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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Shark Tank's "Mr. Wonderful" helped kill the educational computer games industry

Illustration for article titled Shark Tank's "Mr. Wonderful" helped kill the educational computer games industry
Photo: Eric McCandless (Getty Images)

If you’re of a certain “only-true-’90s-kids” age, you mostly likely came across the many titles of educational software publisher The Learning Company at some point during your childhood. For a time the company was a true behemoth in an industry it more or less created. The Learning Company itself was responsible for creating computer-lab classics like Reader Rabbit, The ClueFinders, and Super Solvers, and through the acquisition of competitors Broderbund and the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium it came to own basically every classic of the genre—including The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego series. Those wondering whatever happened to these sorts of games can probably guess at a few general reasons for their decline: the availability of free educational content on the internet, the rise of iPads and mobile apps for children, and so on. A new history of The Learning Company from The Outline, however, points to a much more specific culprit: That one dude from Shark Tank, Kevin O’Leary, a.k.a. “Mr. Wonderful.”


As The Outline explains, The Learning Company was founded in the early 1980s by a small handful of educators and programmers who had a genuine interest in creating fun, high-quality educational software for children. In doing so, The Learning Company’s founders essentially created an industry. But as the industry boomed, many similar companies’ educational goals were pushed aside by profit-minded executives who had been brought in to run the growing operations:

Across the industry, early visionaries were being ousted in favor of career businesspeople. Jan Davidson, co-founder of educational software company Davidson & Associates — best known for combining aliens and addition in Math Blaster — stepped down as president because she believed the new owners were privileging profits over quality. Budgets shifted away from research and development — that is, building new games — and towards marketing.

Eventually this sort of profits-over-product mindset infected The Learning Company itself in the form of O’Leary, whose company Softkey Software Products Inc. acquired The Learning Company in 1995 for $606 million. Softkey’s business model involved taking existing software and repackaging it for the shelves of big box retailers like Walmart, rather than more niche computer-specific retailers. With a less computer-savvy customer base these retailers were less interested in the quality of the games, and more concerned with low prices and flashy packaging. The end result was that O’Leary spent a lot of resources making sure The Learning Company’s games had Scooby Doo on the box, and much less on making sure the games were any good. O’Leary “just came in and bought a bunch of companies and scaled them back and laid off all the good people.”

In 1998, O’Leary would sell The Learning Company to a foundering Mattel for $3.5 billion in a move that would nearly sink the toy giant. By that point TLC was little more than a collection of old, hopelessly out-of-date properties, with little to nothing being reinvested back into the creation of new games. A year and a half later Mattel would turn around to sell The Learning Company for a catastrophic $27 million. While Mattel would eventually recover from this disaster, the educational games industry never did. Many millions in his pocket, Kevin O’Leary would, of course, go on to become that one dude from Shark Tank.

Check out the rest of the article over at The Outline.

Contributor, The A.V. Club.