This is one way history still gets taught: At 6 p.m. in a pink-and-beige lecture hall at the University of Toronto, 100 young men and women in HIS217Y are writing down everything, absolutely everything, Erin Black is saying about Woodrow Wilson and his efforts to keep the United States out of the First World War.
Prof. Black – mid-30s, glasses, speaking from notes and slides – is a first-rate lecturer. Forty-five minutes into her two-hour class, she has touched on American neutrality, immigrant reaction to U.S. neutrality, the British blockade, German submarines, the sinking of the Lusitania, J.P. Morgan, “peace without victory,” and the war’s galvanizing effect on labour, Prohibition and women’s suffrage, among other subjects.
Here’s another way history is inhaled today: At 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in a precise, book-upholstered apartment, Mark Brownlie, 42, and his fiancée, Erin Dolmage, 39, sit before their 60-inch plasma TV and play Assassin’s Creed III, a $60 video game about the American Revolution.
Ms. Dolmage gave the game to Mr. Brownlie for his birthday three days ago. So far, they’ve played eight hours and are only 14 per cent of their way through. These are not pimply adolescent boys chewing pixels in a basement rec room, though plenty of those play Assassin’s Creed. Mr. Brownlie and Ms. Dolmage are professional historians, doctoral candidates at York University.
Ms. Dolmage has the PlayStation controller at the moment. Connor, the game’s half-British, half-Mohawk member of a brotherhood of assassins, is about to die a hideous death on the beautifully rendered streets of 18th-century Boston at the hands of five bayonet-wielding redcoats.
“Mark’s much better at the combat stuff,” she says, her eyes never leaving the bright square of the TV. “And I’m much better at the running and the forest.” They’ll play again on Saturday at their regular gamers’ dinner with four other academic friends.
Of course, if you know the American Revolution, you may already be twitching. A Mohawk fighting for the Americans against the Redcoats? Very, very unlikely: The British promised natives could keep their land, whereas the Americans wanted to (and did) take it away.
Questions like that have had a lively airing since Ubisoft, the third-largest independent video-game manufacturer in Europe and North America, launched AC III last fall. It has been a gargantuan success: 12 million sold since Oct. 31, bringing the franchise total to more than 50 million units; Michael Fassbender is set to star in the movie. But it has also tossed video games into the battle over how loyal entertainment has to be to history.
Movies such as Argo (which won the best picture Academy Award last week) and Zero Dark Thirty (about the death of Osama bin Laden) have been lambasted for taking liberties. But they’re just the latest culprits. Last summer’s unearthing of Richard III’s bones in an English parking lot helped to confirm that Shakespeare’s portrait of the hunchback king – the go-to source for the past five centuries – is an unfair caricature, And for every relatively scrupulous movie such as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, there’s an Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Few people expect historical fiction to be dead accurate. “Do you watch Braveheart because you’re interested in Scottish or Irish history?” asks Jonathan Ore, a 26-year-old game reviewer for the website Dork Shelf. “No. You’re watching to see Mel Gibson chop people’s heads off.”
But the proliferation of all media, especially the digital kind, has made it easier to propagate lies for political purposes: Think of the invented scandal of Barack Obama’s birth certificate or the “inside job” claims around 9/11 and the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Hence our collective nervous breakdown about what’s supposed to be true, and who gets to say so.
Thus a passel of establishment types, including this newspaper, have accused Ubisoft of irresponsibly goosing the historical facts of the American Revolution to boost sales; the easily offended gaming world responded with Twitter-trending counter-arguments.
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.