“The game’s compelling, it’s immersive, even when the history is, shall we say, sloppy. It’s a compelling way of connecting with the past and de-connecting with one’s daily concerns. We shouldn’t hold video games to a higher standard than others forms of entertainment.”
Mr. Durand, the Ubisoft historian, agrees. “We just want to make a fun game that can sell. That’s what a video game is.” It’s not a book, in other words. “Is any video game 100 per cent accurate? No. … But neither is there any history that is, either.”
History is no longer a set of disputable, footnoted facts that lead slowly but inexorably to an authoritative version. It’s a set of facts surrounded by an even larger set of opinions and interpretations. And in a video game, history works less like a discipline and more like the free for all called the Internet.
None of these arguments impress Marc Egnal, a U.S. military historian at York University. It isn’t just that a Mohawk fighting for the Americans is “very unlikely.” What troubles Prof. Egnal is the meaning that is implied. “If they wanted to get it right,” he says, “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.”
By way of analogy, he points out that a very small number of African Americans fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War. To depict that as a norm “would be a gross distortion of history,” he says.
In real life, Connor’s allies in the game (Thomas Jefferson among them) went on to commit genocide against aboriginal people. Doesn’t that fact deserve mention?
It’s hinted at – native villages are burned, George Washington betrays Connor, and one of the last things our hero witnesses in the new land of the free is slaves being sold – but that barely compensates, in Prof. Egnal’s mind, for what he refers to as “the broader ideology” in which, morally, a lot of culprits get off scot-free (Connor the assassin included).
“I recognize,” Dr. Lozier counters, “that this should be the case in an ideal world. This is not an ideal world. Historians like to feel that we have a monopoly over the understanding of the past. And we do not.”
The assassins of meaning are everywhere.
But Prof. Egnal doesn’t play video games. If he did, he might find that the history in the game is simply background, seldom in danger of being taken as gospel.
His teaching assistant Adrian Gamble, on the other hand, is 26 and a gamer. He wrote his master’s thesis on the way games and military-combat simulators keep inspiring one another.
Mr. Gamble received Assassin’s Creed III as a Christmas present. “It seems pretty astounding that you can wonder around this colossal streetscape,” he says.
To him, its accuracy is not such a crucial issue. “The average 16-year-old is not going to think, ‘The Mohawk is allied with the Americans! That’s not what Mr. Johnson said in history class!’ ”
What matters more is that the game could be an average high-school student’s first engaging encounter with history.
“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.”
As light and dismissible as the history in AC III may be, it seems to represent the cusp of a bigger change – a shift in the way facts and truth are flexed in digital culture, where everyone can have a voice, an opinion, and at least surface authority.
As video gamers grow older and more diverse – the average gamer is 31, and 46 per cent of them now are women, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada – the industry is making games more inclusive.