If you grew up in the 1990s, chances are you either played the video game or watched the game show adaptation of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? The premise was simple: Sandiego was a rouge ex-spy, traveling the world and stealing historic treasures and monuments. The players would assume the role of Interpol agents (in later versions, detectives with Acme Detective Agency) to hunt down the elusive thief using historic and geographic clues.
The most obvious benefit of the game is in motivating students to learn more about the world. But Frances Martel of the girl-geek blog The Mary Sue pointed out another impact Sandiego had on the generation of kids watching and playing – she provided an intelligent, successful, cool role model for young Latin American girls to look up to. Martel writes:
Much of pop culture engrains in the minds of young Latinas very early on what American society entitles them to. Granted, it is far more than most Latinas would in most of their home countries, the current wave of female presidents in the Southern Hemisphere notwithstanding, but the range of careers and lifestyles is still sorely lacking: models, singers, ballerinas, sex objects. The spectrum ranging from Shakira to Jennifer Lopez [Editors note: Lopez, coincidentally enough, is producing a Carmen Sandiego movie with Walden Media] doesn’t leave much space for academics and politicians on it, even if you add in the scantily clad “journalists” on Primer Impacto.
Sandiego flies in the face of all of this: she is not scantily clad; she reads and thinks. She is a CEO in her own right—a CEO in a corporate entity designed for larceny, but a CEO nonetheless. American pop culture is not exactly saturated with images of female finance mogul or law professors or, really, any job that requires education—and if our dreams don’t require it, why should young girls bother doing well in school?
Martel also notes that those questioning Sandiego’s value as a role model because of her criminal activities are ignoring a tradition of “heroic” bandits in the media. From Indiana Jones to Nicolas Cage, we see thieves routinely held up as heroes despite their morally-questionable activities.
And I think Martel’s right – Carmen Sandiego does give girls something to aspire to. Not specifically a life of crime, but a life of importance. There are so few examples of what a competent, successful Latina woman looks like in the media – and it’s wonderful to realize that, even in the infancy of the video game industry, there was at least one game working to remedy that problem.
Photo credit: Joshua Rothhaas