The Geopolitics of "Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego?"


My family didn't have a home computer until I graduated high school, so my memories of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? involve more Rockapella and less pixelated police officers. But, like The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, I know the series of geography puzzle games left factoids floating around in my brain that will likely never be fully dislodged. Carmen Sandiego was part of how I shaped my view of the world. The trouble, as Madrigal points out, is that—unlike other educational sources, such as textbooks and lesson plans—we know next to nothing about what worldviews Carmen and her fellow edutainment helped create.

As far as I can tell, not a single academic paper has been written about the boom in edutainment games in the 1980s and 1990s. Not one! While Mimi Ito's Engineering Play chronicles the rise of the genre, it focuses more on the educational philosophies embodied in the games more than the content transmitted within the form.

Keep in mind that it's standard practice to look at primers and textbooks. These games serve the exact same function — and may even be better at getting the information to stick — and yet they've received no critical attention. We just don't know the geopolitics of Carmen Sandiego, and in some sense, it's really important to find out. What did the game include about history? More importantly, given the brevity of the information presented, what did it exclude? Were there outright falsehoods in these games or racial, ethnic, or gender biases? We don't know the answers to any of these questions.

The medium doesn't lend itself to easy study. Gaming technology has relentlessly advanced, leading many a game to practical obsolescence within a few years. To critique Carmen Sandiego in its original format, you'd have to keep an old DOS or Apple machine hanging around. Or you could run an emulator like I did to grab all the screenshots above. It's not totally ideal, but it certainly works for getting at the content of the game. That is to say, it's not impossible to study these edutainment games as objects of historical inquiry, but we're just not doing it, the work of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games notwithstanding.

The Atlantic Tech blog: The Geopolitics of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"