The Globe and Mail ran a sizable feature over the weekend on Assassin’s Creed III, the latest in Ubisoft’s historical action-adventure series. The timing of the story was a little odd given that the game was released back in October, although it does coincide (most likely coincidentally) with the announcement of the upcoming next game in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The article, which asks whether AC3 is rewriting history, seems to be a follow-up to the Globe’s ill-conceived editorial back in November, which asserted that yes indeed, the game does distort what really happened.
It’s always something of a curiosity when the mainstream media takes an interest in video games. Usually, the focus is on violence and whether games are brainwashing kids into shooting up their schools. Fortunately, that’s not the case here, although the medium’s potential negative effects are still at the core of the story.
Assassin’s Creed is proving to be a particularly poignant topic for the Globe, Canada’s national newspaper, for several reasons. The franchise is Paris-based Ubisoft’s flagship, yet it is been born and bred in Montreal, at the company’s biggest and most important studio. Assassin’s Creed III, meanwhile, is set during the American revolution with a half-British, half-Mohawk protagonist. As such, it’s a Canadian-made product with some Canadian-relevant history in it.
The article makes a better-than-average effort at balance, with writer Ian Brown talking not just to developers at Ubisoft, but also to history professors who have actually played the game. Still, there are things about it that are off. As someone who writes for a living – and who writes a lot about games – I’m fairly cognizant of how language can be used to convey a particular slant, or at least how it can betray such a position. And boy, is this story ever full of the sorts of anti-gaming hallmarks that the mainstream media has been perpetuating for years.
Here are just a few of the issues I had with the story:
- The headline: “Are video games like Assassin’s Creed rewriting history?” First, the copy editor in me cringes at the word “like.” Are we talking about Assassin’s Creed specifically, or games “like” Assassin’s Creed, but not actually Assassin’s Creed? This is why we had the phrase “such as” beaten into us in journalism school. (Yes, I do realize this probably only matters to detail-obsessed copy editors.) The bigger crime here is the question mark headline, which firmly falls within Betteridge’s law: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.“
- The first few paragraphs tell us that history is “taught” at university, but “inhaled” in a video game. That pretty much sets the tone of the article: never mind whether a particular professor is any good or whether his or her students have any actual interest in the topic, there’s actual “teaching” going on at school. History in a video game, meanwhile, can only be breezily consumed regardless of how good the source is or how engaged the player is.
- The story also tells us that Assassin’s Creed III costs $60. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that in any story about any other medium and I’m not sure how it’s relevant in any context.
- Two doctoral candidates in history at York University who actually play the game are interviewed and they aren’t “pimply adolescent boys chewing pixels in a basement rec room, though plenty of those play Assassin’s Creed.” Further down in the story, the official stats are mentioned – that the average gamer is 31, with almost half being women. Given that, is there a need to reference the old stereotype? Can we not have a “serious” story about video games without being reminded of the main audience for them, say, 20 years ago? And if we’re going to go the stereotyping route, how about some facts rather than suppositions? AC3 is rated Mature, or 17-plus. While there are certainly people younger than that playing the game, if the ESRB ratings system is working at all – and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t to at least some extent – the assumption should be that the majority of people playing AC3 are not “pimply adolescent boys.”
- The historian couple will apparently soon be playing the game again with some friends at their regular gamers’ dinner. That, like the story’s assertion that a Mohawk fighting for the Americans, seems “highly unlikely,” given that it’s largely a single-player game. As fun as any game is, there’s almost nothing more dreadful than watching someone else play while you idly sit there. So, unless they’re going to go to the trouble of setting up a big LAN party to have a multiplayer session – which again seems unlikely, since it’d be way easier to just do so online – this looks to be a misinterpretation of what the couple actually said.
- Speaking of a Mohawk fighting for the Americans against the Redcoats, that assertion is made several times in the story. As many commenters pointed out when the Globe‘s editorial ran, so is the likelihood of an Italian plumber eating size-altering mushrooms and riding flying turtles. This is fictional entertainment we’re talking about, right?
