My history has more Templars than yours

“Playful historical thinking is, or can be, critical and engaged. It recognizes limits on our ability to fully know other peoples and times, yet makes the effort to know them just the same.” – Tim Compeau and Rob MacDougall, 2010

For this week’s seminar on “Gaming the Past,” I decided to focus on my favourite flavour of gaming, the video game. We may not all like it, but we can’t ignore it: video games are here to stay. Many of those involved in the video game industry tout its benefits as a mode of learning, inspiring the drive to achieve goals, overcome challenges, solve problems, be creative, and collaborate with others. While I don’t subscribe to the hyper-optimism and even utopianism that sometimes appears in discussions about gaming, I do think that video games represent an interesting new challenge for historians.

You have probably already seen examples of historical projects using gaming technology. Just one week ago, openculture.com published this press release of an award-winning flythrough of 17th-century London, created for a competition run by the British Library, GameCity and Crytek. Another, large-scale example of this sort of thing is Rome Reborn. But this is only a small  part of the “history gaming” landscape, and rejects the aspect of video games which make them so powerful in the first place – the actual game. What really piques my interest are the “blockbuster” games with intense popularity, designed by major studios, but which clearly require historical research and have an explicitly historical mindset. Although many examples come to mind, the most obvious current example, in my opinion, is Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise.

This gallery of photos gives you a quick idea of the historic landscapes Assassin’s Creed provides to its players.

In Assassin’s Creed, the story is driven by a battle between two ancient orders: the Templars, who aim to dominate the world and create their perfect, ordered, intellectually lifeless society; and the Assassins, who try to stop them. This battle takes place across the ages from the Third Crusade to the modern day. It spans the genres of historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, spy narrative and action-adventure. It is a first-person role-playing game (RPG) with gameplay in the past and the present, stealth, combat, and parkour, some code breaking and puzzle solving. Since 2007, Assassin’s Creed has become a global multi-genre franchise, with five main games, over 20 expansions and spin-off games, online multiplayer strategy games, novelizations, short films and comic books. Its fans have generated even more content, including art, animations, and stories ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of words.

The overwhelming popularity generated by games such as these demonstrates that they are a powerful medium, enjoyed by a large group of people. But it is also important to note that they are a vehicle through which millions of people are receiving historical messages every day. This means it is necessary for us to ask some questions about the relationship between history and gaming. The questions I am introducing in this post include (in no particular order):

  • why is it that historical video games have a much bigger “fandom” than “real” history?
  • how are video games causing people to think about history (or not)?
  • how are video games causing people to think historically (or not)?
  • what are the ethical implications of learning history and historical skills through gaming?
  • how can historians be involved in video games?
  • should historians be involved in video games?

None of these questions have an easy answer. I hope you will all bear with me as I use Assassin’s Creed as a launching point from which to explore this complicated but interesting topic.

First, I will try and briefly speak to the question of popularity. One aspect of video games that clearly makes them popular is the immersive experience. People like being active participants in the story being revealed. It is up to us to solve problems and achieve goals, and when we do, it’s a good feeling. No one (arguably) wants to sit through 15 straight hours of movies, but plenty of people wouldn’t hesitate to play through the approximately 15 hours it takes to run through the main narrative of an Assassin’s Creed game. When it comes to historical gaming, this kind of immersion fascinates me. I can textually describe a scene from Renaissance Italy, but it probably won’t compare to the impression offered by the sights and sounds of a film, and it certainly won’t compare to the ability to freely explore this 3D world. This is why projects like the Pudding Lane flythrough win awards. Historical monographs have their own advantages, but they are neither more popular, more accessible to non-experts, nor easier to remember than games. And apart from academics, few people will notice if the author of the monograph “gets it wrong”; but gamers are by nature an engaged audience with a deep interest in the quality of all aspects of the game. As Tim Compeau and Rob MacDougall point out, “history gamers place a high priority on historical realism even when their scenarios diverge wildly from the actual past” (world domination by Templars, anyone?).

But of course, there is a big difference between historical “realism” and historical accuracy or historical integrity. The question of historical accuracy and liberties is an important one. The video game industry, like the motion picture industry, has been criticized for its manipulations and distortions of history. Many of these criticisms are valid. Even as we scrutinize these genres, however, historians must keep in mind that they were never intended to be textbooks. When it comes to video games, films, and historical fiction, I believe we should be striving not for 100% historical accuracy but for historical integrity, or staying true to the general themes, courses of events, trends and “spirit” of an age. This is exactly the sort of thing Assassin’s Creed writer Darby McDevitt seems to be getting at on Ubisoft’s blog. As he remarks, no one wants to play a 100% historically accurate game if it means taking over an hour just to unfurl the sails of your ship. Although in his discussion he focuses on game appearance and not on the historical value of the narrative or mechanics, this interview is a reminder that video game developers do consider historical questions and consult historical material. Whether or not they successfully maintain historical integrity is very much up for debate, however; a lot is contrived, a lot is omitted, and the game itself does not make much room for players to question the authoritativeness of the story.

There are plenty of other aspects of video games and their development in general that historians may find difficult to accept. No matter how accurate the appearance of the historical setting, historical video games place the player in a fictional world, often one which is emotionally and ideologically charged. The role-playing aspect of the games often encourages a bifurcated interpretation of history in which you are either “one of the good guys” or “one of the bad guys.” The games tend to focus on figures that are larger than life. They make fictional characters out of real people, potentially creating a caricature of history. There is the possibility of players imagining that what they see on their screen is “how it really happened” (although I tend to believe people are generally smarter than academics often make them out to be). Then there are ethical questions about the appropriateness of video games as generators of empathetic connections to the past, especially in highly realistic first-person military games. Many popular titles cost in the tens of millions of dollars to make, meaning that historians who want to have a say in the video game world will need to allow for a wide variety of other people’s input, visions and interests.

