Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Video Games as Potential Educational Tools: Visual Representations and Historical Accuracy in Assassin's Creed

I’d like to preface this post by staying upfront, I’m not a gamer.  If it’s not Mario Party, I haven’t played it, and to be honest I don’t really have the desire to.  That being said though, I have enough of an interest in art to be able to appreciate beautifully crafted games, and I’d say that the Assassin’s Creed game series falls under that category.  This seemed like the perfect moment to talk about representations of historical periods in games since our recent experience with the VR set up at MOA, discussions of authenticity and representation, and debates about alternative archaeologies have been taking up so much of my headspace of late.

The Assassin’s Creed games have taken place in a variety of locations including Jerusalem, Rome, Damascus, Acre, and Florence, unfolding around the time of the crusades and the Renaissance.  Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood has received special attention and been the subject of much debate because it straddles the fine line of historical accuracy and artistic agency.  The artistic team behind Brotherhood not only used archaeological studies and historical texts and art, they also undertook “field trips” to cities and sites throughout Italy, in order to get a better understanding of the look and feel of these locations.  While their previous games had been criticized for leaving out well known historical elements of particular locations, the designers of Brotherhood apparently went the extra mile, keeping many details of locations, but also adding new details such as atmospheric effects to add to the realism.

This modicum of historical accuracy (at least visually) has led some to give props to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood as a sort of educational tool, allowing gamers the chance to experience historical locations as they move their characters through them.  While I agree that games such as this have the potential to expose the general population to aspects of history they may otherwise not engage with on a regular basis, I would question their utility as an educational tool simply because of the inherent purpose of all games, to entertain.  Within this framework, there will always be fantastical elements added.  Virtual city tours just don’t have the same sex, or sale, appeal as running your enemies down with rocket launchers (which I’m sure they didn’t have in Renaissance Rome).  An optimistic review by Katy Meyers on Play the Past (the article can be found here: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=2077) argues that Assassin’s Creed creates a “group of self-educating video gamers” by allowing individuals to explore these environments and get a feel for how things were in the past.  This makes the critical assumption, however, that most gamers aren’t just cruising through the streets completing missions, with little to no attention paid to the historical details or (in)accuracies of their surroundings.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, gamers wouldn’t do this, or that it’s not possible for games to be used for this purpose, I’m simply skeptical of Meyer’s assumption that the majority are getting educational benefits from their game play.

This may soon change though.  An article from Polygon (https://www.polygon.com/2017/9/27/16371830/assassins-creed-origins-learning-mode-discovery-tour) reports that a free update will be made available for owners of Assassin’s Creed: Origins that they are calling “Discovery Tour” in 2018.  Combat and action will be absent from this “education mode” iteration of the game (if we can call it that), and will instead focus on teaching “players” about life in ancient Egypt.  People will be able to tour recreations of Alexandria, Memphis and the Giza Plateau, with commentary in the sidebar about various activities that they encounter being provided by experts.  This is especially interesting because they game designers are effectively selling authenticity, even though you can bet a great deal of artistic licence was employed when creating these game-scapes.

Another, older, but still relevant, review can be found at the following link, and is a good overview of some of the other criticisms the game has faced previously (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2010/nov/19/assassin-s-creeed-brotherhood-history)

So what do you think?  Can video games be educational tools?  What is the responsibility of the designers to maintain historical accuracy while still trying to sell a product, especially when they are touting its educational value?


Joanna said...

While I have not played the Assassin's Creed series and therefore feel ill-equipped to comment on their representation of history, I am somewhat aware that much of that controversy ties into the business practices of Ubisoft (which has a poor reputation among gamers) who I would believe are much more interested in history as just a marketing tool. That aside, I actually do believe that video games can be educational tools if approached with an appropriately heavy dose of criticism and sense of purpose.

For example, I would call attention to Paradox's Crusader Kings II, or as I like to call it "Kinship: The Game." I admit that, personally, learning about concepts of kinship was among my least favorite topics when first being introduced to social anthropology as a kid. However, years later I often find myself obsessed with a game that uses kinship as a main game mechanic. The game revolves around the system of inheritance your particular historical territory uses, along with the strategic use of marriage, war, and assassination in Medieval Europe. While the original game did not advertise itself as "educational" as far as I know, I found myself suddenly understanding the social pressures that could lead to my character assassinating his nephew, etc. The game certainly generalizes and has accuracy problems that come with artistic license (as well as a problematic oversimplified view of genetics), but the concept itself of being a "dynasty simulator" was effective. Paradox as a company also generally has a very positive relationship with its modding community, which has lead history buffs to take on projects to develop the game further by adding more historical context and detail:

While I haven't used video games in the classroom, I have used traditional games with great success. I've found that the key with a class game is not to emphasize it's "authenticity" (because it will always be a distilled interpretation/oversimplification), but rather to focus on introducing concepts and actively engaging students with the material. I imagine that as video games are incorporated, it should be much the same.

