Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and whether they hold up today. Previous entries can be found here.
Today’s column considers Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a geography-based adventure game published by Brøderbund Software in 1985. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? — subsequently referred to as WWCS for convenience — birthed not only one of the most successful franchises in video game history, but one of the most iconic characters in pop culture as well.
This article looks at the history of Brøderbund, the game’s convoluted origins, how the character of Carmen Sandiego was created, and the balancing act between education and entertainment that made the game such a popular and enduring success.
WWCS went through a lengthy, fractured, and poorly-documented development process; as a result, differing accounts of its creation exist. As such, this article draws upon a wide variety of sources, among them David L. Craddock’s account of the game’s development for Kotaku, this article by Jimmy Maher of The Digital Antiquarian, and Matt Waddell’s case history of WWCS. All other sources and images are linked and credited throughout the article.
The origins of WWCS are closely tied to those of its parent company, the Oregon-based software publisher Brøderbund. Brothers Doug and Gary Carlston founded Brøderbund in 1980, and their sister Cathy joined the company as Vice President of Educational Planning a year later. Brøderbund was initially created to market Galactic Empire, a strategy game the brothers had co-designed, and soon became known for a variety of popular action-adventure titles, including Choplifter and Lode Runner.
The idea for what would eventually become WWCS was proposed by Dane Bigham, a programmer working for Brøderbund at the time. Bigham sought to improve the popular 1975 text-based game Colossal Cave Adventure, which had been ported to the Apple II computer in 1979. The title’s limited in-game thesaurus, combined with word-based gameplay, made for a frustrating player experience. Bigham decided to create a menu interface for the ported version of Colossal Cave Adventure, which was newly possible thanks to the increased capabilities offered by the Apple II.
This menu interface would eventually play an important role in the development of WWCS. As he told Kotaku in 2017, “[I] had a little bit of the physical layout and framework that you see in Carmen, where you could pick commands from a little menu in the lower right-hand corner, and you got results somewhere else [on the screen].”
Bigham’s ambitions went beyond merely creating a menu – he wanted to make an adventure title for children, themed around the playground game of cops and robbers, in which the player would chase down multiple criminals at once.
Bigham took his idea to Broderbund artists Lauren Elliott and Gene Portwood, Jr., who embraced the idea once Bigham changed his premise to pursuing only one suspect at a time. Gary Carlston then proposed turning the idea for the game into a geography-themed adventure; this idea was inspired by a family trip to Europe in the 1950s. However, Bigham rejected this idea, as he preferred to create action-adventure games rather than educational software, and left the project.
From that point onward, the exact timeline of how World developed is somewhat unclear. Numerous ideas for storylines and characters were suggested, developed, and scrapped before Carmen Sandiego and her globe-spanning heists were born.
Rough Drafts: From Henry the VIII to Esteban Devious
Elliott and Portwood reportedly proposed the very first geography-based concept for the game: Six Crowns of Henry VIII, in which either “players chased the Tudor King around London” or embarked on a scavenger hunt searching for the titular crowns in the English countryside. (Varying accounts exist.) Six Crowns was at some point discarded, presumably because it lacked an international theme, and because Elliott and Portwood decided “there were enough bad guys” as the focus of video games.
Not long after, Gary Carlston sought a writer who could provide a narrative for a geography-based title with an international flair. His search led him to David Siefkin, who had previously written rulebooks for numerous strategy games released for the Apple II.
Perhaps serendipitously, Siefkin himself had recently spent a year travelling abroad and was interested in creating a video game introducing foreign languages and customs to young audiences, hoping that such a game “might inspire them to make similar trips.” Carlston tasked Siefkin with writing a narrative that would incorporate the World Almanac and Book of Facts. This 900-page reference book would eventually be included with each copy of the game (and make WWCS one of the heaviest video games on computer store shelves).
Like Bigham, Siefkin was familiar with Colossal Cave Adventure, and “wondered why the fantasy world of the treasure hunt in the cavern couldn’t be transposed into the real world, with real clues and real places.” In March 1984, Siefkin proposed a game called World Quest, in which the “demented and fabulously wealthy” Professor Esteban Devious stole international treasures and hid them in his Secret Museum, randomly located somewhere worldwide.
Both World Quest and Esteban Devious were seemingly discarded shortly afterwards, but the idea of a globe-spanning treasure hunt with randomized locations and treasures remained. The final game would feature thirty different locations for the player to visit; everywhere from Buenos Aires and Athens to San Marino and Beijing. A map in the WWCS manual indicated the game’s fairly broad geographical scope:
All it needed was an iconic antagonist for the player to pursue, a character that would soon become Carmen Sandiego.
