Carmen Sandiego Is Back. But Can She Fix America’s Geography Woes?

Game-Based Learning

Carmen Sandiego Is Back. But Can She Fix America’s Geography Woes?

By Stephen Noonoo     Aug 27, 2019

Carmen Sandiego Is Back. But Can She Fix America’s Geography Woes?

It’s an age-old question pinched straight from the ‘90s: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? The answer today might be, well, everywhere.

Thanks to a reboot from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which owns the brand, the world’s slipperiest super thief has an animated series on Netflix, a clutch of Google Earth games and even a new series of paperbacks—all of which are finding their way into classrooms two decades after she fell off the map. Her return comes at a time when geography proficiency has flatlined among U.S. students, despite calls for schools to focus more on global citizenship. Perhaps the question isn’t where she is so much as where she can help the most.

First things first: This Carmen isn’t the same treasure-nabbing mastermind that first hit Apple computers back in 1985 and sold 4 million copies over the next decade. Her hard edges have been sanded down and she’s developed a moral conscience, albeit a flexible one. Along the way, she’s broken with her former criminal cronies at V.I.L.E. (that’s the Villains’ International League of Evil), though she’s still on the lam. Now when she steals, it’s for good—a trenchcoat-toting Robin Hood for our age.

But rehabbing Carmen’s image wasn’t just about turning her from villain to protagonist for the sake of good TV. After consulting with teachers in focus groups, HMH says it refashioned Carmen as a “global citizen” in response to requests for more material around social-emotional learning—which is to say the ambitious goal of teaching Americans geography has been somewhat scaled back in favor of lessons on community, world culture and responsibility. In short, New Carmen will still help you find Ecuador on a map, but she’ll also impart her thoughts on empathy, doing good and respecting cultural differences.

It’s a world away from the Carmen that many millennials like myself latched onto—the legendary, light-fingered larcenist who stole for personal profit and, frankly, because nobody could stop her. Our Carmen existed at the margins and was so elusive, she wasn’t even the central character in her own franchise. That thrust us, the players, into the hot seat: the last line of defense between justice and cultural depredation.

Maybe I took it more seriously than most kids, or just had a lot more time to kill. But I still have many treasured memories of collecting passport stamps and recovering stolen loot on an old IBM with a black and white monitor. In a time before Google, I filled notebooks with handwritten clues so I could finally beat the game. And I was devastated when the PBS game show, filmed near my childhood home in Queens, N.Y., was canceled a year before I was old enough to compete. (Of course, like any true ‘90s kid, I still know most of the Rockapella closing credits song by heart, complete with the dated reference to Czechoslovakia.)

“Carmen Sandiego was really omnipresent in the ‘90s—a megahit,” says Caroline Fraser, a senior vice president at HMH and an executive producer for the Netflix show. “What was really unique about the property was that it was equally popular at school and at home, and you can say that about very few brands.”

That makes it especially valuable to an education company like HMH, which is best known among teachers and students as a textbook publisher. In talking with Fraser, it becomes clear that the decision to relaunch Carmen was motivated in a big way by nostalgia. The company seems to be betting that it might not be such a hard sell to get her back into schools and homes given that so many Carmen fans now wield purchasing power and lead classrooms of their own.

With that in mind, I recently did some sleuthing of my own and tracked down a half dozen history and geography teachers around my age who remember time spent hunched over TVs and early PCs, discovering for the first time that the world was much bigger and more exciting than our backyards.

When asked about Carmen’s appeal, answers ran the gamut. Sara Rowe and Lennelle Gilpin, who teach middle school geography in Wentzville, Mo., related to the fact that Carmen was a woman at a time when many franchises featured men. Michael Milton, a high school history teacher in Burlington, Mass., recalls a childhood love of mystery novels, piecing together clues and what we might call today active learning. “This put me more in the driver’s seat than reading,” he says of the franchise’s early games.

But it was James Fester, a technology integration specialist and former history teacher in Maplewood, Minn., who took the words out of my mouth when he eloquently articulated why Carmen still holds a place in our hearts some 25 years later. “There were other games that were set in historical periods of time or set on other places on the planet, but you weren’t at an advantage if you had that knowledge readily in hand,” he says. “‘Carmen Sandiego’ was one of those games where it actually allowed me to apply things that I happened to know a lot about, as opposed to other games that did it in a cursory way.”

