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.
Games are also electronic and immersive, qualities whose hypnotic power we understand all too well. And underlying all these worries is the slipperiness of the truth and the self-serving way we sometimes use it.
“Historians use footnotes to point to the hard evidence they used to demonstrate that a scenario is plausible,” observes Adrienne Hood, a professor of history at the University of Toronto. “But there is always an element of interpretation.”
Remove the footnotes, as games do, and interpretation is all that’s left. And then who’s in charge of recording who we were? As game-makers use history to reach a wider audience, they undermine conventional history’s authority. This makes a lot of people very nervous.
To understand the uses and abuses of history in video games, it would help to know how Assassin’s Creed III was created. So I went to visit Ubisoft’s 2,400-employee subsidiary in downtown Montreal, the largest in the French company’s global empire.
The designers readily admit that the game’s backstory is a vast conspiracy theory within a conspiracy theory. Relics and DNA are involved: Desmond Miles, born in 1987, a descendant of an ancient order of assassins, is kidnapped by a corporation that wants to control the world and stave off a solar flare that will destroy all life on the planet.
Des is placed in a virtual-reality/time machine that lets him relive the lives and recover the memories of his assassin ancestors, in an ongoing, millennia-long battle against the Knights Templar (who control the corporation that kidnapped Des). That part is inspired by actual battles between 11th-century Arab hashashin (assassins) and early Christian crusaders.
“It’s an ideological war,” explains Corey May, the series’ lead writer. A Los Angeleno with an economics degree from Harvard, the 36-year-old was recruited eight years ago when Ubisoft asked William Morris, the talent agency, to find “Hollywood-level” writers for their games.
“The Templars are characterized by a desire to impose order. It is that sort of perverted, paternal or elder idea: ‘We know what’s best. Let us guide you and shape you and protect you.’ … The assassins on the other hand are champions of free will, and believe in the idea of self-determination: It’s this idea of ‘nothing is true and everything is permitted.’ ”
Earlier instalments were set in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Italy. AC III introduces the half-British, half-Mohawk assassin Connor (he also has a second, authentically Mohawk name).
“Our original thought was to use history as a sort of bed to place the fiction inside,” says Australian-born Alex Hutchinson, the project’s creative director at Ubisoft. “So any time we use historical characters or historical events, we try as much as possible to be objective and not bend history. But any time we find cracks – areas that aren’t reported very much, or days that aren’t documented – we try to take those spaces.
“If we want Connor to meet George Washington, we know Washington’s at Valley Forge for this whole time, so it has to be there. We don’t necessarily know what he was doing hour to hour, so we feel comfortable sort of inventing those sections and those conversations, as long as what Washington is saying is supported by the historical record.”
That, in a nutshell, is Ubisoft’s definition of fidelity: as real as the need for action will bear. In one much-cited segment of the game, Ben Franklin explains the advantages of having an older mistress, because the real Ben Franklin expressed such views in a famous 1745 letter.
“It’s great,” Mr. Hutchinson says, “because people immediately point to these elements and say, ‘You’re putting words into the mouths of the founding fathers – you’re making things up!’ But absolutely not.”
To Mr. Hutchinson’s surprise, the American Revolution was almost untouched as a game setting: “You’d think, America being such a big audience, you’d do it. But the weaponry is very sort of clumsy. A musket is not exactly a straight shooter.”