Does the name Carmen Sandiego ring a bell? If you are in your late 20s and played computer games when you were very young, you probably know who I am talking about. If you are as old as I am it’s possible you’ve heard the name before. For the uninitiated, she was the main character in the eponymous computer game, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? that became quite popular in the mid-1980s.

Test yourself: Take a quiz online and brush up your geography.

Carmen the thief would steal something precious (an antique or a rare book) and run from one country to another, from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Lima in Peru, Kigali in Rwanda, and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. You had to pursue her around the world, putting together the clues you picked up from people on the scene: “She told me she spent all day looking for the Left Bank" (she was obviously headed for Paris), or “She was learning Portuguese before she left" (so it must be Rio and not Reykjavik). The reason the game became quite a hit with children—and also parents—was that it got you interested in geography.

I was reminded of Carmen Sandiego recently when I came across a website called Lizardpoint.com where they have world map quizzes for you to brush up your geography. They have divided the world into many geographic groups—from the Caribbean to Africa, West Asia, Europe and China—and you can test your knowledge of the region or country. Try their map of China if you think you know your geography. I failed miserably.

Compared with Carmen Sandiego, Lizardpoint’s site is quite basic; there’s no fun element, but it covers almost the entire world. The creators of the website believe that “repetition reinforces memory", and so the more you do these quizzes the better you get.

The nice thing about such games and websites is that they make learning so much more fun. I remember sitting with my son with a world atlas that was part of his school curriculum, and together we would try to remember the location of Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries. It was utterly boring. The websites one comes across these days are not only very creative but are interesting even for adults, who may not know much about a subject.

I once asked a college student who enjoyed reading books if she had read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and she said she was intimidated by the sheer number of pages. I don’t blame her. And yet if you want to know something about the book because the author’s name has suddenly popped up in the US presidential race, there’s a website called Shmoop where you’ll find answers in a nutshell. This is how it starts about Atlas Shrugged: “It’s long. Crazy long. We’re talking Tolstoy levels of longness. It’s also a book that’s about politics, philosophy, 30-something business people, and more philosophy. Frankly, this book can seem downright off-putting. Even the title is confusing. So why should you care?".

I reached the website when I wanted to know more about The Hunger Games, the book on which the recently released movie is based. Shmoop’s writers describe it as “...a thrilling mash-up of great dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World and the current reality television scene. Think George Orwell meets Survivor and hangs out with Gladiator." The text is written by PhD students from top US universities, and I must say I like the summary and the tone.

In one of my previous columns here I wrote about FreeRice, an online word game that is still quite popular. I have now come across another word game: the Oxford dictionary spelling challenge at the Visual Thesaurus website (www.visualthesaurus.com/bee). If you enjoy wordplay, turn on the speakers, choose between British and American accent, tick your level—tricky, difficult and fiendish—and then guess how to spell words like sebaceous and guacamole.

By the way, in case you’re interested, Carmen Sandiego is still around.

Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.

Write to Shekhar at thesmartlife@livemint.com

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