Understand me when I say that this has been one of those modules that I’ve been looking forward to for the whole semester. The advent of my video game career began with Dragon Age: Origins (the Ultimate Edition, thank you very much) in high school and then spiraled from there. I became very attached to story-heavy RPGs, though interestingly enough I wasn’t initially drawn to those of a historic nature. I blame the lack of dragons. And magic.
Eventually I fell into the Assassin’s Creed games (I’m actually 90% certain I learned about the games through a Tobuscus literal trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKrtbUinWOU). As a kid, I think I was more fascinated by the game mechanics themselves, like being able to parkour my way across all manner of buildings or do some sick martial arts, rather than the historical time period it was set in. I got to Assassin’s Creed during their second generation of games set in Renaissance-era Florence, Italy. It was a three-part series that followed Ezio Auditore da Firenze that played out over Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Honestly, if you asked me now, I could probably only tell the basics of the character’s storyline. But one thing I do remember pretty well is the reconstructed world of Florence. Now, just to preface, I am not a Renaissance-era European historian. But in a way I think that’s good. Despite the fact that I was definitely playing Assassin’s Creed II for the social clout and for those sick, sick combo kills, there are still those historical aspects that come back to me long after I’ve forgotten the storyline. To me, that’s one of the major successes of digital storytelling, especially in video games: the ability for a time period to stick with the user, even after the game has long-ended.
However, these games and other methods of digital storytelling also have a few glaring faults. One major criticism is that, though users are indeed introduced to lively and dynamic histories through these digital mediums, those same histories are often curated by developers rather than historians. As such, narratives have been twisted to fit cool storylines or within a specific perception of the past and can come across as narrowly perceived, misleading, or just straight-up wrong. This, of course, feeds back into the primary purpose of developers versus that of historians: video games are made to make money. Developers don’t necessarily care about the historical accuracy or the critical thinking involved as long as the story is compelling and the dollars are raked in.
As an Americanist (and because I’m reliving my Assassin’s Creed Phase), I’m going to bring up Assassin’s Creed III. You know, just to roll with a theme. Set after the Ezio storyline in colonial North America, the user plays as a half-English, half-Mohawk man named Ratonhnhaké:ton, also known as Connor. Throughout the game, the player explores colonial North America before, during, and after the American Revolution, and meets multiple notable figures like George Washington, Edward Braddock, and Charles Lee. Though very cool in design concept and execution, there are some serious historical flaws with the game itself and others like it, mainly that it subscribes to a very specific, pro-American historical narrative, and its purely surface-level use of cultures. Though Connor is part-Mohawk, players only experience surface applications of culture like language and aesthetics. Moreover, Assassin’s Creed III has you play as a part-Native American man who supports the American Revolution—that in and of itself is a very bold statement to make regarding the history of the United States, especially considering the much more complex relationships between many nations of American Indians and both the American colonials and the British government during the period. Of course, without context, casual players of the game aren’t going to question implicit statements like this, specifically because they don’t have the context necessary to begin to ask those questions of a piece of entertainment media. Assassin’s Creed III is not the only video game or digital storytelling device with this issue; context is a more often a problem than not, and is one of the more serious criticisms of using digital media to teach history.
In saying all that, however, I am still fully on board with using digital storytelling as a medium to teach history. To me, just getting students engaged in a historical period (especially high schoolers and undergraduates) is one of the hardest parts of teaching the subject, but video games and other digital mediums are perfect ways in which to do that. Like our readings for this week have emphasized, it is the follow-up after playing the game that is most important to a worthwhile learning experience. If students want to just play the game to experience a dynamic storyline set in a dynamic time-period, though? I’d say let them. The interest is there, and if the interest persists afterwards then we’ll be here to give them the context and push that interest forwards. And who knows, maybe more historians will get into game development and help to fix the problem of context from the inside, all spy-like. I know I’d certainly jump on the chance.