Representation in the Carmen Sandiego Games
The Internet Archive recently dealt a crippling blow to productivity with the release of its MS-DOS games library, which includes some 2,400 games from the DOS era. While the original Oregon Trail is the collection’s crown jewel, it also includes another beloved piece of nostalgic edutainment: All the original Carmen Sandiego games.
For those who did not grow up in the DOS era, this is a series of geography games where you play a detective hunting the henchmen of the Villains International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.) as they attempt to make off with various improbable landmarks and national treasures. The flagship game, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego (1985), was quickly followed by Where in the USA, Where in Europe, and Where in Time. A second generation from the early 90’s, the Deluxe versions, rehashed most of the original games with better graphics and more clues and introduced Where in Space. Except where otherwise mentioned, I’ll be discussing the Deluxe games, because they were
the ones I played as a kid the more influential series.
They were top-notch games, frank about their educational content but still effortlessly entertaining, featuring witty writing and surprisingly addictive gameplay, and introducing one of the most recognizable game villains of all time. Wildly popular, they also spawned a highly successful gameshow spinoff and a cartoon.
But I’d like to talk about another way in which the games were a triumph: Representation.
The 90’s were a good time for representation in America. Rita Dove was poet laureate, Toni Morrison won the Nobel prize for literature, and women were making active progress into male-dominated fields, progress that would stall and even regress over the next twenty years. At the time, expanding educational programs to cover a wider range of human experience was a laudable and noncontroversial (if not always successful) goal, a goal reflected in educational media from the era, such as the Magic School Bus and Reading Rainbow. The Carmen Sandiego franchise fits naturally into this landscape.
The games make many choices that increase representation. The player is an AFGNCAAP* about whom the game makes no assumptions. NPCs are demographically varied. Most of the dossiers list traits alphabetically, so female is listed before male, and Carmen’s gang contains the same number of men and women. The latter is not only good representation, but also sensible game design, preventing the reveal of the criminal’s gender from narrowing the suspect list too much or too little — yet not every game makes that choice.
Naysayers often try to duck the representation question by claiming that they’d be accused of racism if they portrayed minorities in villainous or criminal roles, but the Carmen Sandiego franchise’s commonsense approach easily disarms this objection. Women and minorities appear as criminals, but they also appear as police chiefs, judges, and witnesses from all walks of life. One of the V.I.L.E. henchmen can be a black skateboarder without evoking the stereotype that inner-city kids are up to no good, because V.I.L.E. henchmen are just as often old white men in golf carts, and because black youth also appear in benign and helpful roles. (Where in the World is the least successful here; lacking the resources to include NPCs tailored to each country, it falls back on archetypes that could reasonably be anywhere, such as “translator” or “exchange student,” and those skew European.)
Although full of playful humor, the games never rely on stereotypes. Their character-based humor more often comes from contrasting traits, such as making the mohawked bruiser also a French chef.
Where in Space, with its cast of aliens, is an interesting case. The criminal roster lists three genders: Male, female, and androgynous. Departing from a strict gender binary is a highly unusual and progressive move; unfortunately, the female characters all sport gender markers such as eyelashes and red lips and several fall into stereotypical roles, such as stewardesses and lounge singers. Absent these characteristics, the NPC witnesses and informants are presumably all male. Still, the franchise’s inclusiveness shows up in other ways, such as the presence of women on the lists of astronomers and authors.
And then there’s Carmen herself. While her original incarnation was a green-eyed, auburn-haired spy from Monaco, she quickly took on her iconic appearance, which is more clearly Hispanic. A crime boss might seem like an unlikely role for a positive example of representation, but as The Mary Sue points out, she’s an educated, successful leader, a rare role for a Latina. Her nonviolent brand of thievery, inspired by the love of the chase rather than desire for acquisition, makes her closely allied with the (invariably white and male) hero-thief archetype. She’s cool, clever, and collected. Plus she has great fashion sense.
The Carmen Sandiego games do raise their share of unanswered questions. Such as: Is ACME maybe not that competent?
But overall, they were great games, and their deliberate use of representation gave them a feeling of inclusiveness that made them equally appealing to girls and boys of all backgrounds.
And we may have even learned some geography.
*Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventurer Person
All screencaps taken by me.