Palling around with Samuel Adams in Assassin Creed's alternate America.
Yesterday, Canada's national newspaper sent shockwaves of smirking mock-indignation across the Internet. The Globe and Mail's Thursday editorial, "Assassin's Creed III video game distorts history," claimed that the newest video game in the popular Assassin's Creed series - which casts the player, for large snatches of the gameplay, as half-English, half-Mohawk assassin slinking through the American Revolutionary War - of misinforming Canadian youth about the details of colonial history.
Having apparently not played the game (and citing promotional material almost exclusively), the Globe ed-board presumed that the game teamed a Native American alongside American Minutemen, united in their distaste of Redcoat rule, in an attempt to negate the real lived history of Native Americans during the conflict. Moreover, the editorial chastises the game's Canadian-based developer for attaching themselves to a game about sticking it to the British, asking (non-rhetorically), "Whose side is Ubisoft Montreal on, anyway?" Really.
The Globe also claimed that, "given the dearth of history instruction in our schools, it might be the only place that Canadian young people are learning about the Revolutionary War." While former PM Paul Martin did recently go on record regarding the lack of education about Canadian (and specifically, first nations) history in schools, it seems out-and-out ludicrous to assume that kids are so dumb that they'd think a video game about a made-up assassin would have any sort of direct bearing on the history of the world. For what it's worth, I graduated from high school less than a decade ago and remember taking lots of and lots of history courses and approximately zero video game courses. Moreover, at some point along the line, and without the instruction of accredited teaching professionals or newspaper editorial writers, I managed to distinguish between video games and real life. I've never tried to ride a huge chicken to work or eat raw, anthropomorphic mushrooms to fortify my strength. (Once I did sneak around behind a No Frills in an oversized cardboard box, Metal Gear Solid style, but that's another story altogether.)
The patent ridiculousness of the piece - which, again, was not an op-ed or a bylined piece of criticism about the game but an honest to god newspaper editorial - led to all kinds of hilarious tweets under the #GlobeEditorial hashtag. Some griped that the Super Mario franchise misrepresents the working-class Italian American experience, while others warned against the detrimental health effects of a diet consisting entirely of fresh fruit and ghosts.
The general attitude that emerged was that the Globe was taking video games too seriously, which is a more than a bit odd considering that a persistent grumble among gamers is that video games aren't taken seriously enough. The Globe piece itself is racked in some respects by this odd double-bind, desperately pleading the representational significance of Assassin's Creed III while taking cheap swipes on the way out the door, derisively sneering that it's "just a video game." I think that this is, ultimately, the Globe most discrediting move.
Maybe there's an assumption that video games don't carry that same sort of heft as billboards or movies. Certainly, the release of a remade Red Dawn in theatres this weekend has been railroaded as Tea Party porn, the same kind of escapist "Ameriphilia" the Globe accuses Assassin's Creed III of. Is it so preposterous to make the same claims of video games?
For one thing, there's a certain ideological incoherence that, if not unique to video games, is certainly pronounced in them. Especially in violent war titles like Call Of Duty (or, in its own way, Assassin's Creed), games often invite the viewer to relish the thrills of combat (or stealthy historical manslaughter) while also pretending to complicate or punish those thrills. In the immensely popular Call of Duty games, for example, a screen appears when the player dies with quotes pertaining to, and often decrying, the bloodiness or pointlessness of warfare. Then three seconds later it's back to mowing down Soviet insurgents or some other super-terrorist threat.
War movies have long been guilty of such mixed messaging; simultaneously putting across the idea that combat is both glorious and soul-crushing. But the immersive quality of games seems even more disingenuous. They actively reward the player's experience of mock-warfare with both the inherent entertainment value and heavy-handed soapboxing.
In their own way, the Assassin's Creed games are these kinds of games. They invite the player to work as a covert killer, stalking through on or another historical epoch, exposing the indulgences and hypocrisy of the Third Crusade or the Ottoman Empire, quietly critiquing the shady machinations of power and violence, while at the same time making the gamer an agent of those same machinations. It's a weird tension, and points to something that - while not necessarily wrong or troubling - reveals how video games, despite being "just" video games, can still surge with all kinds of ideological voltage.
So the Globe is not necessarily wrong in presuming just that. Where they err is in the stuffy assumption that something that works with the material of history is necessarily historical in any meaningful way. In literature and cinema, there are whole subgenres given over to "What if?" historical scenarios. "What if the Confederates won the Civil War?" ask nine thousand Harry Turtledove novels. "What is Hitler was riddled with tommy gun fire while enjoying a movie?" asks Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. "What if Russia, or hey, even North Korea invaded the U.S. and somehow only high schoolers could stop them?" ask the respective Red Dawns. Assassin's Creed III is simply asking, "What is there was a brotherhood of trained killers who pulled the strings behind the scenes of world history?" or even more simply, "What if a half-English, half-Native assassin joined the American Revolutionary forces?" The premise itself is a revision, or even a suspension, of capital-h History. That's the whole point.
Doesn't it stand to reason that these kinds of questions invariably intrigue people already interested in history, who have a base awareness of the facts, such as they are? It's not revisionism so much as hyper-nerdy fantasy. In the so-called "alternate history" subgenre, both words prove equally operative. This is, after all, a game that offers the geeky kick of letting the player pal around with Samuel Adams.
The Globe's curious gesture of over-estimating Assassin Creed's social-historical weight while condescending to anyone who would play it offers, appropriately, a twofold lesson. It's not that you can't complicate something that's "just a video game." It's that if you do, you should bother to do it correctly, or at least without barely-veiled disdain for the medium. Maybe they can take a lesson from the #GlobeEditorial backlash. Hell hath no furry like tweeting gamers scorned.