Jeff Grieve said...

Thanks Arwen for your post. I think that games have been shown to be effective educational tools, but not necessarily for the specific purpose of educating people about historical and archaeological details. I found this relatively recent article where Westin & Hedland (2016) suggest that there are in fact a number of advantages for game designers to stray from archaeologically precise details to avoid time delays, cost increases, and technology limitations. They suggest that game designers end up negotiating a particular view in the past which is more geared toward the degree of authenticity that will be "accepted" by the general public playing the game, as opposed to the strict accuracy demanded by experts in Archaeology. Good enough is apparently good enough, so long as, the game sells well.

Here is the Article Reference:

Westin, J., Hedlund, R., Faculty of Sciences, Naturvetenskapliga fakulteten, Department of Conservation, Gothenburg University, . . . Göteborgs universitet. (2016). Polychronia - negotiating the popular representation of a common past in assassin's creed. Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, 8(1), 3. doi:10.1386/jgvw.8.1.3_1


Amedeo Sghinolfi said...

As a videogamer (from PS1 to PS4 and PC videogames) and an archaeologist I have always been interested in videogames that have a historical background, such as the above mentioned Assassin's Creed saga or Real Time Strategy videogames like Europa Universalis IV, in which you can control a nation from 1444 to 1821.

Both Assassin's Creed and Europa Universalis IV have a database with information about buildings, historical figures and historical events. In particular, each playable state in Europa Universalis IV has specific historical events that influence the game.

As regards Assassin's Creed, the scenery was good looking and I have spent time on reading information about the cities.

In my opinion, a videogame set in a specific era or that define itself as a historical game must be accurate. Videogames may generate interest on history and archaeology, more than educate people. Then, the gamer should look for other kind of sources in order to examine in depth his/her interests

Amanda Suko said...

Arwen, I am not a gamer either, so I cannot speak from experience as to why there is so much draw to video games and whether, or to what extent, the presence of historical narrative component contribute to that appeal. Following Joanna, I think there are potentials for video games to be made as educational tools, mainly for their interactive features. It depends, however, on how past landscapes are incorporated and engaged along with the user mechanics. It should not serve merely as a passive “beautiful” backdrop or ‘digital flaneur’ that does little to the objective of the game/narrative. Instead, it should provide trivial explorations situated within a larger culture-historical narratives, which engage players with the kinds of thinking about the past in the present and/or ask similar questions heritage professionals do. So, yes, if the aim is to teach about past experiences, video games will require consultation with the heritage professionals and communities that had the experience with and knowledge of a particular historical context that is grounded in proper research.

I’ve been meaning to comment on this post for a while, but I was trying to find the following article I once read from a whole issue on ‘Video Games and Archaeology’ (November 2016), published by the SAA. It is entitled “The Archaeologist Who Studied Video Games, and the Things He Learned There” by Shawn Graham. A digitized version can be found here: http://onlinedigeditions.com/publication/?i=356358&article_id=2638875&view=articleBrowser&ver=html5#{"issue_id":356358,"view":"articleBrowser","article_id":"2638875"}. Graham’s introduction began by asking “what do games teach, what do games do?”. Your excellent post and discussion question here I find relevant.

He argues that video games can be educational, from an archaeological point of view, if they engage similar performance or practical activities we do as archaeologists. Video games do well if they encourage a mindful reading of the landscape, along with the features and material culture within it. I agree with Graham when he states, “…the system of rules and relationships that govern the emergent game play are akin to the systems of rules and relationships that we as scholars use to construct our ideas about the past: game rules are historiography. They ARE method and theory, all in one”. This, in his opinion, sets apart games such as Journey, Gone Home, and Dear Esther with Assassin’s Creed and Civilization. The latter two augments our experiences of the past through a high quality, realistic-looking representations of past ruins or structures serving merely as a background of the journey’s ultimate tasks.

If you haven’t already, check out Civilization (https://www.civilization.com/). Kee and Graham (2014:274) rightfully points out that it teaches little about history and more on “..everything about how manipulate the complex algorithms that model the simulation”. Indeed, Civilization is notorious for utilizing typical narrative tropes of ‘great civilizations’ around the world. More recently, they featured a quest involving an Indonesian Javanese princess to be saved from a 14th Century ‘spice empire’ (https://www.civilization.com/news/entries/civilization-vi-gitarja-leads-indonesia), where users would navigate combats and defend kingdoms within a clean, crisp, and high definition visual background of a pristine, lush Indonesian archipelago. ‘Distant’ places like Indonesia, and the ‘civilizations’ that supposedly flourish within them, are exoticized and romanticized, providing appeal the wider audience but little insight to past historicities or how we approach the past in the present. I am Indonesian so this warrants my bias and rage. Though I am not familiar with the history of my island of Java, I doubt Civilization would provide any more insight! You can see the trailer here, if interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=54&v=_WQmeLQ_wc8 .