I’m a huge history Buff. I studied Classical History and Archaeology in University, and read about history a lot . I’m also, surprise, surprise, a huge gamer. I’d probably say I prefer RPG’s, Survival Horror games, and MMO’s more than anything, but I also really enjoy Sim’s and Real-Time Strategy games, as well as the occasional, innovative shooter. Okay, really, I just enjoy all video games; I’m not picky. But, with the recent release of Assasin’s Creed III, I had a moment of realization of just how married these two passions of mine are. Maybe it is obvious, but History Buffs can learn a lot from video games, and the video game industry has actually done a pretty good job of providing games for the demographic of gamers that enjoy history. The kind of sad thing is how little this has actually been taken advantage of as a teaching tool, and as a way to encourage the study of history.
No doubt you’ve seen all the videos and cosplays of Assassin Creeds latest addition to the series over the past few weeks. AC3 is getting some great press, and some great reviews, and I for one cannot wait to start running around Colonial Boston or the backwoods of 1700’s New England. And while the game is undoubtedly mainly about fun, there is a lot of potential for education.
The Revolutionary period is a pretty damn important point in history if you are an American. It laid the foundation for the nation, created some of the governments most important documents, and was the when some of the most influential people in the entire history of America lived. I’m a huge Revolutionary war buff and an avid constitutionaist, and it always makes me happy to see the period being given more light in the entertainment industry. HBO’s John Adams remains my favorite mini-series of all time, and I hope to see Assassin’s Creed bring light to some of the things that may be forgotten or left aside in a classroom lesson about the American revolution
There is however one big pitfall that AC3 could fall into that, in my opinion, John Adams sidestepped (which was part of the reason it’s such a masterpiece in my opinion). I’m going to call this the “300” effect. Frank Miller’s 300 is a brilliant graphic novel, and Zack Snyder’s adaptation for film is the single best adaptation of a graphic novel I’ve ever seen. I love both of them to death, however, if you ever think they are accurate representations of history, I can’t help but want to punch you in the face. What the movie needed more than anything was simply a preface saying something to the effect of “This is the legend, not the history, of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans”.
Legend exist in all eras of history, and I can’t shake the feeling that AC3 may be telling us a faux-legend, and not history. This is fine, but I feel that it is a missed opportunity. Either directly teaching someone, or directing them towards things that will teach them (as in The Secret World. Making players use Wikipedia to solve riddles? AWESOME MECHANIC!) is much better than telling a story that is false and not mentioning that, you know, it was made up.
Now, I get that you are not always going to have a 100% accurate story, but there are still ways to
create historical games in a way that is both educational and engaging. Lets start at the beginning, or at least my beginnings as a gamer. The very first game that I ever played was the original Age of Empires. Me and my father were given the original game as a Christmas gift, and sat down soon after to play it. I learned more than I ever had about ancient warfare and the history of Hannibal, Rome, Greece and Ancient civilization form playing that game as a youngster than I ever had from reading or watching documentaries.
By the time we hit Ancient History in school, I already knew who the Carthaginian’s were, what a trireme was, and what kind of weapons a hoplite used. And it didn’t stop there. The learning campaign of Age of Empire II: Age of Kings, made sure that I knew who William Wallace and Longshanks were, and I actually finally realized who the Teutons were. And let’s not forget the all important Oregon Trail games, which were staples of the classroom curriculum if we were studying the Wild West or Manifest Destiny.
Once I hit High school and University, the games got more in depth. Rome: Total War made helped me in knowing different kinds of Roman troops, and I cannot thank CivCity enoughfor not only helping me in Archaeology of Daily Life, but also in remembering that the word insulae doesn’t just mean island.
I’m not sure I can put my finger on it, but these games did something right. They drew you in, made you focus on not only having fun, but learning about the world of the period you were engaged in, and in the meantime taught you a few things, even if it was only some scattered vocabulary. You many notice that I have only mentioned RTS games and a Sim title. I can’t say for certain, but perhaps these kinds of games are better at relaying historical information than an FPS or RPG. There have certainly been more historical titles in those genres than the others. I’m sure a study might find this to be the case, but we may never know.
So why am I so concerned with Assassin’s Creed III? Well, to start with, I’ve played AC and ACII, and while they are superb games, and create a phenomenal reimagining of the worlds and times they take place in, I’m not sure we can call them historically accurate. Sure, you meet a whole bunch of people that did actually exist in history, many of which are portrayed in a fairly accurate style, but were involved in things and in ways they never would have been. Prime example, Leonardo DaVinci and Machevelli in Assassin’s Creed II. Loved that they were there, knew that they didn’t do those things.
More worrying though is the announcement of the first AC3 DLC, focused on the tale of King Washington. Now, I could write a whole paper on the political situation of the colonies after the revolutionary war was a success, There are many tales of Washington being offered a crown, even if only a symbolic one, in the chaos of America’s founding days, but ultimately they are untrue. Thomas Jefferson wrote about one such incident, and his words give us a pretty clear picture that George Washington did not want to become King of America.
The President was much inflamed; got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself; ran on much on the personal abuse which had been bestowed on him; defied any man on earth to produce one single act of his since he had been in the Government, which was not done on the purest motives; that he had never repented but once the having slipped the moment of resigning his office, and that was every moment since; that by God he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation; that he had rather be on his farm than to be made Emperor of the world; and yet that they were charging him with wanting to be a King. That that rascal Freneau sent him three of his papers every day, as if he thought he would become the distributor of his papers; that he could see in this, nothing but an impudent design to insult him: he ended in this high tone. -Thomas Jefferson, Aug.2, 1793
The fact that the AC crew, who’ve generally kept things pretty much in line with at least the spirit of the times, would produce a DLC that went so far of the beaten path is rather surprising to me. I’m worried that this kind of historical “what if-ing” (which, from a gameplay and design perspective could make a fricking amazing game…I mean, look at that Evil Washington!!! I just want to punch him and say ” WE GOT RID OF THE MONARCHY IN ‘MERIKA!..Mr. President sir..) is going to lead to some serious misconceptions, with no real attempt to correct them.
History can certainly be played with as if it is fiction, and should be. It makes history engaging, fun and down right entertaining. However, when fiction is taken for history, well, that’s just not a good thing…