Finding Carmen—Again

By all accounts, the HMH reboot is doing well. The slickly animated Netflix show was nominated for an Emmy and will return for a second season, likely later this year. A live action film is in the works, starring Gina Rodriguez, who voices Carmen in the animated series. And HMH is pumping out books and digital games at getaway car speeds.

Much like Carmen herself, the games have also gotten an upgrade. Players still race to retrieve ransacked rarities, but the adventures are shorter and the clues simpler than the epic games of yore. Admittedly, the tech has improved. Thanks to a partnership with Google Earth, players get up close and personal with the cities and landmarks they visit in new ways.

(Google Earth)

“Being able to choose an actual location and go and see it in all its 3D glory is really powerful,” says JK Kafalas, a creative engineer at Google, who based much of the games pixelated look on the ‘90s “Carmen” he played as a kid. “I can go to the Tokyo Skytree and then click to Mount Fuji and see just how far away it actually is. That’s a really cool experience you just couldn’t have, unless you had a video or animation, until this platform.”

All this assumes today’s kids are able to relate to the new, gentler Carmen, with her retooled animation and moral center. But, in the full spirit of the nostalgia HMH wants us to embrace, I began to wonder how they’d react to the old, grittier Carmen and her halfwit henchmen. So I tumbled down a ‘90s rabbit hole firing up a 1992 version of the game on an emulator with my two 9-year-old daughters, who were only vaguely aware of her existence. When I thought about it, I had no idea what they knew or didn’t know about basic geography. Given that Carmen had done wonders for me at their age, maybe it was the best place to start.

In case your ACME dossier needs updating, here’s a quick refresher on those early games. An ambitious but dimwitted thief like Robin Banks or Irma Dillow steals a priceless world treasure—say, the original works of Cuban poet José Martí or the entire Victoria Falls—and the player hops from city to city following a breadcrumb-like trail of clues, notable for their clever wordplay and obscure factoids that could be lifted straight out of a “Jeopardy” Daily Double. You collect a warrant for the suspect and eventually arrest them. Rinse and repeat a few dozen times for a shot at catching Carmen herself.

“Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” (Broderbund)

Even though they’re a bit young, the kids took to it quickly, looking up anything they didn’t know—which, come to think of it, was almost everything. The sweet spot for Carmen has always been pegged at about middle school, when kids are just old enough to get the puns and the geography. But retro Carmen always punched above her weight, and I—an ostensibly grown adult—freely admit to needing Wikipedia for clues relating to Kenya’s colonial Mau Mau Rebellion and the Balfour Declaration, which laid the groundwork for the modern state of Israel. (And forget Carmen, where in the heck is Mount Kosciuszko?)

Thus I wasn’t too worried that my fourth graders didn’t know Odense was the third largest city in Denmark or that the Egyptian currency is called the pound. But I was a bit concerned that it took them a full minute to locate the continent of Africa—recalling a classic “Simpsons” gag where Marge bemoans that the class she’s teaching took 40 minutes to find Canada on a map. And I was outright astonished that they hadn’t the faintest idea where China was.

“How am I supposed to know that?” asked my daughter Sunny—a genuine question to which I still don’t have a good answer. Musing aloud that she might have learned it in school was met with a blank stare.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Kids coming into seventh grade often struggle with concepts not much more advanced, says Rowe, the geography teacher in Missouri. “As far as locations of where things are in the world, a lot of them know their continents and their oceans but that’s about it,” she says of her incoming students.

The fact that American students are woefully uninformed on geography doesn’t really make headlines anymore. The last time it did was back in 2015 when the NAEP exam, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, found that nearly three-quarters of eighth graders scored below proficiency in the subject. According to NAEP, that means most students can’t do things like use an atlas to identify a country on the Horn of Africa or compare time zone differences with a map.

Results from NAEP's geography exam from the past 25 years reveal that less than a third of students are proficient in the subject.

