Where in the Globalized Economy is Carmen Sandiego?
The downfall of Broderbund Software and its ‘edutainment’ star.
Carmen Sandiego, the queen of 1990s edutainment, taught young millennials what to expect of the world. We Nineties kids who played the CD-ROM games or watched the PBS shows found in them a promise that the places people lived and things people built were worth our attention and care. But by the time we were old enough to notice, that world was gone.
The Carmen Sandiego series spanned the upbringing of the entire millennial generation. Broderbund Software published the original Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? in 1985, a largely text-based game inspired by co-founder Doug Carlston’s memories of quizzing his brother Gary on the world atlas as a child. It sparked some two dozen-plus games, three TV game shows, two web browser games, and in 2019 a Netflix series, all of which were meant to teach young players about geography, history, and world cultures.
The games followed a common formula. The player is an agent for ACME Detective Agency tracking down priceless artifacts stolen by agents of Villains’ International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.). Carmen Sandiego is the most elusive of the V.I.L.E. thieves and their presumed ringleader. The gameplay involves crisscrossing the world and talking to locals in different countries to collect clues as to the thief’s identity and where he or she is headed next—for example, in the 1992 deluxe edition, “She had a bizarre obsession with the life of Francisco Pizarro” should send a player to Peru, and “He said he was off to the second-largest country in the world” should point to Canada. If the player discerns all the clues correctly, the thief will appear, ACME will make an arrest, the agency chief will call with a new case, and the randomly generated cycle recurs. You didn’t need an encyclopedia to play, but it helped. The original, at Gary’s insistence, shipped with a copy of the World Almanac.
Broderbund released variations on the original game through the late 1980s and ’90s, taking players around the United States, Europe, world history, and even into outer space. One common thread in all of them was the value of artifacts. The kinds of things V.I.L.E. considers worth stealing—and ACME considers worth recovering—aren’t likely to fetch a high price on the black market. The 1992 deluxe version’s artifacts include “a sherpa’s map to Mount Everest” and “Lech Walesa’s personal Solidarity flag.” Others aren’t even technically possible to steal—in Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time (1997), a thief steals the Forum from ancient Rome. In Broderbund’s 1996 remake, a goon nabs the entire island of Bali. The monetary value of these items is, at most, of secondary concern. The point is their context as part of a heritage, their association with a particular place or people.
The franchise remained faithful to the basic premise even as it branched out into other media. The first Carmen Sandiego TV show arrived in 1991, a PBS game show replete with camp, color, and live skits. PBS filmed two seasons’ worth of episodes that year, only for the Soviet Union to dissolve after season one aired, rendering the remaining episodes obsolete overnight. The series was canceled, but it sparked several spin-offs and its colorful animations, real-actor videos, and pun-named ACME agents all made it into subsequent Carmen games. Great Chase, for example, has the player travel through time with ACME agents Ann Tickwitee, Ivan Idea, and Polly Tix.
The games never offered hard resolutions to any of their mysteries. Most sent the player on an endless string of quests with V.I.L.E. agents escaping as soon as they’re captured. Great Chase has an ending, in which it is revealed that Carmen’s master plan was to steal her file from ACME headquarters to make herself more of an enigma. Carmen’s backstory and motivations were never explained. Was she a simple thief or an extravagant tour guide to the world and all its treasures?
The world—its variety of places, peoples, histories, cultures—is the true main character, with the eponymous villain left unexplained to keep that world in the forefront. While the player conducts the same basic tasks in every location (talk to witnesses, collect clues, determine the next location), each is presented as unique. Fly the ACME jet to France, and the game will show you the Eiffel Tower; in Mexico, Chichen Itza. In the world of Carmen Sandiego, place matters. Each has something of its own to appreciate and none is quite like any other. Carmen’s world was dangerous, varied, beautiful, not a monochrome whole but made of vibrant particulars.
More important than the factoids, Carmen Sandiego imparted a view of the world—a world that was disappearing faster than young millennials could learn about it.
None of the uniqueness of all those unique places mattered in the flattened, “one world” global community. All we needed to know was whether they were unfree economies, authoritarian governments, closed societies or free, liberal, open ones. And the only surefire sign of membership in the latter category was abandonment of unique cultures in favor of the infinitely reproduced chains, entertainments, and consumer products that we already knew too well in America. No place was mysterious; the only mystery left in the world was the inner machinations of the corporations, NGOs, governments and armed forces that laid the world and its treasures bare.
