Map Quest

Map Quest: Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Edutainment is something that’s fairly saturated these days. You can boot up your iPad, smartphone, or Facebook account, and nab pretty much every sort of teaching tool  known to man. Whether you want your child to learn their ABCs, 123s, or anything in-between, some sort of anthropomorphic mascot will be there ready to help.

Me? I didn’t have that much to choose from, but alongside classics like Reader Rabbit, Number Munchers, and Super Solvers, I taught myself.

Carmen Sandiego helped immensely, whether she wanted to or not.

Carmen Sandiego was a franchise that spawned many spinoffs, from a TV show to merchandise, to a potential future film, but in 1985, it was just a simple PC game from Brøderbund Software.

The objective of the game was, as a member of Interpol, to catch a member of V.I.L.E. (an organization kind of like James Bond’s SPECTRE, but less nefarious), which was randomized every time you play in later games (both the villain and the location). It was a text-based RPG, essentially. You had to question locals, answer questions, travel the world, and gather enough information to issue an arrest warrant for the criminal in question.

In a stroke of genius, you could work your way up through the ranks of Interpol until you have a final stand-off against Carmen Sandiego herself, and landed in the Hall of Fame. You had a certain amount of time (calculated by actions) to catch the criminal, meaning you could actually fail. This caused a sense of urgency that many other edutainment games fail to replicate, even to this day.

Brøderbund’s collective genius for implementing this goes widely unnoticed, for reasons that are twofold. One, they implemented a system that essentially tricked kids into feeling like they were Batman, or some other crime-solver, and gave them positive reinforcement that they were halting evil. Two, they crafted a clever leaderboard-esque system that kept kids playing, so that they could be in the coveted Hall of Fame.

Carmen Sandiego not only taught me some deductive reasoning skills that would come in useful when pursuing my Philosophy degree years later, but it helped me get a sense of world geography as well.  Although every eight year old has probably heard of Cairo in Egypt or Paris in France, not everyone knows where Reykjavík is (it’s in Iceland).

Or that Bamako is in Mali. Before the days of Wikipedia (I feel old), I went to the library and actually looked some of these places up, and retained a bit of knowledge on them. Although you probably won’t learn everything there is when it comes to world geography, thirty real life places in all is not too shabby.

Funnily enough, the game even had geography trivia, the answers of which were located in the game’s instruction manual. Old-school PC gamers will remember this classic tactic as a type of DRM (a method of piracy prevention), utilized by both Brøderbund and Sierra, among others.

Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego is one of the best pieces of edutainment of all time. Outside of Number Munchers (which encourages constant repetition for memory retention, and in a classroom, competition for the highest score to make math fun), I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun playing an educational video game.

If you can somehow track down one of the many Carmen Sandiego games created over the years, definitely have your kids experience it at least once.

Or you can just dance with them to the amazing theme song by Rockapella.