In addition to all of these concerns, Compeau and MacDougall bring up the inability of many games to teach “genuine historical thinking” and increase awareness of “the pervasive presence of the past.” They attempted to create a historical ARG (augmented reality game) based on the War of 1812 in order to do just that. They are right to point out that “Getting good at most simulation games [as opposed to an ARG] means internalizing the logic of the situation and its algorithms. In so doing, a player learns to ignore all the things that make it a game about history and not about, say, fighting aliens.” Admittedly, this is where a series like Assassin’s Creed breaks down. The completion of the game relies not on a player’s level of critical thinking or historical skill, but on the player’s skill for in-game navigation, combat, and upgrades. This means that we historians have plenty of room to create and improve RPGs, as well as other types of games like the ARG.

That being said, I have noticed that Assassin’s Creed makes some sort of attempt to encourage its players to dig into the history behind the game. One way in which it does this is through a dynamic database, found in AC2 and higher. As you run around Renaissance Italy and the Ottoman Empire, whenever you come across a person or place of historical interest, a thumbnail of an article will pop up that you can choose to read. These short, often tongue-in-cheek articles are nevertheless well-researched and have potential to teach players something new. (I learned that America was likely named after Amerigo Vespucci – a fact I actually didn’t believe was true until I confirmed it elsewhere.) Because the articles also add more information concerning character development and storyline, there is incentive for players to read them. Most interesting of all, the coordinates are saved in the game world so that if you want to revisit and explore a significant building in 3D, you can put a marker on the map that leads you right to it. The articles on people are not only reserved for major historical figures, but for figures from everyday life, such as doctors, blacksmiths, bankers, and heralds. If this were a strictly historical venture, stripped of the story, I am sure that it would constitute another award-winning project. (But who wants the city without the story? This is what keeps players motivated to explore.)

After briefly considering some pros and cons here, I believe that video games are by no means perfect, but they are not always mindless, meaningless entertainment. The genre has a lot to offer to historians who are searching for alternative methods of engaging the public. I am optimistic that despite their limitations, they have potential to be legitimate generators of interest in history and historical inquiry. The question for me is not whether professional historians should be involved in these sorts of “playful” ventures. Historical video games, and historical games of all sorts, will be made with or without our input. However, the relationship between historian and historical game developer always stands to be a fruitful one. We can help ensure that developers treat their subjects with tact, and provide ways for critical thinking to be central to the game; and they can show us how to strike a healthy balance between accuracy and fun. It’s time historians took play seriously!

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5 thoughts on “My history has more Templars than yours

  1. canadianstacey says:

    Not that any of us have all the time in the world for reading at the moment, but I wanted to leave some more food for thought in the form of two articles on Play the Past – “Epic Life: the verbs of the past and Assassin’s Creed” (http://www.playthepast.org/?p=4216) and “The Presence of the Past in Fallout 3” (http://www.playthepast.org/?p=459).
    Both articles talk about other specific problems and successes when it comes to historical thinking and RPGs. In particular, they emphasize the effect of narrative structure on the way a player learns to engage with history (or not). Roger Travis rightly takes the AC games to task (I definitely agree that the animus-driven structure inhibits a player’s ability to question the narrative of the game, and that it is easy to reduce the historical game world to its handholds and hiding spots). Trevor Owen, however, uses Fallout 3 as an example of an RPG that seems to be “getting it right.” I’d love to know what you think!

    • Carla Watson says:

      Great post Stacy. I just read the Fall Out 3 article you posted. What an interesting way to look at a video game! I think Trevor Owen is justified in claiming that the game offers an opportunity to study as an archaeologist and a historian by studying the logs by Nancy. It was very reminiscent of Compeau and MacDougall and their approach to educating the gamers about historical approaches. However, I doubt most people dive into these logs in the way that Owen did and I think he has an over optimistic view on video games and their power to instill history skills into the average person.

  2. lwalter23 says:

    Great post Stacey! You bring up some interesting points in favour of video games, and are making me want to play them! It is very true that children/teens are more up to playing hours upon hours of video games, versus doing their actual history homework or watching history films, this opens up a great avenue for historians to pursue further. With the issue of historical accuracy, this is a difficult question as video games themselves aren’t realistic, they are instead providing for the player another world, time and society to immerse themselves in and complete missions. History provides a great narrative to build the stories for these games, and I think that as long as the content is there, details don’t have to be too overwhelming. I like the example you offered on Assassin’s Creed and the player having to read little bits of history in order to find clues to continue on their journey through the game. This is an excellent means of making learning fun! (Without the children/teens actually knowing they are learning about history and becoming interested in the subject) Then hopefully when they are asked about certain events in history class, they will be excited to share the answer; after they realize their game wasn’t totally fictional, and become further interested in the past.

  3. lizmiron says:

    Interesting post! I have to admit I’ve never played any of these games (more old school on my video game choices) but you do make it sound exciting! I’ve seen my brother play Assassin’s Creed and I remember noticing how interesting it was that your character could run around an entire historical city. I did not know that the game also provided articles about various historical facts. Clearly the creators of the game are concerned with its players understanding some of the history that the game is based on and that’s great! Do you know if any of the gaming companies actually employ historians to do research for the games?
    I agree with your idea that we should be aiming for historical integrity as opposed to historical accuracy. There is clearly still a lot that players can learn from these games and as you said have their interest piqued enough to research further for themselves.

    • canadianstacey says:

      Yes, Ubisoft employed historians to do research for its Assassin’s Creed games – often multiple historians per game, although I’m not sure of the exact statistics. This is probably the most amazing job ever. 🙂

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