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It’s Time for Some Game Theory

Experiencing history in Assassin’s Creed.

Does Assassin’s Creed actually have an impact on how young people understand history? One illuminating attempt to answer this question appeared in the journal Theory and Research in Social Education in 2019. Lisa Gilbert, a lecturer at the University of Missouri–Columbia’s College of Education, conducted qualitative interviews in which she asked fourteen teenage boys who had played at least one Assassin’s Creed game to explain how, if at all, the series had influenced their understanding of history.

Most of the boys Gilbert interviewed reported having a low or moderate preexisting interest in history. Many said that they didn’t think the game had measurably influenced their social studies grades or even taught them historical information, which they largely equated with the rote memorization of dates and names. They also seemed to understand quite well that AC is a work of fiction, not fact. Gilbert describes one hesitating when asked to categorize ACIII characters as “historical” or “fictional”—the game’s George Washington, he made sure she knew he understood, was both at once.

What the boys did nearly unanimously report to Gilbert is that Assassin’s Creed had made them feel more emotionally connected to the past. “It’s not like you’re learning about history” from playing the games, one explained. “You’re experiencing it.” As another put it, “Assassin’s Creed reminds us that history is more than just words on a page. History is human experience.” An interviewee named Henry told Gilbert about the powerful emotional reaction he experienced after playing through ACIII’s portrayal of the Boston Massacre and realizing, for the first time, how frightened participants in the actual event would have been: “That was a terror not like anything I had ever read. But I felt that.”

The primary purpose of Assassin’s Creed is to make money for Ubisoft, and the series’ attention to historical detail, as sublime as it can be, must be understood to exist primarily in service of that purpose. But why is historical detail a selling point for action-adventure video games in the first place?

When academics wish to interrogate the purpose of detail in a work of fiction, their first stop is often French literary theorist Roland Barthes’ concept of the reality effect, which he outlined in his essays “The Discourse of History” (1967) and “The Reality Effect” (1968). His subject is the inclusion of mundane, seemingly irrelevant details in narrative works, such as the wall-hung barometer that is mentioned in one of Gustave Flaubert’s short stories despite having no bearing on the plot. “What is the significance,” he asks, “of this insignificance?” The answer, Barthes posits, is that detail serves to make a narrative feel real.

Barthes further asserts that the “unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity” is itself a by-product of the pervasive modern misconception that history is equivalent to the reality of the past. The idea of an objective historian is pure illusion, he writes, because history “does not follow the real, it merely signifies it, constantly repeating this happened.” In modern literature and modern history alike, Barthes concludes, the purpose of details is to “say nothing but this: we are the real.”