“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.

Wikipedia and Its Place in the Field of History

Roy Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source?” brings up many relevant questions concerning the relationship between academic history/historians and Wikipedia. Though he ultimately supports a greater integration of historians into open source, free Internet sites such as Wikipedia, the beginning of his article thoroughly outlines the seeming incompatibility between the “laws” of historians and the set up of Wikipedia. Besides his premise that history is a “deeply individualistic craft” rather than a communal effort, his most important insight for me was Wikipedia’s emphasis on neutrality.

As future/current historians, we all know the value and necessity of arguing a point in our works. To this end, in addition to the weaker bibliographic information, anonymity, deemphasis on status (an individual with a PhD is not given prominence over a “typical” Wikipedian), and different value placed on certain facts (such as in the section where he is talking about James McPherson and what Wikipedians emphasize in their post on Lincoln as opposed to McPherson, or where Rosenzweig states Wikipedia is fueled more by popular news than academic historiography), Wikipedia appears to be the antithesis of “proper” history.

However, Rosenzweig is successful in two things: his attempt to legitimize the facts and articles on Wikipedia as factual, and arguing the venue of Wikipedia (as a free, open source, easily accessible site) would be a wonderful and important avenue historians could take to integrate a wider audience into historical works and debates. His point that Wikipedia is also run/edited by white, educated males and has a Western bias was also a very interesting point in regards to discussing history.

Honestly, I use Wikipedia to look up what year so-and-so was born. Or what year that movie was made. And that’s about it. I cringe, I’ll admit, when student cite Wikipedia as a source in their papers. Yet this article did somewhat assuage my fears that their information was entirely misguided. Despite the potential, as Rosenzweig outlines, for false information to stay on the site, Wikipedia apparently is factually accurate in general.

Though I feel Rosenzweig makes a good argument for why historians should interact on a larger basis in voluntary communities such as Wikipedia (NARA’s “tagging” archived documents online comes to mind), I’m going to have to argue that the non-historical community would not widely accept accessible, online historiographical information. Part of the reason, I believe, people love Wikipedia so much is because it’s quick and easy. There’s no reading multiple articles to come up with your own analysis, no weighing historiographical arguments, no reading introductions or paragraphs about context. There’s “boom. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861 and it hit the fan.”

While I would love for journals like the JAH to be online, free, accessible, I don’t believe it would either catch on like Wikipedia has, nor do I think it would open the pool of who was posting in these journals. I also agree with Rosenzweig that a majority of professional historians are not ready or willing to give up the tenets of their profession, such as hierarchy among PhDs, antiquarians, etc. Maybe these historians are the ones whose retirement we were discussing last week, but as it is, Wikipedia and academic history, though they have some crossover potential, are at this moment still inherently yin and yang.

(I would like to add that I was questioning my own resistance to calling Wikipedia compatible with academic history as I intend on going into academia. Did everyone have this reaction as well, or do you think there’s a divergence between academic and public history?)

Project Idea Brainstorming

1) For the past two semesters I’ve been working with patient file records from a nineteenth century asylum in Washington D.C. One of my main ideas for a project would be to digitize the patient files and photos, as well as other records from the asylum, and create an online exhibit of the daily lives/experiences of the female patients during their commitment. I would also want to include newspaper articles that discussed when patients had medical trials or escaped from the asylum and analyze the characterizations of the mentally ill and poor in print media.

2) Another idea I have also relates to print media. I would like to analyze advertisements for abortifacients and “feminine hygiene” products before and during the Comstock Act and compare/contrast more modern advertisements since Roe v. Wade. I could focus on concepts/perceptions of femininity and public health, as well as medical knowledge and advice.

Create an archive of old newspaper and almanac articles, political cartoons and commentary concerning women and voting in New Jersey between the Constitution and 1808.