YesterGames #3: Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

FROM JASON’S GLOBE-TROTTING COMPUTER — My biggest fear, the one paranoia that keeps me awake some nights, is that we’re breeding idiots. The only thing keeping hope alive is Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego (download).

In America, we’re very good at certain things. Geography is not one of them. A 2006 survey conducted by the National Geographic Society found half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map and only 37 percent can find Iraq. The Society gave 510 U.S. citizens a weighted geography test and found that youngsters answered about 54 percent of the questions correctly, while most adults ages 18 to 24 failed.

And we’re not just talking about being able to label state capitals, here, folks. My fellow Americans don’t understand much about foreign culture, language, religion or history. Three-quarters of those tested didn’t know that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim nation, and the same number thought English is the most-spoken language in the world (it’s actually Mandarin).

The study also found:

  • 75 percent could not find Israel on a map.
  • 44 percent could not find Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.
  • 88 percent could not identify Afghanistan on a map.
  • 54 percent did not know Sudan is in Africa.
  • 40 percent did not know Rwanda is in Africa.
  • 35 percent were able to identify Pakistan as the country where 70,000 people died in an earthquake in October 2005.
  • 67 percent were able to find Louisiana on a U.S. map.
  • 52 percent were able to find Mississippi on a U.S. map.
  • 69 percent found China on a map — and it registered as one of the few recognized countries outside of North America.

Public schools keep churning out geographically and historically illiterates, but I credit software developer Broderbund with doing more to further my knowledge of those subjects than any teacher or class.

The Carmen Sandiego series of computer games was born in 1985 with Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego, which would run on ludicrously slow computers and CGA monitors. It had the advantage of being prevalent in a time when edutainment software still had a viable share of the market, and I remember playing it at school and then begging my parents to buy a copy for home on my 286.

The game is little more than a test to see if you know that Indians speak Hindi, that Tokyo is a world electronics capital, that the Aztecs ruled what is now Mexico, that the Niger River is in Africa, that sherpas can be found in Kathmandu, and that Ferdinand Magellan didn’t quite circumnavigate the globe.

But it’s disguised as a crime caper, allowing you to chase down goofy suspects who’ve stolen impossible maguffins — like the Leaning Tower of Pisa — and gone on the lam. Using clues gathered as you fly around the world, you have to stay on the thief’s trail, get a warrant, and make an arrest.

Sure, there are some softball clues lobbed in there (“She was asking what the exchange rate is on the peso.”) but there are also some brain busters. I played this game for two hours Monday and Tuesday and was hooked the whole time, smiling stupidly to myself as I relived a huge part of my childhood and stretched my brain.

I also couldn’t get the theme song from the Carmen Sandiego game show on PBS out of my head. When I was 11, I watched every afternoon at 5 p.m. and was howling pre-adolescent profanity at the screen because the questions were so easy.

You’ve got to watch this. Full episode ahead:

If you have a student age 8 to 13 (or maybe a little older if they aren’t wusses), I can think of no better learning tool than Where In the Wold Is Carmen Sandiego?. The 1990 deluxe edition can be found at Home of the Underdogs, or if you have the scruples it can still be purchased from Broderbund for $10.

HOTU also has downloads for:

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3 Responses to YesterGames #3: Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

  1. sail says:

    Godammit, Jason. You are a master of capturing nostalgia. I started to watch the show when I was in about third grade, I think, right around the time I started playing the computer games in the school library. I also owned the board game. Reading your post made my stomach flutter. I haven’t thought about WitWiCS for years. Wasn’t there also a Carmen San Diego cartoon?

  2. reporterjason says:

    Yes, there was a cartoon. If you know Spanish, you can still watch it on Univision on weekday mornings at like 7:30 a.m.

  3. […] premise first. Americans are self-interested. I’ve complained before about Americans’ xenophobia and ignorance of geography. A survey by the Rand Corporation shows only 14 percent of respondents could give a rough estimate […]

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