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.
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.”
Focus groups revealed that people knew very little about the period. “We did some consumer studies early on, and we’d ask people, ‘What do you know about the American Revolution?’ And they would say, ‘Well, didn’t everybody live in tents? And it was Billy the Kid and Christopher Columbus.’ … You’d be amazed by how few people got even the century sort of right.
“It’s depressing.” He pauses. “But it’s also an opportunity: They don’t know anything! We can completely come in and show you it’s cool.”
The trick was not to commit to a position. That’s how you make history sell. “We tried very much to stay out of taking sides in the revolution,” Mr. Hutchinson admits, “which is one of the reasons we chose a native American. So that we could say he’s not a British soldier fighting for king and country, and he’s not a colonial fighting for truth, justice and the American way. He’s actually one step removed from that.”
Mr. Hutchinson argues that this is in keeping with current historical methods: “I think anyone who argues that history is objective or static is very confused,” he says. “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.
Whether or not it’s precisely accurate, it’s imperative that the game, like a movie, look and sound authentic. So Ubisoft hired Maxime Durand, who at the time of AC III’s conception had a freshly inked history BA from the University of Montreal.
Not a gamer himself, he assembled 60 gigabytes of historical documents: maps of Boston and New York before and after various fires; compendia of flags and military uniforms; Haudenosaunee portraits of local natives (to ensure “respectful” depictions); working-dress catalogues for crowd life; and even Lobcocks and Fartleberries, a compendium of 18th-century insults for Connor to overhear as he stalks his prey.
“The fishmonger – what did he look like?” Mr. Durand says. “Can we place these people around the harbour? So if the player stops fighting for one second and looks around, he’ll understand a breathing, living world of the 18th century, talking like the 18th century, doing jobs of that time.”
There were many arguments along the way. The game-play designers wanted rain gutters, so Connor could climb them. Mr. Durand pointed out that rain gutters did not exist at the time. His strict attention to detail paid off. The game’s version of Boston’s State House is so painstaking that State House archivists have asked to use Ubisoft’s documents in restoring the building.
What, then, about the controversy? Mr. Durand defends the decision to make a Mohawk a supporter of the Americans: While most Mohawks were British allies or neutral, there are documented exceptions.
“The Iroquois Confederacy was destroyed during the American Revolution,” Mr. Durand says. “They all ended up fighting each other. … We don’t take the [majority] view that historians used to, 50 or 60 years ago. The philosophy today is that history is more about different points of view.”
Today’s games reflect an evolution that has been stirring up history as a discipline for decades. Civilization, a game released in 1991 (Time Magazine named it one of the top 100 ever), took a more Whiggish approach – history as a series of conquests and ever-greater progress.
That understanding of history, says Jean-François Lozier, an expert on early French Canada at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, started to go stale in the 1960s, “before historians realized that history is also about the lived experience of human beings, most of whom were not at the top of the pyramid.”
Dr. Lozier has his complaints with AC III – he finds its treatment of Mohawk women and spirituality superficial and misleading – but he is a fan because it sparks an interest in history.
“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.
Hence this violent game starring a handsome, blade-wielding, wilderness-roaming, semi-Mohawk assassin with a sometime girlfriend: The feminine appeal is reminiscent of the Twilight series.
“I think it’s getting harder and harder to say, ‘This is a gamer,’ ” says Corey May, AC III’s writer – who first rode an Atari joystick at the age of 2, and sees his niece doing the same today at that age with an iPad. “People are consuming games in different ways.”
Gaming has become so mainstream that in House of Cards, Netflix’s much-hyped new political drama series, Kevin Spacey plays a middle-aged member of Congress who winds down at day’s end with a controller.
To see this evolution at its most developed, you need only return to the neat, cultured, cat- and Noguchi-lamp-strewn apartment of Ms. Dolmage and Mr. Brownlie.
Mr. Brownlie, a long-time fan of first-person-shooter games, hasn’t played a single 10-minute segment of his favourite – the ultraviolent Call of Duty – since the schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut in December. “I feel uncomfortable,” he says. “Owning that particular game makes me feel uncomfortable about something in myself.”
Instead, he is playing the less violent and more immersive AC III with Ms. Dolmage – who often chooses not to kill opponents in the game on ethical grounds. The couple compares the streetscapes to what they saw on their last trip to Boston, and discuss the thematic resonance of a fictional Mohawk assassin scaling 3-D versions of Manhattan skyscrapers built in real life by actual Mohawk ironworkers.
They aren’t bothered by the statistical unlikelihood of Connor: Erin is studying Métis culture, and knows there are always exceptions to historical generalities. Besides, she adds, “it’s problematic to suggest that all Mohawks thought the same way. If you are Mohawk, this is one of the few games that is about you.”
These days, she’s also playing Skyrim, a gorgeous quester; Journey, an emotional, non-linear, non-fighting game that encourages co-operation with strangers; and BioShock – “the most beautiful game I’ve ever played. It’s a critique of Ayn Rand.”
She thinks “the challenge to make games more inclusive is coming from the left, from women, from marginalized people.”
“And the pushback,” Mr. Brownlie adds, “makes some people – basically, some young men – angry.”
These patterns are common with any new cultural form. As Ms. Dolmage points out, when novels first appeared, they were labelled as being for women, and considered ungainly, romantic, sentimental affairs. Eventually, writers such as Jane Austen made them more sophisticated, they gained prestige and status – and more men started reading them.
Movies started out as “lowbrow” entertainment, then gradually became universal. And games, too, are evolving.
In the future, first-person shooters might be seen as the gaming equivalent of Clarissa and Pamela – fare for hysterical young men. “Games are becoming more sophisticated,” Mr. Brownlie concludes. “They’re making you do more, and think more.”
Ms. Dolmage appends a final thought as the afternoon winds down: “It’s interesting to think about what games like this, that claim to be historically accurate, mean for the authority of historians,” she says. “Mark and I both work … on groups that are typically not written about. As soon as you change the perspective of what you’re writing about, and whose perspective you’re writing from, history is going to change.”
The same can be said of the perspective from which you game. More than a century before Ubisoft appropriated the story of the legendary medieval hashashin for its Assassin’s Creed franchise, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche admired them. He thought the assassins were history’s only truly free men. He admired their motto: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
Nowadays, more and more people are taking it to heart.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the website Jon Ore writes for as Dorkshow. The name of the website is Dork Shelf. This version has been corrected.