The Assassin’s Perspective: Teaching History with Video Games
Nicolas Trépanier, May 2014
"So how much of Assassin’s Creed is, like…true?” The voice grows more hesitant as the student realizes how silly he must look asking about a video game in the middle of a serious college history course.
Many of us have had this experience: a question pops up about some historical tidbit encountered in a video game, and we instructors cannot offer much of a reply except to list all the things the game got wrong. That’s assuming we know the game in question, of course.
I got tired of being stuck in such a dismissive mode, especially because I know that many students come to college interested in history precisely because they’ve played historically themed video games. A course about the Crusades, the American Revolution, or the Napoleonic wars might sound especially interesting for one who has been there. As teachers of history, doesn’t that give us something to work with?
After designing and twice teaching a course about representations of history in video games, the historical inaccuracies of Napoleon: Total War or Civilization IV are as obvious to me as ever. But I also realize that, even more than I expected, using video games is a very efficient way to let undergraduates engage with historiography and leave them with a sophisticated, critical perspective that is likely to remain alive long after they graduate.
From Screen to Classroom
The Nizâris—or Assassins, as they are known in the West—were a minor Shi’i sect that became a significant political player in the Middle East around the time of the Crusades. They inspired the first of a very successful series of video games, whose later installments have explored Renaissance Italy, the Ottoman Empire, the American Revolutionary War, and, most recently, the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean. But the Nizâris are also the subject of a historiographical tradition that is marked by highly negative depictions in primary sources (written by Sunni opponents and perplexed European travelers), orientalist tropes (Bernard Lewis, the nemesis of theorist Edward Said, wrote what remains the best-selling book on the subject), and postorientalist revisionism.
Looking at the first game in the series, set in 1191, some might argue that the most historians can do is to list the game’s (numerous) inaccuracies, and leave it at that. As I found out teaching this course, they would be missing an exceptional opportunity to show students that history is not merely “what happened,” but rather the result of research, source criticism, and debates in theoretical approaches.
The course I designed for the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi is a seminar that requires students to play a few historically themed video games while they read academic articles related to the period or topic that is central to the game. When selecting the games my students have to play, I took care to draw from a variety of genres, because the historical component does not play the same part everywhere. Thus action-adventure games, like Assassin’s Creed, offer a relatively static view of the time period they use as a backdrop, whereas empire-management games, like those of the Total War series, attempt to simulate sociopolitical and economic processes in a more dynamic fashion. Furthermore, games that are at least a few years old are preferable both because of their relatively low price (unlike many recent games that can be as expensive as—the horror!—a college textbook) and because of their compatibility with older-model laptops; the latter is a plus when the latest gaming consoles sell for around $500.
Students prefer the latest titles, of course, but they have more freedom in the second half of the semester, when an individual research project requires them to pair one or several games of their choice to a question of historiographical significance. Thus my students have written papers on topics ranging from political intrigues or church architecture in Renaissance Italy to popular ideas of nature in early-20th-century America, and from conflicting cultural perspectives on war in the time of Cortés to the motivations behind Viking raids.
Dealing with Inaccuracies
Yes, “historical” video games are filled with inaccuracies. Yet more than a limitation, these inaccuracies can serve as a pretext for discussion. For example, what factors, beyond sheer ignorance, caused these inaccuracies in the first place? How do various cultural influences, such as the conventions of cinema, shape the way in which they present history? How do they relate to ethical and commercial considerations? It is rather striking to see how far, for example, the creators of the original Assassin’s Creed went to remove any religious contents from a game inspired by a group that an earlier generation of historians presented as Islamic terrorists. Indeed, merely raising these questions often pushed classroom discussions toward the relationship between these inaccuracies and ongoing historiographical debates—for example, by looking at how scholars today criticize older scholarship on the Nizâris and by trying to identify the historians whose works might have guided the choices of game designers.
