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September 13, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015 - ,, No comments

Carmen Sandiego: celebrating 30 years of (fictional) art crime

Copyright 1994, DIC Entertainment/Program Exchange
By Hal Johnson, ARCA 2014 alum and ARCA Blog Contributor

What was your first introduction to art crime? It might be earlier than you think. If you grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, chances are that Carmen Sandiego was the first art thief you ever heard of. The fictional star of the eponymous computer game and TV franchise, this trench-coat clad femme mystérieux (Figure 1) has been stealing the world’s treasures – and educating on the lam – for thirty years now.

Copyright 1989, Broderbund Software
Copyright 1989, Broderbund Software
The hunt began in 1985 with the release of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? by Brøderbund Software. Brøderbund’s products helped establish the home computer as the premier medium for electronic educational content. Sequels like Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? soon followed. The premise changed little throughout the series; players are investigators for the ACME Detective Agency, dedicated to catching Carmen and her V.I.L.E. organization of world class thieves. You travel the globe, gathering geographical or historical clues from witnesses in order to track down the culprit (Figures 2 and 3). The earliest versions of the software included hard copy reference materials like Fodor’s Travel Guide. The series is remembered for its whimsical array of nefarious ne’er-do-wells: Patty Larceny, Lynn Gweeny, Ken Hartley Reed, and Sarah Nade to name a few. Players must also collect personal details about the suspects (male/female, hair and eye color, favorite food/hobbies/sports/authors) to compile a warrant for their arrest.

Copyright 1985, Broderbund Software
At a glance this many seem like a cleverly themed geography bee. But it is much more than simply memorizing countries and their capitals. The Carmen Sandiego franchise actually educates kids in a unique and exciting way – through art crime! Carmen and her V.I.L.E. henchmen are no ordinary thieves. If world geography is the setting, theft of cultural heritage is the plot device. At the beginning of each case, players receive alerts such as “George Washington's axe stolen by masked female.” A gargoyle from Notre Dame Cathedral was one of the stolen items in the original 1985 computer game (Figure 4). Museum-quality treasures are not the only pilfered items. Fantastically large monuments and even natural heritage sites are targeted as well: “Pueblo Bonito stolen from North America in 950 AD,” or “Crater Lake stolen by masked male.” The game teaches players where these treasures are from as well as their cultural and historical significance. And ACME’s cases are closed with a simpler ending than we often see in the real world – Carmen’s loot is always returned to its place of origin. 

Photo courtesy of WQED, WGBH, New Yor
The computer games’ commercial success spawned three television series that all aired in the 1990’s. I fondly remember watching Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? in middle school and singing along with its theme song performed by Rockapella. In keeping with the creators’ witty humor, one episode called “Art So Nice they Stole it Twice” featured a fictional theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The original PBS game show (Figure 5) and its sequel both starred Tony Award winner Lynne Thigpen as ACME’s Chief. An animated Saturday morning cartoon was also produced with stage and screen legend Rita Moreno as the voice of Carmen. Since the 2000’s, new editions of Carmen’s capers have been released on video games consoles like Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii. And the adventure continues! In 2015 Carmen Sandiego Returns was released for download on Windows 8, thirty years after she first became an international fugitive.
Did Carmen Sandiego imprint the image of the glamorous art thief on an entire generation of kids, myself included? Arguably so. What is certain is that she revolutionized at-home edutainment. To my knowledge, the art thief image had never before been used as a gimmick to teach kids basic facts about the world. Certainly not on such a large scale. It is lucky for new generations of youngsters that she has managed to remain at large all these years. Her current publisher sums up her future (not to mention ARCA’s mission) perfectly: “Will we ever catch Carmen? Who knows? Will we ever stop trying? Never! Why? Because through the pursuit we learn!”