Tuesday, March 28, 2017




Original GeoSafari
The GeoSafari CD-ROM series was based on the original multiple award-winning 'plastic/electronic' GeoSafari introduced in 1987. It was an extraordinary educational experience and was hugely successful in the school and specialty educational store market. I believe it sold over a million copies. My group's challenge was to transform this experience into the new multi-media CD-ROM format, adding all the digital features it offered: voice, animations, video, record-keeping and much more: Simply put, we wanted to bring GeoSafari into the coming digital age.

We  created four GeoSafari CD-ROM titles. GEOGRAPHY, HISTORY, SCIENCE and ANIMALS. To give you an idea of the fun, learning and gameplay here is an ANIMALS game called 'Animal Sound-Off'. Now, GeoSafari was designed for ages 8 and up, as reading was required for almost every game, but as you'll see here Stephanie Ortiz, age 5, found a game where reading wasn't required and got pretty good at it. In this game she's playing against her older brother Jasson, age 22, who has never seen the game before and she's 'showing him the ropes'....

Another note: When Stephanie is trying to tell Jasson that the right answer is 'the Penguin...the Penguin' it's because she can't read yet and when she can, she'll not only see the written name but find that for every entry in every game there is a full glossary page with great information about that entry. Chances are she'll never forget the Kookaburra again. And probably neither will you.

Next I've picked out a couple of questions from three (of fifteen total) of the Animal games, NAME THAT BIRD CALL, SHARKS and SKULLS to give you an idea of the various formats, playpatterns and 'payoffs' we built into all our GeoSafari titles.

Ok.Hopefully that will give you some idea of the fun and learning in the GeoSafari CD-ROM series. I didn't even mention the educational 'GeoFacts' that popped up for every question or the medals you earned in your medal case if you answered all the questions in a game correctly on the first try or the digital trophy you earned if you completed all the games  perfectly. And most importantly, GeoSafari was designed to be played by families as well as individuals. The 'answer clock' could be set for shorter times to 'handicap' older players. Learning and fun (for everyone) was guaranteed with the GeoSafari CD-ROMs.

Next I've selected a couple of questions each from the SCIENCE, HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY titles to give you just a small taste of the content, gameplay and fun we've included.

The Original GeoSafari

“It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs”….that’s the way I felt trying to put together the product that was to become the award winning GeoSafari CD-ROM series. You see, this was the early days of the CD-ROM revolution and what I didn’t realize was that while the original plastic GeoSafari was a great, great product and a huge hit, Educational Insights’ markets were the schools and ‘specialty’ toy and education stores….not the mass market (Toys R US)… and not digital products at all. So while some schools had Apple computers at this time (1991), a pitiful few had CD-ROMS attached to them. The only way to make a product like this successful was to get it into the mass market which meant Apple and Microsoft Windows versions available at Best Buy, Comp USA and other mass market retailers… and this just wasn’t anywhere near Educational Insights’ 'comfort zone'.

So although I had a ‘go-ahead’ to develop the CD-ROM, it was with a certain shall I say, lack of support, or at least apprehension from the company. And rather than start directly on the project, I was directed to work on other, non-digital products while the CD-ROM project was ‘discussed’. A year was lost.

Now I had a vision of what the game would look and feel like and the technology was around so that we could have a human voice talking to to kids by their own name as they played. I also knew that in a ‘general education’ game like GeoSafari, we’d probably have to be telling kids that their answers were wrong more than once before they got it right. I needed a voice that could tell you that you were mistaken without turning you off, one that could actually encourage you to try again. So one day I’m driving on the 405 Freeway when a song comes on the radio by Richie Havens. Richie Havens! Yes! Now Richie and I go way back. We’re both Brooklyn boys and every so often our paths would cross on something amazing. The previous time was in 1981 when we helped our mutual friend Capt. Michael Sandlofer rescue Physty, a baby sperm whale that came ashore in New York. (You can read about this below in the blog entry PHYSTY and even see Jimmy Callanan’s great movie there). But I digress. 

I found Richie’s agent in NYC and flew in to see if he’d be willing to be the voice of GeoSafari. I honestly didn’t know if he’d even remember me but when he walked into the room he gave me the biggest bear hug and smile….”Stanley, Stanley, Stanley every ten years or so you come into my life with something wonderful….” I was so happy. Richie 
Richie Havens, R.I. P.

loved the GeoSafari idea even though his part was initially to be in the recording booth for hours on end recording thousands of kids names and other comments and questions for the game, while back in California we were assembling all the programming elements and photos, animations and videos that would make up the total experience. That was still more than a year away.

