Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? From Video Game to Cultural Phenomenon

By Jennifer Allen

Growing up in central Indiana, I went through a lot of ups and downs when it came to school. One thing I did always look forward to was heading to my Elementary School's computer lab twice a week to work on one of those clunky Apple IIc's that were still so endearing back in 1985.

We'd just gotten color monitors, which by today's standards were gigantic paperweights of plastic, metal and glass, which floated above of the white CPU/keyboard combo that was so unique at the time.

One of the first “games" we were allowed to play on these ancient devices was from a lesser-known company at the time called Brøderbund Software. They had just released an educational title called “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

I was intrigued by it and so slid the first of several slim 5.25" floppies into the IIc's drive and began my first of many journeys to capture this illusive adversary.

The game's original concept was basically the player pursuing the notorious thief, Carmen Sandiego and her gang of crooks through various countries and landmarks by way of globetrotting, cat and mouse game play, and mix of world trivia and smart humor. It became a fun way to learn world geography and grew to be Brøderbund's most successful title, spawning 4 sequels as a result.

By 1989, Carmen had become such an iconic character that the company was trying to decide how to further expand not only the brand but also educate even more people about world geography and culture. This decision came to a head after the creators found a National Geographic article that as of 1988 per a nationwide survey found that one in four Americans could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a map. A startling discovery, but then again I was 14 at this point and couldn't tell you where all 50 US states were.

Brøderbund decided that the natural progression was to bring the game's concepts to television. They reached out to Howard Blumenthal, a producer for MTV and Nickelodeon, for insight. He didn't believe that licensing the show was where the money was. Instead, the show's intent should be to promote the Carmen Sandiego software. He also recommended that they offer the rights to PBS... as they had a great track record with creating successful educational programs for their already huge audience base.

And so, the monumental task of creating the show was put into fruition. Blumenthal knew that pre-teens and teens in the early 90's responded better to quick, colorful content like those already available on channels like Nickelodeon and Disney. He interviewed over 900 kids to determine exactly what they would watch. Ultimately they wanted adventure, silly characters, comedy, cool prizes, animation and good music. To make it all work, Blumenthal decided to fashion the new show into something of a 40's Noir parody.

While the format gradually changed over the course of the show's 5-year run, many of the elements remained the same. Three young contestants classified as rookie Detectives or 'Gumshoes' would be assigned to hunt down Carmen Sandiego and her gang. They would be given a task by The Chief (played by the iconic Lynne Thigpen) and then shown various 2d animated segments which would involve a member of Carmen's gang stealing important cultural works or landmarks. Each portion of the game would provide some key trivia about each area of the world they were focusing on.

Occasionally celebrities would support the show with pre-recoded clips as special agents of ACME presenting clues. Mayim Bialik, Peter Graves, Rhea Perlman, Walter Cronkite, Penn & Teller and even a young Senator Joe Biden were featured among many others.

But perhaps the biggest part of the show that I remember was Rockapella, a foursome acapella group that Blumenthal discovered through a PBS documentary by Spike Lee. His wife suggested they book the group for the show. Their unique style would eventually become an integral part of the show's overall lively energy. All 4 singers would also pull double duty from time to time as supporting cast for various comedy sketches.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? premiered in September of 1991 throughout the US and ran Monday-Friday in the after-school block. Even though I was a tad too old (being 18 when it premiered) for their intended demographic, I still watched every episode like clockwork. I was drawn in by the fact that unlike other shows at the time, it focused on the diversity of both its contestants and geography. Executive Producer Kate Taylor once explained, “We did not want to have a show that was culturally insensitive, that focused too much on the Western world. We didn't want a show that too narrowly defined what geography really is." Given that this was the early 90's, that was an extremely innovate decision for the time. Young contestants from many ethnicities including South Asians were featured on the show regularly and made it all the more unique.

One of the setbacks the show had to face was the unavoidable series of massive geopolitical changes happening all around the world in the early to mid-1990's. Because of this, many maps and clues would be out of date within weeks to months of filming.

Episodes from season 2 onwards would henceforth include a disclaimer during the credits that “all geographic information was accurate as of the date this program was recorded". As countries gradually changed their names and borders, the maps used on the show would be updated, often overnight for recording the next day. I have a ton of sympathy for of the producers and crew who had to continually keep up with this as it couldn't have been an easy task by any stretch.

The show eventually became a huge cultural phenomenon and is considered not only one of PBS's greatest children's shows, but one of the greatest game shows for children ever made. It influenced the production of various international versions along with 2 separate animated series in 1994 and 2019. There was also a spinoff show called Where in Time is Carman Sandiego? which focused on history. I didn't much care for that one, but it did run for 2 seasons on its own.

Fans can now find VHS rips of the series on YouTube, but no official releases of the game show have been produced. Sadly, this may never be a reality due to the inescapable geography discrepancies during the show's original airings.

Still… I find the quirky aspects of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? are what gave it its unique charm. Thirty years later, I can still remember many of the show's characters, segments, and even the words to the catchy theme song (which also got changed a few times right along with the maps). A true testament to how monumental and ingenious the show really was at the time.

So, let's all say it one more time... for nostalgia's sake: “Do it, Rockapella!'

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Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer, Graphic Artist, Gamer, Martial Arts Practitioner, and all around Pop Culture Geek.