By Travis Trombley
Imagine one of those high school days when your history teacher (and probably basketball coach, because history teachers are, for some reason, often involved with school sports) lacks any will to teach and resorts to forcing upon you some history-related film like The Patriot. You may know these days better as nap-days. But what if, one day, instead of movies, your lazy teacher told you to play a video game? This beautiful future may not be too far off.
October 30th marks the release of Assassin’s Creed III, the fifth* console installment of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed videogame series. A blockbuster game that tosses players into the American Revolution, AC III is sure to spark serious discussion about validity of videogames as educational tools, a discussion held here by two Albion professors of History.
The third-person, action-adventure Assassin’s Creed games boast a record of recreating historical eras, cities, characters, and events as settings for their fictional war between the Assassins and the Templars. Previous exploits include accurately-recreated and fully explorable cities like 12th Century Jerusalem, 15th Century Venice, Borgia-controlled Rome and Byzantinian Constantinople.
Now, after three years of development, AC III, the largest Assassin’s Creed game yet, allows players to explore colonial locals like New York, Boston, and the American wilderness as Connor, the half-British, half-Native American protagonist. Players will interact with historical figures like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Lee and Benedict Arnold while participating in famous events such as the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill and the iconic Christmas crossing of the Delaware River.
“You will visit these places in the moment that they were important, and hopefully, experience why we know where they are today.” Alex Hutchison, AC III’s creative director, told Gameinformer. “That’s the goal.”
Since the game is historical fiction, the revolution is ultimately a set piece within which the continuing Assassin’s Creed story takes place, but the history is an incredibly important aspect of that narrative, one that the design team handled with great care.
“The office tagline is ‘history is our playground,’ and we take it very very seriously,” says Hutchison. “We do a lot of research; we have historical advisors on staff.”
The design team put so much care into the historical aspect of the game so that it could be a means for players to experience firsthand and possibly learn about (or reinforce pre-existing knowledge), as accurately as the game’s narrative would allow, colonial life, the nuances of language, the rhetoric, the people, and the way it all ties together.
“We tried to choose moments that were familiar to people, that would resonate, and then a couple of moments that might be new to them, so that we have this balance of something where players can say, ‘oh I know about this, I’ve read about this, it’s really kind of neat to see it from this perspective.’” Corey May, AC III’s lead writer, stated in a video about the making of AC III. “And then other events that may not be as familiar where they can feel like ‘oh I’m learning something new, I’m being exposed to some interesting, new historical information.”
So can a game like Assassin’s Creed III really help students explore history? Is there something to be gained by being immersed in a virtual world in which one can experience and interact with the past? Timothy O’Neil, visiting professor of History here at Albion, believes that videogames can certainly have a place in education.
“I believe that video games do indeed excite students about history and encourage them to learn more–for myself, I am certain that playing Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager ultimately turned me into an academic and a historian as an adult,” said O’Neil. “If I taught US history, I would most definitely find some way to use AC III in my classes.”
O’Neil cites another educationally-applicable aspect of the game: questioning. Beyond simply immersing players in the past, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is all about challenging the accepted story. These games weave a secondary narrative throughout history that certainly asks players to question the history books.
“I am familiar with the Assassin’s Creed games (esp. AC II), and I think these games are intentionally designed to teach critical thinking to players,” O’Neil said in an email.
Agreeing that videogames can be a means of sparking curiosity in history, Marcy Sacks, associate professor of History, isn’t as confident in the ability of videogames to accurately convey historical fact while being used primarily as a platform for visceral entertainment.
“I think that video games or movies can help develop interest in historic events like the American Revolution or Civil War (or less violent events like the overland westward migration in games like the Oregon Trail),” Professor Sacks said in an email. “However, especially with war, I think that these platforms use the historic event merely as a superficial storyline that provides an excuse to engage in the violence. The games lose the specificity of the historic moment and focus on bloodshed.”
While she lacks O’Neil’s faith in the merit of videogames, Sacks prefers them to film simply because she believes videogames are not as deceptive.
“I suspect that gamers rarely believe that they are genuinely learning about the causes or consequences of the specific war through the games,” Sacks said, “but movie-viewers do often believe that they walk out of the theater understanding history when in fact the story has been vastly oversimplified if not outright distorted.”
Hers is a concern shared by the AC III development team. With well over 30 hours of playtime, AC III may offer players a means to experience history in a more complete and perhaps truthful manner that the typical Hollywood film cannot match.
“I think there’s an over-idealized notion of the founding fathers and the American side of the war, in general,” Hutchison told Gameinformer. “I think when we whitewash our history we do a disservice to everyone.”
On that note, one of the game’s trailers even suggests that a theme of the game MAY be a critical examination of “liberty.” Due to Connor’s heritage, we can assume this applies to the war’s too-often-neglected effects on Native Americans, but players may also experience a much-needed gender commentary via AC III’s counterpart, AC III Liberation for the Playstation Vita, which puts players in the shoes of Aveline, a female protagonist in colonial New Orleans.
As evidence that these themes are present in the game, watch this video to witness an in-game conversation between Connor and the well-known Samuel Adams about the nature of slavery.
What do you think? Can videogames like AC III have educational merit? If you’re lucky enough to have played the game, would you say it has caused you to have learned anything new or thought of anything differently? Sound off in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of IGN.com
*I originally, and accidentally, designated AC III as the fourth console installment. Thank you to those who pointed out my transgression.