Gaming History

Historical trappings are extremely popular with video game designers. The Assassin’s Creed (AC) series, for example, has made a great success of combining beautiful recreations of historical scenery with the sort of conspiracy fueled story lines that propel Dan Brown novels and the Nicolas Cage headed National Treasure series to the heights of popularity.[1] The Assassin’s Creed games present a fascinating vision of historical agency, where historical change is explained through a hybrid of extreme individual agency—in the form of the game’s protagonist(s)—and the unending trans-historical battle between competing secret societies.[2] This is a very cyclical vision of history. We (through the player character, Desmond Miles and his ancestors) can battle Evil but the struggle will repeat itself time after time.

As a historian and life-long gamer I find these aspects of my beloved hobby in turns fascinating, endearing, and befuddling.[3] The question of agency—whom or what produces historical continuity and change—is one of the most contested and controversial philosophical and historiographical problems in my profession. Entire fields, such as the history of American slavery and abolition, have been riven by big-stakes arguments over such questions.[4] Few things are better at sparking heated debate (and more than a few eye-rolls) than bringing up the “agency question” in a seminar room or at a conference.

Video game designers and writers wade into this intellectual battlefield in ways that will likely surprise and frustrate most historians. I want to explore how historical agency is represented in modern gaming by looking at two recent games from Paradox Interactive—Europa Universalis IV (2013) and Crusader Kings II (2012). Both are “grand strategy games,” a genre very different from Assassin’s Creed. Born out of war and strategy board games—from the old stand-by Risk to much more complex games like Settlers of Catangrand strategy games allow the player to take control of a nation-state, cultural group, or civilization and shape its future. To make matters more interesting, a video game allows many more facets of the human experience to be modeled than a board game does.[5] Continue reading

Guest Post: “X” Marks the History: Plundering the Past in Assassin’s Creed IV

Robert Whitaker is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation, “Policing Globalization: The Imperial Origins of International Police Cooperation, 1918-1960″ studies the relationship between the British Empire and international police organizations, such as Interpol. He serves as an Assistant General Editor for the journal Britain and the World, and is the creator of the YouTube series History Respawned. Bryan S. Glass teaches the history of Britain’s interactions with the World at Texas State University. He is the founding member and General Editor of The British Scholar Society and serves as an Editor of the Britain and the World book series (Palgrave Macmillan). His publications include an article in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth HistoryThe Scottish Nation at Empire’s End (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming), and a co-edited volume with John MacKenzie entitled Scotland, Empire and Decolonisation in the Twentieth Century (Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

ACIVc

French game company Ubisoft has turned early American history into an age of booty. Over the past two years, the company has used early American history as the backdrop for three successive and successful titles in their Assassin’s Creed franchise: Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The most recent of these titles, Black Flag, is set in the Golden Age of Piracy during the early eighteenth century, and is easily the most profitable and well received of the three. Critics and players have praised Black Flag for its gameplay, graphics, and music—or rather, sea shanties.[1] But the biggest reason why this game has garnered accolades and high sales is because of its use, or misuse, of history. More than any other Assassin’s Creed game, Black Flag plays fast and loose with the historical record. It skews away from accuracy in favor of fun at almost every turn. Yet even as Black Flag thumbs its nose at the concerns of academic history, it nevertheless succeeds, perhaps better than any previous title in the series, in giving players a sensibility of the age. Continue reading

American Revolution: The Game

Assassin's Creed IIIWarning: Please be advised that there are a few spoilers in terms of the game’s storyline in the fourth paragraph of this post.

This is a strange topic for me to be writing on, i.e., a video game. After all, I am not what some younger Juntoists might call “a gamer.” But when I saw the trailers for Assassin’s Creed III last summer I found my anticipation for the game growing. Assassin’s Creed III is a historical fiction-based game in which the main character—a half-English, half-Mohawk warrior called Connor—finds himself at the center of many of the most important events of the American Revolution. Let me start with a little background on the game.

Continue reading