Assassin’s Creed editorial was misguided

16 Nov

Wait, what? A secret society of assassins didn’t really topple the British in North America? Get out!

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.


Posted by on November 16, 2012 in ubisoft, video games


10 responses to “Assassin’s Creed editorial was misguided

  1. lyricsonthelake

    November 16, 2012 at 1:49 am

    It really makes me sad the way video games are viewed and/or dismissed. The value of a video game isn’t always just the historical or opaquely educational content. Playing Shenmue on the Dreamcast inspired an interest in Japan, which spawned a lot of research and learning. Playing Psantasy Star Online, Starfox, etc inspired an interest in space, space travel, and the universe. Playing Minecraft inspired my youngest brother to pursue an internship with an architect. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

    Also, on a slightly different note, I know several people who have learned more about President Lincoln on their own time after watching Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

  2. Megan

    November 16, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I also wonder if they both to bash movies about ersa from the past as I’m sure most of them are 100% historically accurate either (e.g., Inglorious Bastards), but we still enjoy them for entertainment, and to me that’s what games are, entertainment. It’s not for games, movies, tv to education our children, it’s up to PEOPLE (parents, family, teachers, etc….), I’m getting really sick and tired of people passing the buck on education to media. Great post Pete, great message.

  3. Megan

    November 16, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Sorry, bad gammer/spelling on my part, should have re-read my post before I posted it. But you get my point 🙂

  4. Justin

    November 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    There is a positive you can take away from this situation just by noting the size and the various outlets employed in the backlash to the Globe and Mail’s editorial. It seems every so often a piece like this one gets published. When the push was on to blame GTA III for every instance of youth violence in North America, the backlash seemed pretty restricted to game forums, niche websites, etc. Just over 10 years later, you can find the blacklash front and center in the public’s eye, much closer to occupying the same space as the misguided critique itself.

    That shift alone keeps me optimistic that we’re at least moving in the right direction.

    (And, like many I’m sure, I know I learned a great deal more as a kid from reading every possible description in games like Civilization 2 then I did from my elementary school history lessons!)

  5. Marc Venot

    November 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    In Civilization by Firaxis the setup was clear.
    Here that the Native’s hero go mainly against the red coats is good as well for the French side (thus Quebec) and the main market of the rebels (United States of America), even if the last is not historically accurate.

  6. George Geczy

    November 17, 2012 at 2:43 am

    While there’s no doubt that the Globe editorial was poorly thought out, it is interesting that the discussion has generated has some very valid points from all sides. It’s clear that games like AC (and Age of Empires, and Civilization, and etc) can generate an interest in history and encourage their players to foster that interest in the “real world”. But there is also a huge power in games like AC to incorporate such true history into their fabric.

    This is similar to the debate that raged around the film “U-571” ten years ago, which was the a movie about how the Americans hunted a German sub in 1942 to capture an Enigma cipher machine. Except that the event happened in 1941… before the US was in the war… and it was the British that did it. So did the film do a service to history by telling a story about WWII and the important role that the capture of this device played, or did it do a disservice by creating a generation of Americans believing that it was a US success of the war?

    When I first heard bits of the AC III plot points a while ago I thought “hmmm, a native perspective in the Revolutionary war, that should be interesting to have the Colonials as the bad guys…” but of course that’s not what actually was produced. Yes, it’s a game, and yes, they can play with the history however they want, but there’s no denying the power of a game like AC to educate people without them even knowing it. Ubisoft has always employed extensive historical research into these games, so when they knowingly deviate from some historical points it is a bit of a lost opportunity.

    • RabbitFly

      November 17, 2012 at 7:14 am

      I think people should be careful about complaining about historical inaccuracies without actually playing through the game. ACIII does not take a good vs. bad perspective on the war and although you help out the patriots for most of the game, you never actually join their side and the evil of both sides is constantly in focus.

      In fact the argument that ACIII depicts the native Americans as fighting against the loyalists or British, is totally wrong as a big plot point of the game is the exact opposite. Unless the globe considers the games main protagonist, Connor, to be representing all of the native american tribes. Which begs the question…. isn’t that borderline racism?

      The games main protagonist, Connor, is also constantly conflicted as to which is more important. The freedom of the colonists or the freedom of his people, and sadly he finds out too late that they are not one and the same.

      • petenowak2000

        November 17, 2012 at 10:04 am

        Well put!

      • George Geczy

        November 17, 2012 at 11:57 pm

        Yes, I think we can all agree that the Globe really screwed up that editorial, in particular since one of the points they were trying to make (about the power of games to educate) gets lots in their inaccuracies about ACIII.

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