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?