Games turn geography into child’s play

Where in the world is East Timor? Or Benin? Or Paraguay?

Such geographical teasers would give most Americans fits. But for Atlanta's Roger Andresen, those are just the kinds of questions that spawned a business as well as a global mission.

As the developer of the Global Puzzle and, Andresen is employing jigsaw puzzles and online games to raise geographic awareness around the world — and especially in the United States, which tends to rank toward the bottom in rankings of geographical literacy.

It was one of those studies, issued three years ago by National Geographic and Roper pollsters, that led Andresen to quit his job as a telecommunications engineer and get into the geography game. Andresen, who had traveled extensively in his teens as the son of an airline-industry employee, said he looked at the Americans' poor showing in the survey and realized that "I was probably one of the statistics."

"I just decided this is getting ridiculous," he told "I wanted to get back into geography."

The Global Puzzle — a 600-piece jigsaw puzzle of a world map, with many of the pieces shaped like actual countries — became the flagship product for A Broader View, the company that Andresen created.

Could one puzzle actually change the world? Andresen thinks so: He and his friends conducted a market survey in Atlanta that found the average respondent could locate only 18 of the world's 190 countries. After doing the puzzle, that average score went up to 103 countries — that is, if the puzzle players didn't sneak a peek at the answer key on the back of the board.

"You'll learn a lot more by struggling with the pieces," Andresen said.

Quiz stirs up national pride
Today, the company also offers four one-continent-only puzzles for those who want to work up to the 600-piece challenge. And to get the international competitive juices flowing, Andresen has set up an online "Geography Challenge," a 10-question test in which individual players can raise (or lower) their home nation's ranking on a Web-based leaderboard.

The test has been taken more than 1.4 million times by participants representing 192 countries — including Paraguay in South America, Benin in Africa and East Timor (now officially known as Timor-Leste). The United States started out among the leaders, but it currently ranks in the middle of the pack, at 85th place. Liechtenstein is currently No. 1.

"People all over the world were telling their friends, [saying] 'We've got to catch the United States, they're taking the lead,'" Andresen said with a chuckle. "The Geography Challenge doesn't show how good a country is at geography. It shows how inspired people are to continue to learn."

This month, is expanding again, with a retooled system of challenges that can be customized for use in classrooms. "Kids love it," he said.

Of course, there's a serious point behind the child's play: In a world being changed by international conflict as well as international trade and travel, it only makes sense to know where in the world you can find all those hot spots and cool places.

"There are so many places to see out there and to discover," Andresen said on MSNBC TV, "and geography is the first key, the fundamental understanding, the layout of this world that can give you that knowledge."