Needless to say, this was disorienting. How were we supposed to find our bearings in the world, if not by Eiffel Towers and Chichen Itzas? What good would it have been to hear from our digital witness, “I heard the thief say she wanted to visit a country sporting the golden arches and a Starbucks”?
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As the millennium approached, the two biggest names in edutainment were Broderbund, the makers of Carmen Sandiego, and its rival Softkey International. Softkey had absorbed its competitors one by one, thanks to its strategy of undercutting them by pushing cheap CD-ROMs through retail vendors, and its connections to wealthy investors, Bain Capital among them. In August 1998, after years driving down Broderbund’s stock price by shipping cheap knock-offs of Broderbund software, Softkey—then going by “The Learning Company,” a name it ripped from a different software company it had acquired in a hostile takeover—absorbed Broderbund.
Softkey cornered the edutainment software market and became the second largest consumer software company in the world, behind only Microsoft, for one reason: It didn’t care about the value of its products. One industry analyst referred to its CD-ROMs as “coasterware.” Its warehouses were routinely filled with returned CDs. Softkey founder Kevin O’Leary openly declared that all software—including his own—was valued too highly.
Immediately after the acquisition, Softkey fired 500 Broderbund employees and drove the edutainment industry straight into the ground. Its sales practices didn’t stop. Softkey continued to flood the market with cheap garbage, market directly to consumers who didn’t know the quality of their purchases, refuse to spend on R&D to make sure its software kept pace with the broader tech industry, and made a habit of firing internal auditors, raising eyebrows and attaining a level of secrecy Carmen Sandiego would have envied. It added only a single installment to the Carmen Sandiego series (Carmen Sandiego’s ThinkQuick Challenge, a quiz show game) before its owners cashed out.
Only months after stripping Broderbund for spare parts, O’Leary sold Softkey to Mattel for $4.2 billion and walked away from the software industry with a small personal fortune. He would go on to dabble in politics—making a failed run for Canadian office as a socially liberal, fiscally conservative candidate—and star as the tough-guy investor on NBC’s Shark Tank.
After O’Leary (and Bain) walked away with their cuts of the multi-billion-dollar sale, Mattel realized Softkey was bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars a year and had no prospects for improvement. When the losses from its acquisition became public knowledge, Mattel’s stock price collapsed by one third in a single day. Within three years, it managed to dump its toxic acquisition for $27 million, less than 7 cents on the dollar for what it paid. Widely derided as one of the worst business acquisitions in living memory, Softkey—and with it, the edutainment industry—vanished as the broader tech bubble burst. The mysterious, unaudited value that O’Leary and the software boom assigned to their enterprises turned out not to reflect anything real.
O’Leary was the paradigmatic success story in our shrinking, flattening world. He was nothing like a V.I.L.E. agent. He didn’t value anyone’s work enough to steal it; he devalued it enough to get a market edge. By flooding every market with cheap consumer goods, the newly global economy, as a whole, transferred value from the artifacts of human life and culture—even silly things like edutainment software—to the institutions that shuffled those artifacts around and kept the GDP growing. And governments played along, with “privatization” in full swing. As our leaders grew so fond of saying, the world was simply too complex, too mysterious, to be left to the everyday Carmen Sandiego player and his voting preferences; experts, consultants, and business leaders could be trusted to keep the markets free, the governments liberal, and the societies open. Why shouldn’t the Kevin O’Learys inherit the earth?
V.I.L.E. would never have thought to add O’Leary to its roster or to target his work for theft. Next to a sherpa’s map of Mount Everest, Softkey was worthless.
Maybe the ’90s were always going to turn out this way—and perhaps Carmen was too. The final installment in Carmen’s initial run of video games, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego: Treasures of Knowledge (2001), which came out after the Mattel sale, was a capstone of sorts for the series. It was also unintentionally prophetic about where this globalized world would end up.
Much more narrative-driven than any of its predecessors, Treasures of Knowledge made explicit comment on some of the franchise’s emergent themes. It followed ACME agents Julia “Jules” Argent and Shadow Hawkins chasing Carmen, who steals a series of artifacts mysteriously connected to a 16th-century Spanish explorer and a lost city. It maintained an eerie, even dark tone, and explicitly raised the question underlying the whole series: Was Carmen a thief or a humanitarian? At the very end of the game, after Carmen eludes capture in the ruins of the lost city, Jules looks around at the treasures inside and says to Shadow, “I wonder if she planned it this way all along…. Maybe she masterminded these thefts so the whole world could benefit.”