A separate government report in 2015 revealed that just 17 states have geography requirements, and that many teachers spend as little as 10 percent of their time teaching the subject during social studies. Worryingly, we may have even less data to work from in the future. In a bid to cut costs, the NAEP will no longer test students on geography going forward. (One bright spot I should mention: The AP Human Geography exam now reaches more than 200,000 students, a figure that has quadrupled over the past decade.)

Without a baseline of geospatial knowledge, it’s harder to make connections between peoples and cultures—and therefore harder to identify pressing global issues that warrant attention, says Kenneth Keller, a high school history and geography teacher in Marietta, Ga., and the current president of the National Council for Geographic Education.

“Physical geography is important,” Keller says. “But what might be more important is: Do people have sustainable water supply? What kind of impact do people have on their environment? How does it impact kids, their families and their day-to-day lives? That’s where geographic education comes into play.”

The Carmen Effect

Things today aren’t much different than they were in Carmen’s original heyday. NAEP geography scores in 1994 were virtually identical to those two decades later. In 2002, following the Sept. 11 attacks, National Geographic revealed that just 17 percent of young adults in the U.S.—what we might term the Carmen generation—could point to Afghanistan on a map. Only a third found France. Other surveys of adults on geopolitical issues like trade, economics and demographics have produced similarly dismal results.

Of course, it would be unfair to leave any of this at Carmen’s door. She did her best, but the charge of solving the American geography crisis is likely too big to be covered by any one fedora. And it’s not like Carmen was without influence. In advance of its reboot, Netflix recently did some number crunching of its own, and, unsurprisingly, put a rosier spin on things with a website it called “The Carmen Effect,” which attempts to quantify her massive cultural and educational impact.

An analysis of more than 350,000 tweets over the past five years reveals that Carmen is best remembered for her signature look, and she’s a perennial favorite come Halloween. But 20 percent of the tweets associate her with inspiring wanderlust (incidentally one of the main goals of the original game, per this fascinating history of the franchise). And 16 percent credit Carmen with teaching them something about the world, and making it fun.

Twenty years later, that’s still a lesson we can learn from Carmen—and a big opportunity for teachers.

“I think kids are curious when it’s something of interest to them,” says Milton, the high school history teacher in Massachusetts. “The gamified history that ‘Carmen Sandiego’ does is kind of cool to grab their attention and then you can build on that knowledge.”

Carmen’s original popularity owed a lot to teachers who made it a word-of-mouth sensation at a time when education software was synonymous with boring. But sprawling tentpole games of the original “Where in the World” variety no longer factor into HMH’s grand vision for the franchise.

Now, bite-sized digital games and curricular activities are the go-to choice for publishers like HMH, and there are more than 100 Carmen-themed ones online. HMH’s Fraser says teachers like them because they’re easy to slot into 20 minutes of choice time or as unit introductions.

That might be the smart approach. Before the series launched in January, Fester, the Minnesota tech integration specialist, created his own one-day Carmen-themed mystery, putting digital clues on a slide deck and challenging teams of students to figure out where Carmen went using advanced Google search strategies. In Missouri, Rowe and Gilpin have also leaned on Carmen to help teach the geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. As students completed parts of the unit, they would collect clues about where Carmen was hiding and solve them, again, through savvy internet research.

Notably, the activities aren’t only about geography. Just like early “Carmen” games used reference atlases and almanacs to acquaint kids with the research tools of the day, these newer activities teach students how to find the right information online and discern fact from fiction, a 21st-century update otherwise known as media literacy.

“We live in a Googlish world,” says Rowe. Students “have information available in an instant, but it’s not always the best information.”

In truth, social-emotional learning and media literacy may be the most important parts of Carmen’s legacy as she capers her way through a new century. But some things never change. Among them, the location of Mount Kosciuszko (Australia, by the way) and the need to know where things are, coupled with the skills to use that knowledge to make sense of the world.

“If you don’t know where things are, you're completely disconnected from world and global events,” Fester says. “There are a lot of dominoes that can be knocked down with geospatial knowledge.”

As for my kids, along with their Google-fu their geospatial awareness has also improved—meaning they at least have some now. They can find China on the second or third try and it doesn’t take them nearly as long to pinpoint Africa. I think they’re down to about 30 seconds.

And who knows, one of these days we may catch up to Carmen.

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