The Geopolitics of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

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Somewhere buried deep in the folds of my mind, there is a circuit that lights up when I hear the words, "Port Moresby." It is directly attached to a secret cache of knowledge that I can scarcely remember acquiring. Blowing the dust off these neurons, I find facts and trivia about Kathmandu and Lima and Bamako. Yikes, where did all this stuff come from?

Actually, I know precisely where I acquired the knowledge that Peru is slightly smaller than Alaska: The Broderbund edutainment game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? which I played compulsively on the IBM-compatible PC in my mom's home office.

In the game, you play a sleuth in the ACME Detective Agency. Carmen Sandiego and her henchpeople steal things in various cities, which forces you to fly all around the world in search of them. You figure out where you're supposed to go next by putting together hints. For example, if one of your possible destinations is Rio de Janeiro and one of the people you interview says, "She was studying Portugese," you know to go there, not Kigali. It's a simple game, but very addictive and packed with little tidbits about the world.

I learned from the game as surely as I learned from the teachers at St. John's the Baptist De La Salle and from the books that I checked out from the library. It filled my head with information at a time when you seem to retain everything you chuck up there. I know that I am not alone, even if you don't remember why you know that San Marino has a strong postage stamp industry.

But the problem is that historians, preservationists, and cultural critics don't take this medium seriously.

"People just ignored this stuff, either purposefully or not," Ian Bogost, a serious videogame developer and Georgia Tech professor told me. "Maybe they just thought it was fluff or maybe they didn't know about it."

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.

Now, a new generation will be introduced to the ACME Detective Agency when Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego? returns as a Facebook game. The new version has the potential to be even more evanescent than the old, offline versions. Who is thinking about the preservation of these digital acculturation tools also known as games? My guess: no one.

Ok, enough historian handwringing. Go back up to the gallery and enjoy your trip down memory lane. I know that I did. But don't forget: if you're a Ph.D. student in American History, feel free to forgo your examination of the cultural implications of Miami Vice to focus on excavating the edutainment games of the 1980s.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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