"Not for us John Keats and his tidy odes ..."
November 8, 2021 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Caroline Wazer (Lapham's, 11/08/2021), "It's Time for Some Game Theory: Experiencing history in Assassin's Creed": "The most tantalizing loose end for me, a casual player of the games and a holder of a PhD in history, is the brief editorial note that introduces the section, which justifies the AHR's decision to branch into video-game reviewing as coming out of concern for what nonhistorians derive from playing historically themed video games ... What the boys did nearly unanimously report to Gilbert is that Assassin's Creed had made them feel more emotionally connected to the past." The paywalled AHR issue lists DOI info. More about painters John Martin and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Ruskin, The Art of England. Barthes, "The Discourse of History" / "The Reality Effect" [PDFs]. More by Wazer, who "couldn't figure out a way to work the cats into this essay, but this thread lives on."
posted by Wobbuffet (14 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I've never played the games. I'm not sure I actually want to. But, listening to scholars talk about them is always fun. I'm saving these for bus reading. Thanks!

(The Archy Fantasties blog and podcast has spent some time on the games, if anyone's looking for more.)
posted by eotvos at 5:47 PM on November 8, 2021

Not a historian, and a very low-level history buff at best but playing AC: Valhalla and stalking around 9th century London surrounded by Roman ruins was visceral in a way that's very difficult to replicate in another medium. I did end up doing a fair bit of reading up about the time period afterwards and I definitely wouldn't have otherwise.
posted by signalnine at 6:15 PM on November 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

All the assassin's creed fans i know, who are in the fandom and writing fanfiction, have ended up doing historical research so annecdotally it tracks.
posted by subdee at 7:50 PM on November 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Assassin's Creed 2 was a blast, and led to my doing research into the early modern world, which led to writing a historical novel (which I finished but never published), which led to learning Portuguese, which led to more research, which led to translating and publishing, among other things, (late) early modern texts from Portuguese. I owe a lot to video games!
posted by heteronym at 8:06 PM on November 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

Poor John Keats - not to be a footnote to an in-joke, but to be accused of tidiness!
posted by clew at 9:22 PM on November 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

[The game designers] '“produced one of the most authentic depictions of eighteenth-century life in popular culture”—far more historically accurate, he adds, than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton.'

Hamilton isn't supposed to be an accurate depiction of its historical period! It's theatricalized and abstracted and largely told in a musical idiom that wasn't invented until 200 years later! [/grumble derail]

Otherwise this article is very interesting, thank you.
posted by HeroZero at 4:51 AM on November 9, 2021

Ahem. Now that I've RTFA in its entirety, I can see that it very much engages with these ideas, with other works if not with Hamilton .
posted by HeroZero at 5:10 AM on November 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I greatly enjoyed Assassin's Creed 1 and 2. However, I found 3 disappointing. The graphics and worlds are great, though they seem to have sacrificed the open-world nature of the game in favour of a number of historical set-pieces on rails, with your character shoehorned into key points of the American Revolution like some kind of heavily armed Forrest Gump. (Riding tandem with Paul Revere? Really?) It felt less like a game and more like something created by well-meaning pedagogues to make a high-school history course more engaging.

Do the subsequent games go back to the open-world nature of the first two?
posted by acb at 5:24 AM on November 9, 2021

acb, I found 3 to be the low point of the series. Unity and Syndicate were fun. They both dive heavily into the Forrest Gump, you-are-there-for-every-major-event tendency, but they nonetheless give you plenty of opportunity to roam free through their open-world re-creations of revolutionary France and Victorian London, respectively.

And Origins? Origins is one of my favorite games in the series. It's particularly rich in that open-world feeling you and I both love. Steam tells me I've sunk 80 hours into it, and I'm still not tired of roaming around ancient Egypt.
posted by yankeefog at 5:45 AM on November 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's not just Assassins Creed. I find that most will done historical games teach about the period they are set in and encourage taking an interest in it. 15 years ago I got really into Combat Mission (at the time a fantastically WWII tactical game), and eventually I was able to look at a photo of, say, a tank, and tell what kind of tank it was, probably what variant it was, what kind of weapons it had, and maybe how thick the armor was. (That skill has faded with time). Of course, it didn't give much insight beyond its limited window. I didn't learn much about the lived experience of the war or its causes or atrocities from the game.

There's a trope I sometimes see on the history reddits about people who learn history from playing Europa Universalis, and then they overconfidently try to spread their bad history around, and this is why we can't have nice things. And it's true! Games can be immersive enough that they encourage overconfidence: you didn't just read about the 30 years war, you lived it! And at the same time, they typically prioritize fun over historical accuracy, and since they are often written by non historians, they miss stuff, have a limited focus, and may contain ideas which do not reflect the current understanding. (The Civilization games get regular criticism for encouraging the view that history is about progress towards eventual victory)

But! The idea that an engaging game might encourage people to take an interest in history outside the game is totally true in my experience. I've read dozens of books about WWII because of my interest in Combat Mission. Europa Universalis sparked an interest in European history that is ongoing, and reflected in my reading list. Crusader Kings made me read up on the history of medieval India among other things. If I played Assassins Creed, I'm sure it would do the same.
posted by surlyben at 6:49 AM on November 9, 2021

Crusader Kings made me read up on the history of medieval India among other things

As long as it doesn't inspire romantic interest in siblings or cousins, that's fine.
posted by acb at 9:20 AM on November 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Egypt too: Egyptologist Joann Fletcher going through Assassins' Creed Origins.
posted by emmet at 9:32 AM on November 9, 2021

A few years ago I dragged my 13-year-old son to a lecture by a scholar who was using MRI scans to read old, charred scrolls from Pompei and Herculaneum. We chatted after and he spotted my son, and asked him if he liked Assassin's Creed. He explained to us that a few years before was dragging his son through the old parts of Florence and he kept getting lost. At some point his son looked and had a startling recognition. Where are you trying to go, dad? Follow me. It turned out he know parts of the city like the back of his hand from playing Assassin's Creed.
posted by LarryC at 1:33 PM on November 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

AC Origins is great in that it's set around Cleopatra's reign, and that seems so far back in time for us, but even back then, you run and climb around thousands years older ruins and pyramids. Gives you a new perspective on how ancient the pyramids actually are.
posted by ymgve at 4:53 AM on November 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

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