Killing in the Name of…Learning
Published Nov 26, 2012As the U.S. election raced to its recent finish line with America's biracial president battling Tea Party republicans, gamers were reliving how American democracy took root as a mixed-race protagonist in the Revolutionary War-set Assassin's Creed III — who even dumped some tea in Boston harbour himself.
Alongside its Southern, slavery-rooted Vita spinoff AC: Liberation, they're the latest entries in Ubisoft Montreal's historical sandbox saga. The dare-I-say "educational" franchise kicked off in Crusades-era Israel before exploring Renaissance-era Italy and moving across the pond to the birth of America.
Despite the Globe & Mail's recent attack on ACIII's "historical distortions," they've never pretended to be interactive textbooks. The games are, after all, connected by a baroque sci-fi storyline about a centuries-spanning war between the medieval Knights Templar and Assassin's Order as experienced by a hoodie-adorned modern-day hero reliving his ancestors' genetic memories via virtual reality. Still, their historical fiction is rooted in reality, which is why it's struck such a chord with gamers.
"I think they get to live out fantasies that they've had for years, or to explore places and periods that they'd only seen in movies or read about in books. They get to be an active participant in these key events and moments instead of just a passive observer," offers creative director Alex Hutchinson.
I discovered the true depth of these games in ACII. My art-history major wife specialized in Renaissance Florence, and though the Florentine game world might as well have been Liberty City to me, she recognized everything from obscure non-player characters to the architecture to the Medici family Big Bads.
Unsurprisingly, Ubisoft have staff historians and contract consultants helming the intensive research that goes into developing each game — confirming facts, determining details and uncovering conspiracy theories to fuel their narrative.
That now-infamous Globe editorial griped that ACIIs half-Mohawk hero, Ratonhnhaké:ton "Connor" Kenway, fought alongside the Yanks rather than with the Brits (an oversimplification by someone who clearly never played it) while twitter yelled back, "It's a videogame, you guys." Both miss how Assassin's Creed teaches history via its real setting, not its fictional story.
Yes, the game covers the period between 1753 and 1783, letting you occasionally dip into major events like the Boston Massacre or Battle of Bunker Hill. No, a half-Mohawk assassin never joined Paul Revere on his midnight ride, Forrest Gump-style. But when you do hop on Revere's steed, its iconic nature makes it far more exhilarating than some non-historical horse mission in Skyrim.
What makes these games educational isn't the exactitude of the historical events, but the emulation of a time period giving gamers a feel for what 18th century life was like, whether crafting goods for trade, trapping and hunting, playing period-specific pub games, fighting naval battles or chasing down Benjamin Franklin's lost almanac pages. (Maybe scratch that last one.)
And they are concerned with misrepresentation, especially with their first First Nations hero. "We wanted it to feel authentic in terms of art, clothing, language, everything. So we contacted the local communities and once we convinced them we were earnest in our endeavours they were very generous with their time," Hutchinson says.
Connor is the son of a Brit who rescued his Mohawk mother Kaniehtí:io from slavery. Early on in the game, he returns from hunting to find his village set ablaze by colonials and his search through the flaming ruins for his dying mom probably inspires more empathy for First Nations than any classroom lecture. Throughout the game, Connor must protect his tribal land from both British and American soldiers — even George Washington betrays him. There's also a melancholy epilogue involving the mistreatment of aboriginals and America's original sin, slavery (a topic explored more fully in Liberation, where you play a freed slave helping others escape).
While the Brits are nominally the bad guys, the Founding Fathers are not exactly romanticized. Sam Adams is called out on demanding freedom for colonies that still import slaves, as is the revolutionaries' refusal to pay taxes to a British government in debt for protecting them from the French. At one point, the Continental Congress is dismissed as "privileged cowards seeking only to enrich themselves." Both bluecoats and redcoats boast plenty of grey.
Regardless, it's not up to Ubisoft to teach history, but Assassin's Creed's intricate, interactive nature can't help but inspire gamers to dig deeper.
"We are incredibly excited by the thought that people could learn something, or better yet become more interested in history through the games, which is why we take historical accuracy so seriously," says Hutchinson. "It's important for us to stress that we don't see our games as learning tools, though. They're entertainment. But if it can get people reading more about history then that's a huge win."