Creating Carmen Sandiego
As a character, Carmen Sandiego had fairly inauspicious beginnings; she was initially only one of several villains in Siefkin’s proposed ideas for video games. He drew inspiration for her name from several sources: her first name came primarily from Portugese-Brazilian performer Carmen Miranda and her last name was derived from the city of San Diego, California. (Carmen Sandiego’s Hispanic heritage was a crucial part of her character from day one.)
Project manager Katherine Bird liked Carmen’s name – it was “exotic and mysterious—the perfect qualifiers for a villain that would appeal to boys and girls”. Carmen subsequently became the game’s central figure and primary antagonist, described in the WWCS users’ manual as an “agent, double agent, triple agent and quadruple agent for so many countries that even she has forgotten which one she is working for.”
Siefkin had come up with Carmen’s name and background, but the WWCS design team was responsible for her soon-to-be iconic look. Carmen was initially modelled after Broderbund manager of marketing services Marsha Bell; some aspects of her personality and appearance would change in later games.
Siefkin completed his script, after which he left the project and would later joined the Foreign Service. Despite his pivotal contributions to the game and pop culture in general, he would only be credited as a contributing author in the WWCS manual and receive royalties for his work. Bigham rejoined the development process at Gary Carlston’s insistence, and progress on the game continued. After two years of byzantine development, WWCS was finally released in 1985.
Carmen was now the head of the Villains’ International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.), members of which stole items of international significance and were pursued across the globe by players. Brøderbund staff members created and dressed up as potential V.I.L.E. employees hoping they would be included in the final game, and some of these characters were in fact among the nine lackeys featured in WWCS. This unlikely assortment of villains included Merey LaRoc, a freelance aerobics instructor; Lady Agatha Weyland, a British aristocrat fond of mysteries; folk guitarist Scar Graynolt; and Len Bulk, an ex-professional hockey player “barred for life from playing when he tried to bribe himself.” (Future games would include characters with pun-based names and less eccentric backgrounds.)
Explorations vs. Education: Carmen in the Classroom
The relationship between education and entertainment in WWCS was an integral part of gameplay. Players worked at the ACME Detective Agency (the name of which was a nod to the fictional company featured in many cartoons), where they started out as a low-level gumshoe. While travelling the world and learning about their destinations, they gathered clues about the suspect of each case, crafting a warrant that would be used for the villain’s arrest.
With every case solved and villain captured, the player rose in the ACME ranks, eventually becoming a Super Sleuth. In the process, clues became more difficult and less time was provided to travel across the globe and capture each thief.
Perhaps surprisingly, Broderbund saw the knowledge gained during these travels as a side effect rather than a selling point. In 1984, educational software was perceived neither as popular nor as lucrative a market as it would become only a year or two later. Bigham himself was adamant that the game not be advertised as educational, but as an adventure instead:
We tried really hard to not categorize it as educational, instead calling it ‘Explorations’. … I considered educational games to be dead boring. … Also, the educational component is not designed to teach geography. It’s designed to teach reference skills.
The game itself would adhere to Broderbund’s approach to edutainment, as articulated by Gary Carlston: “If we would’ve enjoyed it at age 12, and if we still enjoy it now, then it’s what we want. Whether it’s pedagogically correct is not relevant.”
Regardless, the first group interested in WWCS happened to be teachers, whose use of the game in their classrooms led to its earliest commercial success. While the premise of WWCS had potential (a sequel set in the United States of America was released in 1986), sales of the original game itself only picked up a year and a half after its release.
This rise in popularity was due both to the increased availability of Apple II computers in schools and the efforts of Cathy Carlston, who established a task force emphasizing the usefulness of Carmen games in teaching kids geography and other concepts. The series soon became a hit, and from that point onward, a new Carmen-themed product was released almost every year until 1999.
Longevity and Legacy
The Carmen Sandiego franchise quickly became a massive, enduring success, spawning cartoons, live-action game shows, music, and even a family-oriented orchestral concert. However, the game that started it all wasn’t left behind in the process. While vastly improved versions of WWCS were released in 1992 and 1996 featuring digitized photographs, music, voice acting, and animated sequences, the original title remains an engaging experience.
The rise of Google and the Internet means that a full playthrough of WWCS takes considerably less time than it did in 1985, despite its array of thirty locations and approximately one thousand clues. Nevertheless, Carmen’s very first adventure continues to have a lasting appeal, not only as an object of nostalgia but as an important, enduring landmark in the edutainment genre.
Join us next time, when we brush up on our vocabulary skills with the 1983 franchise-defining game Reader Rabbit. See you then!