By the end of the semester, the students had become keenly aware that the term of comparison, when evaluating the reliability
of historically themed video games, is not “real, objective history,” but rather the constantly debated and sometimes contradictory outcome of historiographical research. This seminar therefore succeeded, more efficiently than most undergraduate courses, in bringing students closer to the work that historians do, not just as teachers, but also as scholarly researchers.
In the process, the students also broke down the concept of “historical inaccuracy” into a variety of subcategories, such as aesthetics (the visual appearance of buildings in Jerusalem under Saladin), passive narrative elements (scenes that provide background and pretext to the assassins’ actions) and psychology (asking, for example, if the punishment/reward system built into the game mechanics corresponds to the cultural context of the medieval Levant), all the while taking into account the unique characteristics of video games as a medium, from the three-dimensional environment they let us explore to their essential mandate of creating a fun experience.
The most obvious benefit of this seminar was the excitement it created among the students, who rarely get to talk video games in the classroom. But it also gave them an alternative way to engage with academic publications. A typical undergraduate history course is defined by a given body of knowledge, typically a chronological narrative that represents a scholarly consensus. Its double objective is to convey this knowledge to students while training them in a number of transferable intellectual skills along the way. When things go well, undergraduates come out of the course knowing more about the War of Spanish succession or the institution of slavery, and with improved thinking and writing abilities. In the end, however, few students truly realize the multitude of debates that have led to the creation of that body of historical knowledge.
In this seminar, the video games that students played before coming to class provided the central organizing principle. Concretely, this allowed us to devote our entire discussion time to the complexity and nuance of the historians’ sources, methods, and interpretations. Indeed, the level of discussion rose organically as the weeks went by, and before long the students were referring to the scope, tone, approach, and arguments presented in the various articles, and invoking considerations about methodological challenges, competing theoretical approaches, and other ongoing debates. The engagement they had with the historiography, in short, rose to a level that I cannot recall seeing among undergraduates.
The critical perspective that students acquired in this seminar might also have more lasting potential than the average history course. Video games tend to be more popular among younger demographics, it is true, but this is a matter of generation rather than age. As such, it is likely that video games featuring the Crusades will keep entering the lives of some of them long after they’ve sold their textbooks on eBay. And indeed, staff members at the Honors College have told me that, while they are used to hearing students discuss video games in the hallways, participants in this seminar were the first ones they heard adopting a decidedly academic tone and debating issues such as computer modeling of social change in the conversations they had between classes.
Finally, the course brought these undergraduates to the cutting edge of scholarly research and debate, creating quite a bit of excitement and some unique opportunities. Thus the next time I offer this course, my students will read a peer-reviewed article that was originally written for this course.1
Beyond the Limitations
Some will be shocked by the idea of a course on video games in college, and for good reason. As a medium, video games are subject to limitations that make them incapable of conveying the full nuance and complexity of good historiography. But it is possible to recognize these limitations and still engage with the medium constructively, in a way that motivates students and complements (though, of course, should never replace) the mainstream curriculum. And as for whether Assassin’s Creed offers a truthful portrayal of history—well, this is a question worth a few weeks of discussion.
Nicolas Trépanier is an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi. His first academic monograph, Foodways and Daily Life in Medieval Anatolia: A New Social History, will be published by the University of Texas Press in fall 2014.
1. Joshua Holdenried with Nicolas Trépanier, “Dominance and the Aztec Empire: Representations in Age of Empires II and Medieval II: Total War,” in Matthew Kapell and Andrew Elliott, eds., Representations of History in Videogames (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, pp. 107–19). Incidentally, we should note the alarmingly marginal place that historians take in discussions on the relationship between history and video games. For example, only one-third of the contributors to this edited volume have their primary disciplinary affiliation in history. But as the first book to directly address the topic of representation of history in video games, it also offers a potentially important starting point for historians interested in chiming in. The editors of the book have put together a website; playingwiththepast.com.
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