History, with more Jumpy Bits: are video games a new avenue for history?

Assassins Creed 2

There was an article in Literary Review recently, in which DJ Taylor bemoaned the state of publishing and the literary world in general, culminating in the conclusion that

reading a book is, by and large, a more valuable and more rewarding activity than watching a film, laughing at a stand-up comedian or hunkering down over one’s Xbox.*

I’ve never agreed with smug generalisations about reading that seek to cast it as necessarily and automatically more edifying than other activities, and this sort of snobbery is almost always indulged in by people who have very little actual experience of the cultural forms they dismiss.

What’s more, I’ve recently had some experiences whilst hunkered down over one’s Xbox that have made me think we might be on the brink of a whole new way of experiencing video games and, in particular, whole new ways of uniting games with history.

The game that prompted these thoughts was Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II, in which the player takes on the role of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the titular assassin/heart-throb living in Renaissance Italy. I’ve been playing games for more than 15 years, and I can’t remember playing any that fired my historical imagination like this one. That’s not to say there haven’t been games that dealt very directly with history. There was JFK:Reloaded, for example, the controversial game which challenged players to recreate the official version of events at the Kennedy assassination, and offered a large cash prize to the person that came closest to matching the fatal shots from the window of the Book Depository. There have also been games like the Civilisation series, which, while not directly historical, encouraged players to think about historical processes such as creating societies and building empires. But none of these can rival Assassins Creed II’s stab at realising its historical setting, making it more than just a backdrop, but a living, breathing, accurate world

The game includes lush, atmospheric recreations of Florence, San Gimignano, Forlì and Venice. As well as its fictional protagonist, the plot revolves around real world figures, including the Medici family. The player is also frequently provided with pretty detailed historical information, with engaging, often witty details on everything from the social role of prostitutes and doctors and biographies of key Renaissance figures to backgrounds on the different districts of Venice you can explore.

Alright, so these are the historical plus points, and the game also includes an increasingly ridiculous sub-Dan Brown Assassin/Templar plotline, and implausible cameos from Leonardo DaVinci and Machiavelli. Some of the dialogue is historically unconvincing, with onlookers occasionally commenting ‘His mental health is questionable!’ as you storm about the streets. There are also interminable, unnecessary Tomb Raider style platform sections, which are a nightmare if you like me were literally born with hams for fists. I am not by any means arguing that Assassins Creed II is historically perfect, or that it goes nearly as far as it could. But it does reveal that games and history could have a future together, and a bright and exciting one at that. Technology has reached the point where both people and locations can be presented with real life in them, and extraordinary amounts of detail. By far my favourite section of the game is early on, when Ezio is still in Florence and the plot has yet to embark on its more outlandish flights of fancy. Here, Florence feels lived in, real. It feels like a place you’ve not been to before but want to learn more about. And the bitter feuds of the Medici family and their enemies seem to simmer all around.

This game got me excited about Renaissance Italy, a period I know very little about. It introduced me to astonishing figures, for example Caterina Sforza, and their stories. Gaming, traditionally, has been far more interested in the future than the past, so I can’t help but feel if games like Assassin’s Creed II introduce more people like me to previously familiar parts of history, and make them want to learn more, then that in itself is of great value.

And this could just be the beginning. 8 million people have bought this game around the world – a figure most historians will never come close to achieving. This raises the tantalising possibility that there is a market for historical games, that go a little deeper and rely on the history itself to power their storylines, trusting that history done well and responsibly can create hugely immersive, engaging worlds. Leaving all snobbery aside, can there be any more exciting prospect for anyone who loves history than to wonder around in the worlds of the past, talking to the people that inhabit them? I think the best comparison for where historical games might go is the historical novel, except of course with much more interactivity for the player, and the ability to make your own choices.

So, Mr DJ Taylor, lay off the Xbox for a while and let’s see what it can do, because I’ve got my fingers crossed that a new method not for studying but for enjoying history might be waiting to emerge.

*You may think that starting an anti-snobbery argument by throwing in a quote from Literary Review is in itself a touch snobby. If you think this, you are wrong, and I am better than you.

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