I was at a party Wednesday night when a friend sent me a link to a Globe and Mail editorial that skewered Assassin’s Creed III and its publisher, Ubisoft, for supposed historical inaccuracies in the game. The crux of the piece is that the game “distorts” history by suggesting that Native Americans fought against the British during the American revolution, rather than with them.
Like many who read the piece, I immediately face-palmed. The editorial turned out to be the “most popular” article on the Globe’s site Thursday, although judging by the comments and the accompanying Twitter frenzy – #globeeditorial trended nationwide – it was actually the most unpopular thing on the site.
To be clear, I had nothing to do with the piece, which I thought was misguided, inaccurate and uncalled for. I write about games for the paper’s website, but I had no idea anyone on the editorial board had even a passing interest in the topic. It was as much a surprise to me as anyone.
As a freelancer, I can hardly expect to be consulted on such matters. Even in my experience as a staffer at various papers, I was rarely if ever contacted by editorial board members if they happened to be writing something on my beat. In a way, that can be a good thing because it maintains separation between church and state, or opinion from reporting.
Still, that’s something that matters only inside the myopic microverse of the media. Outside in the real world, readers’ feelings on a newspaper’s coverage of any given area can be and often are coloured by such editorials. The reason for my quick facepalm was that I could already see the dismissive reader comments on my future reviews: “What does this guy know about games? His newspaper thinks they’re supposed to be historically accurate!”
Anyone who knows me also knows I’ve worked hard for years to raise the profile of video games wherever I’ve been employed. Editorials such as the Globe’s unfortunately make that uphill battle even tougher. So yeah, thanks for that.
I’m not going to go into the many inaccuracies in the editorial because readers did a great job of pointing those out in its comments section. Ubisoft employed numerous historical consultants in the making of the game and, to my understanding, is planning a response to the piece. I suspect the company will also tear the piece to shreds.
I’m also not going to suggest the obvious – that the game is a work of fiction and therefore shouldn’t be taken as historical fact. Steve Tilley, Sun Media’s resident game guy, did that admirably in his own take.
There were, however, two things about the piece that did bug me. The first was the unwarranted shot at Ubisoft and the tax credits it has received from provincial and federal governments:
Those who doubt the decision by the Canadian government to invest in the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 should pause and think about the implications for a country that fails to teach its history and celebrate its story. As it happens, the Quebec and Canadian governments have given Ubisoft significant support.
Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on and how you feel about tax breaks for specific industries but not others, there’s little doubt Ubisoft has been anything but a good news story for Canada. Not only has the company directly created more than 3,000 well-paying jobs in several provinces, it has also served as the “acorn” that indirectly spawned an entire sector in Montreal and soon, in Toronto. In Montreal, the company also catalyzed the revitalization of the neighbourhood it’s based in.
Most importantly, Ubisoft’s Canadian studios are pumping out some of the most successful video games in the world, with most of the sales – as the editorial sort of points out – coming as exports. It should be a huge source of pride for Canada that, for a change, we are succeeding in exporting something that comes out of our brains, rather than from out of the ground.
I’m all for taking the company to task when it’s warranted – like its recent screw-up with advance review copies of the game in question – but in this case there certainly didn’t seem to be any reason to bring the tax issue into the matter. By contributing $1.7 billion in economic activity annually, the numbers are pretty clear anyway on the Canadian game industry, of which Ubisoft is a very big part.
The other thing that bugged me was the editorial’s final thoughts on the state of education, which seemed to drip with cynicism:
Assassin’s Creed III is just a video game. But given the dearth of history instruction in our schools, it might be the only place that Canadian young people are learning about the Revolutionary War. At very least, they need to be equipped to separate the Ameriphilia from the facts.
Perhaps the best way to get into this is with a personal anecdote. Throughout high school and university, I loved the subject of history. I almost didn’t get my journalism degree because I took too many history courses, which ran afoul of the school’s “breadth” requirements. I applied twice to the University of Toronto for its history Masters’ course, but didn’t get in either time (damn you U of T!).
Of all the history I studied, there was one area I never cared for: North America. It seemed very boring; beaver fur traders just can’t compete with the epic grandeur of ancient empires and world wars.
Then, when Ubisoft announced earlier this year that Assassin’s Creed III would be set in colonial America, my interest was immediately piqued. I’m not sure why, but suddenly 18th century North America seemed a little more sexy.
When my wife and I sat down to plan our first trip to the Maritimes this summer, I was instantly intrigued by the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. It ultimately had no place in Assassin’s Creed III, but it was a French fort that was in its prime during the same era. We ended up visiting and I learned a lot – after years of resistance, I filled in some of the mental holes I had on my own country’s history.
That, in a nutshell, is the power of a game like Assassin’s Creed, or any entertainment for that matter. If done right, as Ubisoft has done with this franchise since its inception, it can energize people about a place and era by making it exciting. Textbooks sure didn’t do it for me – it took the idea of jumping around on rooftops and slicing up bad guys to get me interested.
And it doesn’t just work on grown men. Earlier this year, I interviewed Matt Turner – one of the writers on Assassin’s Creed III – for my profile on Ubisoft and its franchise. He told me about how he has a friend who teaches English in an Ottawa high school. His students had recently completed a unit on the Italian Renaissance and many scored surprisingly well. When the teacher asked them why, they said “Assassin’s Creed II, man!” That game inspired them to learn more about the era – and it contained more than its share of correct, undistorted historical data, some of which was dictated by historical consultants from McGill University in Montreal. “To think [kids are] retaining information from it, that’s awesome,” Turner said.
The mainstream media all too often dismisses video games as mind-rotting junk, and when they’re not doing that they’re suggesting that games are brainwashing kids into believing whatever it is they’re suggesting. Such tired and incorrect tropes fail to recognize that games can indeed provide some of the most powerful sparks to imaginations, both young and old.
If you talk to any teacher – any good teacher, that is – they’ll tell you that the most important thing to teach children is the desire to learn. Not dates, places and names or even who was on which side, but the ability to go out and experience things for themselves, at which point they can make up their own minds. Assassin’s Creed III, in my experience, presents varying viewpoints and encourages its players to think critically about all sides of its narrative. If anything, the game doesn’t distort history, it encourages critical thinking about history.
And if Junior really does believe that it was a mysterious half-Native assassin controlled by a virtual reality device in the present who guided Paul Revere on his horse… well Junior might have other problems that need attention.