“Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego?” And Historical Memory

I did not play many video games growing up, save for when my brother let me join in some Mario Kart or Goldeneye. And though we have not gotten to the point in the semester where video games are on the agenda, just the concept of video games as part of digital history struck me a few weeks ago. So in brainstorming and trying to find a print project that would not only reflect our lessons in Digital History but would also relate to me on a personal level, suddenly Carmen Sandiego popped into my head. Now I’m sure others have seen the television show, but what I would propose for my print project is doing an historical analysis of the computer game “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” Later in the semester, several historical internet games will be demonstrated. This Carmen Sandiego game, which I did play as a child, falls into a similar category as “The Jamestown Experiment” or “Cotton Millionaire”, especially as it has a direct correlation with history.

 

“Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” has various chronological levels (“missions”), marking specific periods in world history. The game provides guides such as “Anne Tiquity” to help the player search for clues, talk to other characters, and interact with the level to find where Carmen’s henchmen are hiding. While this game undoubtedly influenced my interest in history and bolstered my knowledge of random and at times useless facts, what appeals to me in this print project is analyzing how exactly the game is organized and constructed.

 

Specifically, this Carmen Sandiego game interacts with historiography and memory in fundamental ways. On a superficial level, I would analyze what historical moments and peoples were chosen to represent specific eras in the past. For instance, the player jumps from Mali in 1324 as Mansa Musa is preparing for Hajj to 1454 with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. In each level, the various “tasks” a player must accomplish (such as matching corresponding kimono colors to the seasons in Japan, circa 1015) hold specific historical meaning for what was deemed representative of that particular society.

 

On a deeper historical level, I would also like to analyze the application of race, gender, and stereotypes in the characterizations of the people and descriptions of the environment in the missions. The missions take the player to the United States, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Though one could claim the game to be representative, other elements in the layers of the game may reveal a Western bias, racist stereotypes, or an imbalance of gender ratios. Who are the female historical characters being depicted? Who are the “non-white” males? How do their characters speak and how is the tone of their voice? The wording of their answers? Despite the fact “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego” gives the appearance of being unbiased, a closer analysis of the game may reveal much different results.

 

Furthermore, I would seek to answer questions relating to topics we have discussed in class, such as accessibility and the democratization of history online (or in game form). What children are playing this game? What repercussions might it have on their historical worldview? What are the pros and cons of the existence of such a game? What is valued as “history” in this game, and do children notice that and accept it? In addition to my love for this game as a child, I believe this sort of analysis in a print project could yield an important understanding of the way historical memory is transferred between generations. Children learn American and world history in their schools, yet supplemental materials such as this game have a drastic impact on their concept of history as well.

One Reply to ““Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego?” And Historical Memory”

  1. This is a fantastic topic. From what you have laid out it sounds like your intention is to do a close reading of the game itself. This is a very viable approach. In my mind, your best bet here is to actually go back and play through the game so that you can analyse the game.

    Now, looking for biased representations is a viable approach. With that said, it tends to be the go to approach to interpreting a video game. There are a range of other tactics you could take here. For example, What does the game suggest that history is, or is about? Or, how does the idea of traveling back in time in the game change how we should think about the past? Beyond these there are related questions like, as part of a moment in time known as “edutainment” what does the game tell us about that particular historical moment?

    Now even still, as there are two versions of the game a 1989 and 1997 version, it could be interesting to juxtapose them and explore how the change in decade resulted in changes in the story and mechanics of the game. Wikipedia seems to have some good info to look at here too http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_in_Time_Is_Carmen_Sandiego%3F

    The Game FAQs might be interesting sources to look at too:
    http://www.gamefaqs.com/nes/587766-where-in-time-is-carmen-sandiego/faqs/55607
    http://www.gamefaqs.com/nes/587766-where-in-time-is-carmen-sandiego/faqs/17520

    If you do go ahead with this, Mimi Ito has done some fantastic work on “Edutainment” that i would suggest that you take a look at.

    http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11869
    http://www.itofisher.com/mito/EngPlay.pdf

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