Lots of people know Richie from his legendary Woodstock performance and from his great music but he always was doing something positive for kids and even had started his own environmental group called the NATURAL GUARD in Connecticut. 

One anecdote: I had Richie’s office send me a cassette of some of Richie’s commercial ‘voice-overs’ to play for my boss and owner of the company (it was a family-owned company) Bert Cutler. I expected him to love my selection and see how great Richie’s voice could be for GeoSafari. His response? “It’s terrible! You can’t even understand what he says.” and he walked away. We were stunned. My team members asked me what we were gonna do now. “****-him” I said. He’s just wrong. We’re using Richie.” That’s all I knew. Fortunately Bert’s son, Jay, the VP, knew of Richie and maybe he convinced his dad of his greatness. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I would have quit if I couldn’t have used Richie. His voice was the glue that held GeoSafari together and also made it beautiful.

Look. I made many, many mistakes in putting together GeoSafari, It was a lot harder than I thought it would be and maybe I should have made the games simpler. I also initially put all the subjects on one CD-ROM (technically easy but a big marketing mistake) but maybe mistakes are the price you pay for trying to do something great. I certainly paid ‘em. My team Marcia Shank, Pat May, Denise Heyl, Erin Rosenthal, Krista Santacroce, David Liebowitz, Dennis Kerr and many  others were so committed to the product that they worked endless hours on it.

Finally we had working demos: GeoSafari Geography, History, Science and Animals. One thing I didn’t know but soon learned was that Educational Insights now wanted to become a public company and to do that successfully, you had to convince the Wall Street types that your company had a ‘future in the future’. So all of a sudden these well-dressed young business men were paraded into my little basement area to see our entry in the new digital world. One look at our rag-tag team and they were all skeptical. “Why do you think you can put out a product that can compete with Electronic Arts?” they all asked, in one way or another.

“Well, I don’t know if we can.” I answered, “let’s let you play GeoSafari and see what you think, OK?” “Oh and, by the way, we had Richie Havens record over 2000, names so GeoSafari will talk to the kids by their name. Lets try it, what’s your name?" The Wall Street guy answered “Ahmed”, as he turned around smirking to his cohorts, sure that that name wouldn’t be in our game. “Gee. I don’t know…..until I clicked on it and Richie’s beautiful voice rang out with “Ahmed, Is that you? Click on OK to use this name.” By this time his mouth was open and as we played the game and Richie would say things like “Ahmed, that’s three right in a row, keep it up” or “no, that’s not it but don’t worry, you still get two more tries.” We had ‘em. They all left impressed and the IPO was a success. And so was our project. We got great reviews and were even featured on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America”.

But things were changing. The 'world wide web' was just becoming popular and was replacing CD-ROM sales just by it’s scope and uniqueness. Also Educational Insights was sold to a bigger educational company, Learning Resources and that was pretty much the end of the line for me and for a digital version of GeoSafari.

One more thing I want to mention. GeoSafari CD-ROM was never only for kids. It’s most beautiful use was when families got together to play. It did more than teach you about Gila Monsters or who Emma Lazarus was. It brought families together.

And when I finally got to show Richie Havens the final product, after he played with it for awhile he said to me, and I quote, “I think this is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Well, It’s 25 years later and since our 1995 discs don’t play on current computers this was all ancient history and resumé material for me until just recently. I now have a 5 year-old running around my house and I realized I’d like to see if an obsolete computer could be ‘hacked’ so that she might try the GeoSafari CD-ROM experience. I was curious. My friend and engineer Pat May (who was part of the original design team) was able to find a vintage Mac and with some creative work-arounds install an obsolete operating system and boom! there was GeoSafari again. You’ll see Stephanie’s reaction in the blog. If nothing else comes of this I’ll have given her a valuable gift that has already made her (and her friends) smarter and will continue to do so in a most enjoyable way.

I’ve also drafted an e-mail to the heads of Educational Insights and Learning Resources to let them know about my blog and, while it’s only my opinion, I think a modern web version of their GeoSafari franchise would be both a wonderful educational experience and a profitable venture, far into our digital future. What do you think?

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