…And a generation of Americans lost its innocence.
Procrastination is dangerous, but productive procrastination is deadly. Last week, I started killing time by testing my knowledge of geography because I was embarrassed that I didn’t know all the countries in Europe. Now I do, and so I started working on Africa, something I never thought I’d know.
Naturally I should’ve realized where all this studying would lead me: Throwing the original Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? disk images into an Apple II emulator.
I quickly found that the game, published in 1985, is charmingly anachronistic:
…So anachronistic, in fact, that it’s been lapped by history, given that the workers recently placed the spire on top of the new World Trade Center.
Then there are little facts of monetary policy that have changed.
…And a bunch of countries that aren’t around anymore for various reasons.
So blinded was I by nostalgia that it didn’t occur to me that the game wouldn’t be timeless like other Brøderbund classics like Lode Runner. Ironically, Carmen Sandiego‘s world had been largely unchanged since World War II. More changes occurred in the few decades after the game appeared than before. Perhaps its liberal internationalism captured the tone of the waning years of the Cold War.
In retrospect, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is not a particularly good pedagogical tool for teaching geography. Testing knowledge, yes; teaching, no. Either you know factoids like like borders, flags, and currencies, or you don’t. A video game like Carmen Sandiego, which is structured as a multiple-choice test, isn’t the most efficient way to transmit that kind of information. Brute-force fill-in-the-blank tests are probably better. Maybe Carmen Sandiego was also a bellwether for the NCLB-style education system that would appear 15 years later: Fill-in-the-blank memorization is sterile and boring, but Carmen Sandiego is not.
All of which is disappointing because it’s a very fun game. The titular character’s Latin name hints at the exotic, like, you hear “Carmen Sandiego” and South America instantly pops into your mind. No one would ever think she was from Utica.
I didn’t play the original that much, but I did have its sequels Where in the U.S.A. and Where in Time. I recall them both being very hard because, as I said, you either know a lot about the 50 states and world history or you don’t, and as a 10-year-old I needed the aid of family members or the massive encyclopedias that weighed down the games’ boxes to make sense of where Narrangasett was. I certainly wouldn’t’ve known that “Henry the Navigator” means 15th century Portugal. History on top of geography is really hard when you haven’t even been through a middle school World Studies course.
The one thing the series did teach me had nothing whatsoever to do with geography or history: due process. If you failed to obtain a warrant before apprehending the criminal, or you obtained one for the wrong person, you lost, leaving me to yell at the screen, But she stole the Grand Canyon! The Grand Canyon!!
Of course, nowadays warrants are anachronistic too, so the next title in the series should be Where in the War on Terror Is Carmen Sandiego? which makes sense given that she and her gang have always been non-state actors (perhaps the original was prescient and not liberal internationalist?). The new version would include the following updates:
- No warrants
- Enemy combatants instead of criminals
- Drone strikes in lieu of arrests
- Extrajudicial killing of citizens
- No need for gumshoe investigating (since everyone’s phones are tapped anyway)
The only additional challenge for the player would be the extra long travel times because you’d need to wait in line longer at the airport scanners.
Until then, there’s this: