Carmen Sandiego games were originally created by Brøderbund Software co-founder Gary Carlston and proposed to programmer Dane Bigham in 1983. The idea of the franchise was to create a computer game which would get kids interested in geography, a childhood hobby of Brøderbund co-founders Gary and Doug Carlston. Bigham provided the "look and feel" for the game interface from an adventure game he was developing independently and further development was entrusted to the creative "Rubber Room", led by former Disney artist Gene Portwood and Lauren Elliott at Brøderbund Software. The game script, graphics, and humor were created by Portwood, Elliott, and writer David Siefkin. An early draft version of the game was written by Portwood and Elliott and was based in England, chasing Henry VII around London collecting treasures. Another idea proposed was a game based on the Time-Life series of books about great cities of the world. In the end, Carlston decided to base the game on The World Almanac.
Siefkin wrote an early script for the game beside the swimming pool in Strawberry Canyon on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Siefkin was inspired by an early computer fantasy game he had played called Colossal Cave Adventure, in which players searched for treasures in an imaginary underground cavern. Siefkin's idea was to transform the cavern into a map of the world, where the rooms of the cavern become countries with real treasures, and the clues were based on the languages, culture, and geography of those countries. Siefkin believed that children would learn about the world through trial and error as they played the game. His script featured several villains, one of whom he named Carmen Sandiego. Siefkin adapted Carmen's name from a Brazilian singer and actress Carmen Miranda and the American city of San Diego, California. Siefkin left the project soon after submitting the script to become a foreign service officer, serving as a diplomat in several of the countries featured in the game. He is listed in the game manual as a contributing author.
Portwood and Elliott developed the game into its final form, taking clues from The World Almanac and developing new game mechanics and the personality of Carmen herself. Catherine Byrd was the first project manager at Brøderbund Software and the original project manager of the game. The game was programmed by Dane Bigham. Graphics and clues were by Gene Portwood and Lauren Elliott. The final name and scenario of the game came out of a number of meetings between the development group. The final name was originally considered too long to fit on the box. The first game of the franchise, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, was released in 1985 for the Apple II computer and was subsequently ported to other systems. The first seven games were each awarded one or more SPA Excellence in Software Awards, particularly for their educational effort. Carmen Sandiego games comprised 25% of Brøderbund's total revenue in 1992, behind only The Print Shop.
The first game in the series, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, established an original formula that was followed very faithfully in all Carmen Sandiego games during the 1980s and the 1990s. This formula involves a series of missions in which the user tracks and apprehends each of Carmen's underlings. Each case begins with the user being alerted that a spectacular theft has been committed. Immediately transported to the scene of the crime, the user must find clues to infer the suspect's next destination and to create an arrest warrant describing the guilty party's attributes. The culprit travels through a series of different destinations in an attempt to shake off any pursuers, so the user will have to continue tracking the thief for some time. The game continues in this manner until the user catches up with culprit, at which point the thief is arrested, and if the warrant is correct, the user puts the thief in ACME prison. As more and more thieves are arrested, the user rises up through ACME's ranks, and the later cases assigned to the user will become more difficult. On the final case, the perpetrator is revealed to be Carmen herself, and the game ends after the user successfully captures her and inducted to the ACME Hall of Fame.
With the release of Word Detective, Math Detective, and Great Chase Through Time, Brøderbund began to abandon the original formula in 1997. Word Detective and Math Detective involved the user infiltrating V.I.L.E. hideouts around the world and therefore maintain the globe-hopping element of previous games. However, Great Chase Through Time completely abandoned the series' original formula and has the user spending each mission in one time period, where the goal is to create makeshift solutions to any historical problems that the theft has caused and find the thief whom Carmen has dropped off. The final mission of the game involved the user to track down Carmen in similar to the traditional formula, although the user does not construct a warrant.
The 1991 document Three Instructional Approaches to Carmen Sandiego Software Series outlined three ways in which the Carmen Sandiego series could be utilized in an educational context: turning teacher instruction into a gamified cooperative/competitive experience, linking the previously discrete academic topics, and not playing it in its entirety but isolating segments for lessons on particular items.
The games created by Brøderbund featured silly humor and especially a distinctive style of word play with extensive use of puns, rhymes, and alliteration. This style of word play was also present, in varying degrees, in all three Carmen Sandiego television shows.
Gag names ("Hardley Worthit," "Rob M. Blind," "Ruth Less," "Joy Ryder," "M. T. Pockets," etc.) were quite frequently used in the series, often to the point where Carmen herself seemed to be the only person without such a name. Clues about the suspect's next destination often used extended puns (example: "I pumped her for information, but her unrefined answer only suggested a crude plan to visit oil wells near Ahvaz.") or rhyming couplets. Even as the games began to abandon their original formula, this word play was still retained. For example, a news report on massive blackouts from Carmen Sandiego Math Detective quotes an official as saying, "We're taking a dim view of the situation."
Although Carmen's V.I.L.E. agents were often portrayed as cartoonish buffoons, they seemed to be capable of "stealing" landmarks, cities, national parks, notable cultural exports (such as "stealing all the sushi from Japan") and the like. Her thieves have also been known to steal geographic features and even nonexistent map features such as the Mason-Dixon line. Some thefts were even non sequiturs based on word play, such as "robbing the banks of the Nile," or plays on the word "steal" such as "stealing the show."
After Brøderbund was purchased by The Learning Company in 1998, the Learning Company apparently sought to redesign the series. Under The Learning Company, the series seems to take its premise more seriously and uses character-based humor. Since The Learning Company has only created two Carmen Sandiego games, one of which is no longer sold, this change is evident mainly through marketing and which Brøderbund products The Learning Company has chosen to continue to sell.
The first title released by The Learning Company was Carmen Sandiego's ThinkQuick Challenge, a quiz game with a similar tonality to Carmen Sandiego: Word Detective and Carmen Sandiego: Math Detective, including the reappearance of Chase Devineaux. The new structure of Time was apparently to The Learning Company's liking since their new version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, fully titled Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Treasures of Knowledge, was similar. The Learning Company decided to return the series to its original focus on geography and history, discontinuing Word Detective, Math Detective, and ThinkQuick Challenge.
In 2004, Bam! Entertainment released Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums to the GameCube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2. It is so far the only game of the franchise to use real-time 3D computer graphics, although many previous games had used pre-rendered 3D graphics. It was also an action game and while geographical facts were included, learning them was not necessary to complete the game. Although The Learning Company evidently licensed the use of the series as well as some of their own characters from Treasures of Knowledge, this game is not distributed by or sold under The Learning Company name.
Carmen Sandiego has also appeared in three television shows. The World game show was broadcast on PBS between 1991 and 1996 and won a Peabody Award for creative excellence in 1993. World was followed by Time, which later aired up until its cancellation in 1998. The Earth animated series was broadcast on FOX between 1994 and 1999.
This was the original PBS series designed for children ages 8–12. The World game show was staged in a slightly off-skew detective office, which was part of the ACME agency with Lynne Thigpen portraying "The Chief" and Greg Lee portraying himself as a special agent in charge of training new recruits. Greg was helped in this training by various live-action and animated characters. Among the show's most popular were the members of the a cappella house band and comedy troupe, Rockapella, who also sang the show's main theme song.
The game was played in three rounds: the first round was Q&A, where the two gumshoes with the highest scores proceeded to a second round. In the second round, the two remaining gumshoes had to find the loot, the warrant, and the cartoon crook in the correct order. The winning gumshoe captured the day's crook and later advanced to the third and final round to capture Carmen. As Greg shouted the names or places in a region of the world, the gumshoe had to place a marker on the corresponding place on a giant map of that area within a 45-second time limit. A successful gumshoe who placed all the correct locations and captured Carmen would win a trip to anywhere in the contiguous United States and later in North America.
The Time game show refocused the show on history, but was otherwise similar to World with Thigpen reprising her role as "The Chief". Kevin Shinick portrayed himself as a Time Pilot Squadron Leader and Rockapella was replaced by a different dance group, The Engine Crew. The third and final round of the game involved the pilot answering six various history-related questions to open time gates. If the pilot answered correctly, he/she passed through the gate. Otherwise, the pilot had to turn a crank, pull a lever, or do some other task within the 90-second time limit. A successful pilot passing through all six gates and captured Carmen would win a personal computer.
The Earth animated series was a Saturday morning cartoon series produced by DIC Entertainment. The show features the adventures of Zack and Ivy, two teenage siblings who worked as ACME agents in San Francisco and were aided by the Max Headroom-like Chief, who had to stop Carmen (voiced by Rita Moreno) and her henchmen from stealing artifacts from around the world. The series was the first Saturday-morning children's program ever to win the "Best Animated Program" Emmy in 1996. Its episodes have subsequently been repeated on the Fox Family Channel, the Pax network, Hub TV, and Univision. The first season was released on DVD by Shout! Factory in 2006 and the complete series was later released by Mill Creek Entertainment in 2012.
In the early 1990s, in response to the successful Carmen Sandiego franchise, "editor Sharon Shavers was tasked with turning the games into a book series". She gave the responsibility to John Peel. His "research" consisted of playing all the games, and this was followed by "Sharon and [him] work[ing] out a format for the series" before he commenced writing. While in the past his natural tendency to add jokes to his work had been looked down upon, "Sharon [actually] asked [him] to put more in". The art was done by Allan Neuwirth. The premise of each choose-your-own-adventure book is that "you are the detective", and each title features "four exciting detective adventures inside!". The books are written in the second person and in present tense, and have removable inserts that provided clues and the identities of the villains. The books are published by the Canadian branch of Golden Books Publishing.
- Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? (1991)
- Where In The USA Is Carmen Sandiego? (1991)
- Where In Europe Is Carmen Sandiego? (1991)
- Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1991)
- Where In America's Past Is Carmen Sandiego? (1992)
- Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego, Part II (1993)
- Where In Space Is Carmen Sandiego? (1993)
- Where In The USA Is Carmen Sandiego? Part II (1994)
- Where In America Is Carmen Sandiego? (1992) – this title was, as opposed to the others, "a picture book like Where's Waldo?", and the only picture book Peel ever wrote.
- Where Is Carmen Sandiego? Calendar (1993) – this title was written for Workman Publishing, and Peel considers it "the strangest – and most difficult – writing job [he] ever had"
In 1997 another series of Carmen Sandiego books was written by Melissa Peterson and illustrated by S. M. Taggart. Each book in the series was subtitled A Carmen Sandiego Mystery and featured child detectives Ben and Maya as the protagonists. These books were titled:Color Me Criminal
Hasta La Vista, Blarney
One T. Rex Over Easy
The Cocoa Commotion
Take The Mummy And Run
From mid 1996 to early 1997, four Carmen Sandiego comic books were published by DC in a series entitled Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. They involved the exploits of Evan Sawyer, "Acme Detective Agency's newest and youngest gumshoe".Issue #1 (June 1996)
Issue #2 (September 1996)
Issue #3 (November 1996)
Issue #4 (January 1997)
The Official Carmen Sandiego Clue Books (Harper Trophy Publishers)
Carmen Sandiego Mystery Adventure Novels (Harper Trophy Publishers)
Carmen Sandiego Travel Activity Books (Troll Associates)
Bi-monthly Carmen Sandiego comic strip in National Geographic Society World Magazine
University Games published a number of board games, and at least one card game, based on Carmen Sandiego throughout the 1990s.Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? card game.
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (1992)The designer is A. Robert Moog
The number of players is 2 − 6
The suggested playing time is 60min
The suggested ages are 10 and up
The game has two parts. First, players collect clues to work out which of Carmen's henchmen stole the landmark. Afterwards, players race to see who can catch the crook first.
Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? (1993)The number of players is 2 − 6
The suggested playing time is 60min
The suggested ages are 8 and up
Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego? Card Game (1993)The number of players is 2 − 10
The suggested playing time is 15min
The suggested ages are 10 and up
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Junior Detective Edition (1994)The number of players is 2 − 4
The suggested playing time is 30min
The suggested ages are 4 and up
Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego (1995)The number of players is 2 − 4
The suggested playing time is 60min
Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego (1996)The number of players is 2 − 4
The suggested playing time is 60min
The suggested ages are 8 and up
Where in the Universe Is Carmen Sandiego? is a movie that was made to be played in a planetarium. It is less like a traditional movie, and more like one of the Carmen Sandiego game shows featured on PBS with the live audience as the detectives. This film also featured Lynne Thigpen as "The Chief" and was based on Where in Space Is Carmen Sandiego?. This marked Thigpen's final appearance of the franchise before her death of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 12, 2003. A sequel was later created called Where in the Universe is Carmen Sandiego? - II.
Where in the World of Music is Carmen Sandiego? is a concert series developed by Gary Sheldon. It consists of 3 concerts: The Case of the Missing Concert Hall, The Case of the Missing Bells, and The Case of the Missing Pyramids.
Walt Disney Pictures were planning to make a film version of "Carmen Sandiego", with Sandra Bullock as the title character in the late 1990s.
Walden Media has planned to make a live action version of the film with Jennifer Lopez as both Carmen Sandiego and producer of the film with her production company Nuyorican Productions. Writer Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) has been attached to write the screenplay in July 2012.
In the late 1990s, the Metro Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, (now the Oregon Zoo), in conjunction with Brøderbund, ran a summer-long event titled Where in the Zoo Is Carmen Sandiego?, which functioned as a full-immersion live-action Carmen game in which zoo patrons were the investigating detectives. Actors were hired to play Carmen's henchmen, who could be found around the zoo, and on occasions a costumed Carmen appeared as well, but never in a location where patrons could interact with her. Clues were given out at various stations by members of the ZooTeens volunteer group.
In 2016, NPR held an homage to the WinWiCS gameshow entitled Where in the Mall is Carmen Sandiego? in which incoming theft reports from ACME CrimeNet are relayed to contestants who must then work out which store in the mall is being referred to. It was part of the podcast called NPR Programs: Ask Me Another.
The Carmen Sandiego Licensing Program saw the Carmen Sandiego brand licensed to over 20 companies including Harper Collins, University Games, Great American Puzzle Factory, DIC Entertainment, WGBH/WQED, Micro Games of America, Publications International and Troll Associates.
The Carmen Sandiego Connection website allowed players and fans to discover more about the franchise.
Pacific Bell Carmen Sandiego Prepaid Phone Cards were made available.
March 4, 1988 saw the very first Carmen Sandiego Day take place in Bluffton Indiana. it was organised by Jon Bennett of Eastside Elementary School where students went on a tour through a linguistic, artistic, musical, and geographical journey via the locations where Carmen's crooks hid, their favourite sports, and their chosen cuisines. Broderbund published sample news releases and a radio script, as well as participation certificates. There was a four-week planning guide that led up to the actual event. Broderbund even sent an actress dressed up as Carmen Sandiego by helicopter herself to schools who called in advance. While they originally gave away the kits for free, due to the success of the program they began charging $10 for shipping and handling. The Carmen Sandiego kit was distributed to over 7000 school across the United States, and the project was covered in Time Magazine. Jon Bennet received the Quality Recognition Award for technology innovation at a State Board of Education meeting for his Carmen Sandiego Day concept. The first annual Carmen Sandiego Day in Charlotte took place on February 15, 1993, and all 4-6th gradeers in public, private and parochial schools were asked to participate in the event. Carmen Sandiego Day was recommended as a way to get educators, students and community members to turn into technology users and supporters; it was favourable as a contest as Broderbund would provide a pack with shirts, folders, contest suggestions, stickers, and prizes. SAGE students held a Carmen Sandiego Day on November 16, 1990; Beverly Cunningham, SAGE teacher at Mountain Valley Elementary, commented: "Carmen Sandiego Day is an excellent example of how computer programs can be used innovatively to enrich traditional subjects and increase student involvement and motivation". At event was help at Winding Creek on April 10, 2002.
By 1997, the franchise had received over 60 awards, including 12 Software Publishers Association Excellence Awards for Best Education Programs and 7 Parents' Choice Awards. By 2000, the franchise had won over 90 awards. They include:Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? Version 3.0: World Class Award – Best CD-ROM for Children, PC World, July 1997
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Version 3.0: "Best Software of '97 – around the world for ages 9-12", Child Magazine, Dec/Jan 1997
Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? Version 3.0: "Best Software of '97 – around the world for ages 9-12", Child Magazine, Dec/Jan 1997
Carmen Sandiego Series: Family PC – Top 50 Products, Family PC, July/August 1997
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Version 2.0, 1996 PC World Class Award, PC World, 1996
Carmen Sandiego Junior Detective Edition, Silver Apple Award, National Educational Media Network, May 1996
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Version 2.0, Codie Award – Best Secondary Education Program, Software Publishers Association, March 1995
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Excellence in Software Awards – Best Early Education Program, Software Publishers Association, September 1995
Carmen Sandiego Junior Detective Edition, 1996 Newsweek Editors' Choice Award, Newsweek, August 1995
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, NAPPA Gold Winner for Children's Software, The 1995 National Parenting Publications Award, December 1995
The series as a whole has been met with critical acclaim, although most of the games released after Broderbund was sold to The Learning Company have received mixed to bad reviews.
A review by Mr. Bill & Lela for Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review says of the 1996 game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? "It teaches knowledge of world geography and cultures, electronic database research skills, map reading and deductive reasoning. This game became so popular that there is a whole series of them out now: Where in the USA, Where in Time, etc. It's a great game and one that is often used in schools today."
The 1994 journal article "The impact of a computer-based adventure game on achievement and attitudes in geography" by J. H. Wiebe and N. J. Martin found that there were no "significant differences in recall of geography facts or attitudes between the teaching methods" of the computer game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and a "non-computer-based board-style geography game".
The Educational Technology Handbook says that the series "engage[s] youth in tracking elusive villains across the earth". It suggest that the many games in the franchise "...hold your child's interest by putting them in touch with real-life places and events in a way no formal history or geography lesson can match".
By 1997, Carmen Sandiego products had been translated into three languages, and over 5 million copies had been sold into schools and homes worldwide. The three TV shows had a combined viewing audience of over 10 million viewers each week.
From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games suggests that software games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? challenge ideas of gender stereotypes in regard to games, due to it "hav[ing] equal appeal for boys and girls".
In 2001, the Los Angeles Times said "even the most sophisticated recent titles have a hard time competing with Carmen Sandiego, the grand dame of teaching kids where in the world they are".
The Stanford paper "Why in the World is Carmen Sandiego a Success?" by Todd Brown explained the long-lasting appeal of the series: "Ultimately, the keyfactor of success for the Carmen series has been cultural. The designers were able to appeal to all children, boys and girls, by developing an experience with something for everyone. Goals, conversations, intrigue, suspense, learning geography... it’s all there. Furthermore, they did it without just shoving a geography lesson down kids’ throats and without talking down to them either". He quoted Elliott, who said "We don’t use small words. Kids are short but not stupid", and concluded "By treating children as the intelligent little people they are, the designers had no need to hide from them the fact that they were playing and learning at the same time. Kids knew. The beauty of Carmen Sandiego is that they kept playing anyway."