Treasures of Knowledge makes clear that ACME isn’t a private firm or even a federal agency; it was the U.N. all along. Hawkins’s uniform, a nondescript blue-gray tactical vest with no identifying national markers, makes him look like a peacekeeper. And Jules, whose humanitarian idealism takes them around the world to collect treasures that “belong” to common humanity, would be right at home in UNESCO. Contrast her musing about how “the whole world could benefit” from Carmen’s thefts with the original Where in the World: After a successful arrest, the player would get a dispatch from the ACME News Bureau, quoting the chief as saying, “We are happy to return [the artifact] to the citizens of [its country of origin].’”
Regardless of whether Carmen is raiding for her own gain or that of the “world community,” things end up out of place. In the “lost city,” it feels bizarre to have Egyptian busts, Renaissance paintings, and golden Buddhas all piled on top of each other, assembled and hidden there by the explorer. None of these items belong anywhere, or to anyone. Fully divorced from their use, their symbolic or religious meanings, they’re only there to be moved elsewhere.
How far would ACME go in pursuit of the global good? When Jules and Shadow figure out the location of the lost city, the chief sends an ACME helicopter to pick them up in Jordan. As Hawkins and Argent approach the lost city (somewhere in the Middle East, unless ACME helicopters are faster than they look) they have to find the right coordinates to “fire a marker beacon” (the final puzzle in Treasures). The resulting image, thanks in no small part to the janky Flash animation, just looks like two Americans in a helicopter firing a missile at a desert cave.
Twenty years later, what’s left of Carmen Sandiego? Just about as much as what’s left of us. She belongs to Big Tech now, with Facebook and Google Earth releasing nostalgia-driven Carmen games on their platforms. These returned to the original, pre-point-and-click gameplay formula, an eternal recursion of travel, collect clues, and travel again—treading old ground being what we do best now. The Facebook version shut down after a few years; the Google Earth version remains as a promotional tie-in for a Netflix animated Carmen series, which debuted in 2019.
The Netflix version of Carmen Sandiego is desperately boring. Carmen, previously a simple excuse to learn about the world, is the main character of this series. She’s a superpowered, fully demystified individual. She has all the gadgets, hideouts, sidekicks, chases, and fight scenes that all the other superheroes have. The world that was the main character in every previous installment of the franchise barely matters—the show focuses instead on Carmen’s transitory personal conflicts. The Netflix Carmen is no longer a mystery. Her identity is all that matters.
And it’s not just Carmen. The show reveals the full internal operations of ACME and V.I.L.E., especially the latter, which it effectively turns into a corporation. Each of V.I.L.E.’s schemes, like each of Carmen’s, is fully explained—all of them boil down to profiteering or some internal power struggle, with the cultures and artifacts involved bearing no value apart from cash value or personal bragging rights. Carmen, even as a protagonist, is also oddly concerned with the money netted by her heists—all of which goes to “charity” through her philanthropic foundation. No person, organization, or action (except, strangely, Carmen’s foundation) is allowed to remain mysterious.
But it’s just as well—after all, opacity has burned the Carmen Sandiego generation over and over. Before 2001, we happily accepted Carmen as a mysterious but worthy guide to the world. She was a known unknown. The inner workings of Softkey were also a known unknown. So was the decision process that sent Americans to shoot missiles from helicopters over desert caves. But all these powers and institutions that were supposed to shepherd the world, its peoples, and its economic development blundered into one disaster after another in the first decade of the new millennium. The mysterious inner workings of the software industry, then the national security state, and then the financial sector all let us down. So we could no longer accept mystery as a fact of life. Carmen had to become a known known.
Carmen Sandiego isn’t unique. Like almost any other cultural phenomenon, she’s tangled up in America’s global ambitions and consumer capital’s tendency to flood the world with the same thing over and over, cheaper and cheaper, until something breaks. But unlike Star Wars, Starbucks, and the post-1991 political establishment, Carmen can’t help but show us what we’re missing.
Philip Jeffery is deputy opinion editor at Newsweek.