J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Playing Assassin’s Creed III as an Early American Historian

Last week at The Junto blog, Michael D. Hattem reviewed the Assassin’s Creed III videogame as a scholar of early America:
What drew me to the game, as an early Americanist, was the historically accurate renderings of the colonial and revolutionary settings. Also, throughout the game you interact with actual historical figures and play important roles in the most important events of the period. What early Americanist wouldn’t want the chance to walk around Boston in 1754, a Mohawk village, Valley Forge, and, especially for me, New York in 1776? Or participate in the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Battle of Monmouth? . . .

I am not ashamed to admit that I found it quite exciting to walk into the Green Dragon Tavern to interact with Samuel Adams and to subsequently board the Dartmouth to take part in the Tea Party. At one point, your character has to ride his horse from Boston all the way out to Lexington on a snowy evening, the rendering of which was stunning. During the Battles of Lexington and Concord, you ride along with Paul Revere and end up commanding the Minutemen charged with holding the North Bridge. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, you are tasked with swimming out into the harbor and destroying the cannon on one of the ships bombarding Breed’s Hill. To do so, you have to run down through Charlestown while buildings, including the church steeple, collapse in front of you due to cannon fire. . . .

In the end, barring a time machine, this game is as close as one can get to a dynamic visual experience of colonial and revolutionary settings. For the non-historian, the game will also bring home the violent nature of the Revolution, something often downplayed in popular history and oft-ignored even in the scholarship. Being an early Americanist, the game has led me to consider more the nature of the settings in which the historical subjects about whom I write lived. But, most of all, it proved to be just a whole lot of fun.
Hattem reported that there’s a setting to turn down the gore, making the many attacks more bloodless, and that his six-year-old son enjoyed the game. The younger Hattem had been somewhat prepared for the storyline by episodes of Liberty’s Kids, one of those television cartoons that will never die.

This Junto review included a helpful video with clips of the action, and those made me pause. And rewind and look again to be sure of what I was seeing:
  • Lots of non-eighteenth-century facial hair, on such figures as Capt. John Parker.
  • British soldiers attacking the Tea Party. There weren’t any redcoats in central Boston in 1773. Royal officials didn’t dare interfere with that action.
  • Provincial militiamen defending the North Bridge at Concord from advancing British soldiers rather than the other way around.
So for all the care the game makers took with the settings, for all the details they included (William Molineux memorialized in a videogame? Amazing!), Assassin’s Creed III promotes some fundamentally mistaken notions about important Revolutionary events. Those might grow from misconceptions or compromises to make the play more exciting. But through lifelike images and sheer ubiquity this game will probably help to shape how a generation pictures the Revolution.


Michael D. Hattem said...

Thanks, J.L.! I took a little heat for not taking apart all the historical inaccuracies in the game. But I set out to simply describe how it felt to play the game, what the experience was like. A video game is no different than a movie, nowadays. Of course the creators took liberties in order to improve gameplay, like screenwriters do so to heighten the drama of the story they are telling. It is a fictional game that is only SET in the colonies during the Revolution. The storyline that the franchise has been developing for 7 previous games would always have taken precedence over historical accuracy. I found myself more pleased with the things they did get right than displeased with the things they got wrong. Expecting this video game to actually teach kids about the Revolution is too much to ask of any video game or movie. But if it can spark an interest in the subject, then it has done its job from a historical perspective, as far as I'm concerned. That's not to say that the historical inaccuracies aren't interesting or that, in some sense, a post by someone should be written about it. But, like when we go to the movies, if we historians can suspend our historical disbelief while playing it (which I found to be much easier than I anticipated because it's easy to get wrapped up in the environment), the game provides a very fun and memorable experience.

J. L. Bell said...

I inferred that approach from your article, and don't want to suggest that it's the wrong approach when reviewing a game. Especially one about an assassin who can make himself invisible.

I don't think it's such a videogame's function to teach accurately about history. But the impressions that it leaves will stick with people—especially when the scene-setting is so detailed. I'm still trying to get over misimpressions from the movie 1776, which I saw in 5th grade, and I knew it was fiction back then.

Of the inaccuracies, I can see the reason for showing redcoats trying to stop the Tea Party in order to make the game more exciting. In my historical fiction I've changed some events, too. And I have no problem with the Washington-as-tyrant alternative ending.

Changes that don't seem necessary for the game are more bothersome, especially if they seem to arise out of common misconceptions (i.e., lazy research).. Given the level of visual detail the game can provide, was it really necessary to give Capt. Parker mid-19th-century whiskers to make his character distinct? Wouldn't an accurate portrayal of the action at the North Bridge be just as exciting to play as what the game shows?

Robert S. Paul said...

It's definitely a game.

And the game takes place in a beautiful 18th century atmosphere.

Beyond that, I really had to turn of my brain to enjoy it because I just know too much about the era and the location. It's sort of like watching The Patriot or the first National Treasure. Great environment and feel, but historically terrible.

It was bizarre as well, since they made such a fuss about Paul Revere not needing the lanterns in the Church, and what a myth that was, to be followed up by minutemen and militia fighting in uniforms behind stone walls erected on the North Bridge.

Obviously, the game is about an assassin murdering people to stop their nefarious plots to circumvent the Revolution for their own needs, and there's a notion that history was written differently to hide this (Braddock is killed by being stabbed to death in the game). But even so, the facial hair, the "militia uniforms", and some of the more blatant historical accuracies really irked me.

On the other hand, I could play naval missions all day long!

J. L. Bell said...

By coincidence the front page of today's Boston Globe quotes a high-school student making this argument to his mother for buying Assassin's Creed III: “It’s set during the Revolutionary War, so it’s a history lesson.”

He was unsuccessful.

Unknown said...

When playing the game can you move around boston freely or do you have to pass levels to see everything? I dont care about the game just want to walk around colonial boston

J. L. Bell said...

I can't answer that question, but perhaps someone else who sees this page can.