Recently, Boston historian J.L. Bell was interviewed by Radio Boston about the upcoming contribution to Ubisoft’s series Assassin’s Creed. The newest entry is set in the years surrounding the American Revolution, and follows the life of half-Mohawk half-English Connor Kenway. One of the many interesting aspects of this game is how often the developers, in their interviews with the gaming press as well as their press releases, have referenced the impact of historical research on shaping the game- but Bell’s interview is probably the first (or at least it’s the first I’d heard of) discussion with an actual historian about the game. On the whole the discussion is actually more positive than I’d initially expected; both the interviewer and Bell take the rampant violence of the Assassin’s Creed series in humorous stride, and Bell really engages with the game’s presentation of 18th century Boston, calling it a “wonderful recreation…visually.”
That all being said, Bell does take issue with the game’s presentation of the British. For example, while acknowledging that he is only viewing the trailer to the game (and thus not privy to the context of the whole game), Bell points out that the designers had placed British troops in Boston several years prior to their actual occupation. Probably most damningly, the designers had also decided to portray the use of the stocks as a British punishment, instead of the local and public humiliation it was actually used for. Couple this with the infinitely epic “Rise” trailer, and there is a worryingly strong tendency for the British to be appearing as cartoonish villains in the promotional material for this game.
Now why is this all important? To begin with (and repeating my first post) attempts at accurate historical representations of 18th century America are few and far between in modern media. For being a century (or series of decades, really) that exercises such a strong hold on American popular consciousness, there are remarkably slim pickings in film, video games, etc. The two other main video games which deal with the American Revolution in some form or another would be Sid Meier’s Colonization and Empire: Total War, both of which dealt more with the time period and its zeitgeist than with seeking to present an accurate picture of the past.* Assassin’s Creed 3, on the other hand, works on the conceit that its fantasy is relatively grounded in a semi-accurate presentation of the past- it’s a fictional conspiracy that’s known to be a fictional conspiracy layered over various historical truths. Thus the developers feel entirely comfortable establishing “secret correspondence” between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford discussing a plot to take over the world, but insist upon ensuring that every death happens at its historically accurate time and that characters can’t just be showing up willy-nilly when they’re living across the ocean.
Secondly, and I’ll discuss this point a bit further in my next post on this subject, if video games are to be used as an entry point into historical discussions (as many historians, educators, and gamers have suggested), it’s important to be aware of where the sticking points might be. If we can begin by clearing the air on how the British are portrayed**, it would leave more room for discussion on what the games get right in history and how they might be used to help students expand their historical imagination. Nonetheless, this post is running a bit long, so I’ll cut it at this point and pick up next week. I look forward to seeing you there!
(HT to John Fea for linking to the interview which inspired this first foray.)
*If I keep up with my schedule, I’ll be unpacking this statement further on Monday.
**As a private sidenote, I am still personally reserving judgment on whether or not this will be the case. The designers have repeatedly stated that the British would not be portrayed in an unfair light, and so long as Ubisoft refrains from associating the British and Loyalists with the Nazis, Assassin’s Creed III will remain one of the better treatments of this period in American history.