages and thinking, “You know, these computer things seem here to stay. Someone must help the people of the world learn to use their typing interfaces efficiently, and that person must be me!” Even her name, Beacon, was perfect: both conjuring the image of a point of guiding light and sounding vaguely like “bacon” well before it was so hip to profess your love for that meat.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is still releasing yearly editions today, apparently retaining the appeal that led the adults of my studentdom to trust it so. I recently took to the internet to see if Mavis Beacon was still alive and what she thought of how so many people seem to know the motions exceedingly well yet still type liek morans. The first stop on my search, however, was a 1995 article from The Seattle Times that stuck in my heart like an old raisin caught under the space bar.
Mavis Beacon, friends, does not exist. And her famous typing program? Yes. It was made by nerds.
Faces to Brand Names
Creating a fake face for your product is not a rarity in the advertising world. Food especially has its share of made up hometown heroes to detract from the factory-ness of it all: Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are all figments of marketing departments’ imaginations. In the case of Mavis Beacon’s persona, the Seattle Times story reports it was provided by a former Caribbean-born fashion model named Renee Lesperance who was discovered in a department store and supported the goals of the program.
Then what’s the big deal, you may be thinking. Companies use some aesthetic trickery to get us to buy their products, but as long as the product is good enough to keep buying, who cares? Videogame consumers learned early on that what you see on the box isn’t always what you get in the game.
Yet when it comes down to technology and especially videogames, history is something a lot of people hold dear and in some cases even colors views toward the product. Messing with that would be tainting a sense of heritage arguably stronger than one built from brownies and rice.
Let’s hit an example close to many hearts: Tetris. Before it was homogenized to be played on everything including your washing machine, the game was famously dressed up in a prideful and slightly enigmatic Russian skin. This was, of course, thanks to the game’s creation in that country by designer Alexey Pajitnov, who became a bit of a marketing pawn of his own. His name would be placed on subsequent self-created puzzlers including Hatris and Wordtris.
The creation of Tetris and the acquisition of it from Russia itself is a rich story. It may not be as prominent in gamers’ minds today, and Pajitnov’s name doesn’t carry the same buzz (he made that Hexic game that likely came inside your Xbox 360, by the way), but I wonder where we would be holding Tetris today had it been revealed sometime in the late ‘80s that Pajitnov and the whole Russia story were a hoax, and the game had really been created by a group of dudes in California. I can’t foresee the events of alternate universes, but there are plenty of other games like Tetris that are as easily addicting and perhaps one would have taken off instead if it didn’t have to deal with the intrigue of Tetris’s origins.
Backstories behind the development of games are becoming even more influential today now that spotlights are firmly placed on indie games and all the effort needed for small teams to get them to market. The success of crowdsourcing and documentaries like Indie Game: The Movie show that many gamers have at least a small interest in the people and tales behind their games and it does have some sway. When Dust: An Elysian Tail was released in 2012, reviews and buzz almost never failed to mention how the game was made mostly by one man, Dean Dodrill, who learned to code in order to bring his ideas to life. Now, this is not an angle Dodrill himself has used to market his game, but what would prevent a designer or company from making an inspirational story up in a grab for more attention and press space? Would the gaming community let it slide, even if the game turned out to be great?
What’re Ya Buyin’?
Mavis Beacon has received updated wardrobes over the years, but her face doesn’t seem to have changed much. It still beams invitingly out from the box, sometimes with some fake signature below her to guarantee that her well-proven typing program is fakely approved.
And that’s the difference between her and videogames: Mavis Beacon can get away with it because in the end, you actually became a better typist. You (or your parents or school) were fooled into a better you. But in other things, where the end result is solely that your money is given to someone else for some entertainment, make sure those heartstring-tugging stories on Kickstarter are verified before handing over your donation–or at least that you don’t care if the stories end up being a sham.
After a bit of time to get over the shock and mull the Mavis Beacon dilemma over with myself, I’ve come to personal terms with the fact she isn’t real. In a sense, it’s even a plus that there isn’t a real woman out there with my typing skills in mind. It makes it much less shameful to imagine her by my side, the two of us blasting zombies away with strokes of our keyboards, student and sensei together as it always should have been in Typing of the Dead.