- “For every relatively scrupulous movie such as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, there’s an Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Okay, I really couldn’t figure out what that’s supposed to mean. Why is no one writing stories under the headline, “Are movies such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter rewriting history?” Maybe because, much like the comparison, it’s absurd?
- “A passel of establishment types, including this newspaper, have accused Ubisoft of irresponsibly goosing the historical facts of the American Revolution to boost sales.” I had to look up “passel,” which means “a large group of people or things of indeterminate number; a pack.” And actually, aside from the Globe, a review in Forbes and Fox News, I haven’t seen anyone making a big deal out of the supposed historical inaccuracies of Assassin’s Creed III.
- In regards to the newspaper’s original editorial, “the easily offended gaming world responded with Twitter-trending counter-arguments.” And there is it – the big FU put-down to gamers. Their points have no validity; they’re just easily offended.
- “Common sense does suggest that we ought to care more about the pervasive effects of history mangling in video games: They are more popular (in sales), more anti-establishment, and played by millions of impressionable young people who could conceivably take fiction for fact.” To back that up, we have “a 2008 Pew Internet and American Life survey revealed that 90 per cent of Americans 12 to 17 years old play video games – 99 per cent of boys and 94 per cent of girls. Half play every day.” Wow. Those stats clearly show that video games really do have the potential to be influential on teens. I wonder what percentage also listen to music and watch TV and movies. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, would it?
- ‘“I don’t think that there’s a single event that hasn’t gone through multiple interpretations or iterations in terms of what people believe even happened, let alone what was important about it, or what led up to it or what followed it.” Welcome to history’s brave new world.’ The quote is from AC3 creative director Alex Hutchison and it’s actually correct. The addendum is not. Any of the historians quoted in the story would agree that history is indeed mutable rather than absolute. It changes as new facts become known and depending on who’s telling the story. As such, video games aren’t ushering in any sort of brave new world – that’s how history has always worked.
- “If they wanted to get it right,” says Marc Egnal, a U.S. military historian at York University, “they should have made the hero from one of the smaller tribes in the south,” where fighting for the Americans was more common. “But ‘Mohawk’ is a better sell.” I couldn’t quite figure this quote out. Who are Mohawks a better sell to? I can’t see many would-be purchasers saying, “Oh man, this game stars a Shawnee assassin? If it had been a Mohawk or Cherokee, for sure. But now? Forget it!”
- Egnal’s teaching assistant Adrian Gamble, who actually plays games, makes the most correct and poignant comment of the story: “Thousands and thousands of teenagers have now played it. A weekend at colonial Williamsburg, surrounded by people dressed as peasants and churning butter, would make them shudder. Whereas if you can be an assassin in colonial Williamsburg – it’s cool. Then you can sympathize with the way people lived, with what it was like back then, and the seriousness of the decisions they had to make.” Like I said in my critique of the Globe editorial, that’s the whole point of fictionalized history: it’s not to brainwash anyone into thinking it’s gospel, it’s to spur their interest in learning more. Sure, Argo is woefully incorrect, but how many people – especially younger people – gave a crap about the Iran hostage crisis before it came out? How many are reading about it now and making up their own minds? Certainly more than a year ago. That’s a good thing, right? Anyone who has actually played Assassin’s Creed III and paid attention to its story knows it presents the virtues and failings of all involved parties, which is almost to say the game designers are imploring players to go out and learn more for themselves. That’s an invitation to real learning, not inhaling.
I could go on, but that’s enough for now. While I admire the effort at a balanced analysis of video games and their place in intellectual discourse, I do think the execution and delivery of it could have been framed much more neutrally.
The article shows the mainstream media is starting to take some steps forward in treating video games as a proper medium with important effects on culture, but it also highlights the institutional biases that are still there regardless of best intentions. Is this progress? (Cue Betteridge’s Law.)