Carmen Sandiego: A Different Kind of Globe-Trotting

“Edutational” games tend to come in two categories.

  1. The “game” that is really just a badly strung together lesson, complete with exhortations to do one’s best with shoddy gameplay that would make most gamers roll their eyes in disgust, if not for the parent looking over their shoulder. Yeah, okay, they’re better than doing real homework, but not by much, particularly with Earthbound calling from the side cabinet.
  2. The edutational product that’s barely edutational: it’s a game that passes itself off as “fun in education” with more emphasis on the former and little on the latter. I still love these games, but let’s be real. Most of the educational dynamics (planning, decision-making, economics, resource management) are really just gameplay dynamics found (beefed up) in other titles.

Guess which one kids prefer. Guess which one parents prefer.

It doesn’t have to be, of course. A game can be both fun and educational at the same time. It’s just that most game designers don’t want to create fun educational titles, either because they grew up with boring titles themselves or else they (rightly) realize that the money really isn’t in these titles. And, to be fair, many people feel that “fun” shouldn’t come anywhere “education” even outside the realm of video games.

The Carmen Sandiego series was (and is) different. Gamers have chased the redheaded thief across dozens of operating systems, consoles, continents, and languages since Broderbund released the first title (Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego) in 1985. Taking on the role of agents of A.C.M.E., the gamer must utilize all their knowledge of geography, history, and the world to help them capture the titular Ms. Sandiego and other henchmen of V.I.L.E. The premise was a bit silly, the capers ridiculous (stealing the Golden Gate Bridge, anyone?), and the controls were simple. It was the perfect mix of gameplay and education: never too difficult for a young player to understand, yet challenging enough to feel rewarding.

Kids loved it, and adults responded by buying their precious tykes even more. Its fun, educational gameplay helped spawn a host of related content, as well. There was a well-received game show, a cartoon series, a series of choose-your-own-adventure books, and even a live-action game at the Portal Zoo that functioned as an early version of an ARG. Each was a self-contained event that also interacted with the greater world of the franchise, interconnecting in small but noticeable ways. No wonder the series has sold millions of copies around the world. It was a self-perpetuating machine that bridged numerous media and utilized multiple platforms long before the terms “transmedia” and “crossmedia” had come into vogue.

But, to ask an important question, is it right to cash in like this? Particularly when it involves children?

When I asked that question of a co-worker, he immediately responded with a “No, it’s not right,” before immediately halting, thinking, and taking it back. He realized that, well, “I guess it’s better than Winnie-the-Pooh.” In other words, at least Carmen Sandiego was trying to teach kids something worthwhile, rather than just being a replenishable cash machine. Yet that’s not good enough for everyone.

Some people look down on this kind of franchising. Bill Watterson argued against the merchandising of his characters, Calvin and Hobbes, because it cheapened them. Others regard this form of multiple media implementation to be selling out—creating lunch boxes, rather than content—regardless of whether the target is at children or not.

It’s understandable, in a certain light. Spreading content to a large number of people holds with it a kind of responsibility. Consumers should be able to choose for themselves, at least, in a capitalistic society. Unfortunately, parents don’t always do their duty in vetting the content they give to their kids. Precious and Bubba need to learn to look after themselves, particularly after a long and grueling day at the office for Mumsie and Pops.

Hence why so many edutainment titles are so boring and underfunded. Why spend money on property of globe-trotting fun that has a limited demographic: a population, that is, that has a hard time reading let alone controlling a game? Why take a risk on a female protagonist or solid scripts of whimsy when there’s the chance that a wayward joke could blow up in your face? Video games are viewed by certain segments of the population as dangerous, anyway. Why give that segment of the population a rallying cry when you can make shovelware that seemingly turns a profit simply by being put on the shelf?

Then again, doesn’t this just show the strengths of a really well made video game franchise? Games, by their very essence, force people to interact. They force them to think, to connect. It is not passive entertainment. People feel invested in catching a thief because it’s THEIR job on the line. They aren’t reading about a character that they may or may not like. This is about their sense of duty.

So long as the title is well made, video games intrinsically lend themselves to this kind of cross-platform success. It leverages a population that is naturally tech-savvy, that will reward creativity with increased investiture in the franchise. The connection that people feel can propel them to other media to spread the good word. It is a powerful tool than can all too often fail or be abused, true enough, but handled in the right way, the rewards for both creator and consumer can be huge.

The strength of properties like Carmen Sandiego is their ability to transcend the limitations of their current platform. The mechanics may change, but the underlying tone and themes—here being mastery, knowledge, and truth mixed well with a knowing nod towards silliness—can fuel any medium with the right creators at the helm. It can be through validation, entertainment, or something even more powerful, because the change comes from within the participant rather than a character in a novel. Like in real life, we are the heroes of our own journeys, and like all heroes, the challenges placed in front of us reveal how far we are willing to go to get what we want.

I just thank God that the creators of Carmen Sandiego have the decency to teach us something worthwhile in the meantime: I’ve been hooked on Civilization since childhood and all I have to show for it is an amazing amount of disdain for Romans and Caesar.


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