Way Back When
From Lapham’s Quarterly:
In March 2021 the American Historical Review included three video games in its review section, a first for the self-proclaimed “journal of record for the historical profession in the United States.” All three games selected for review are installments of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which takes as its central conceit a centuries-long struggle between two shadowy organizations: the Templars, who seek to control and manipulate humanity for their own ends, and the Assassins, who champion human freedom and creativity and are usually (though not always) cast as morally superior. Throughout the franchise players are tapped by one or both factions to hunt for powerful artifacts called Pieces of Eden, each of which was hidden or lost long ago. Finding these artifacts requires accessing the past by means of a fictional technology called the Animus, which generates lifelike, interactive virtual-reality worlds from ancient DNA samples taken from the remains of long-dead witnesses to the Pieces of Eden’s fates.
Despite the fantastic silliness of the in-game time-travel logistics, the promise of historical accuracy has been a major selling point of Assassin’s Creed since the eponymous first installment in 2007; since then Ubisoft, its publisher, reports having sold more than 155 million units of the franchise, which has grown to include a total of twelve main games (the most recent being 2020’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which takes place mostly in Viking-age England). “Assassin’s Creed is steeped in historical fact,” a video-game reviewer for IGN writes of the first game in the series, which is set primarily in the twelfth-century Holy Land. “Were it not for the ‘anomalies’ that flitter around characters”—part of the sci-fi wrapping—“you would have little reason to ever question that this is indeed what these cities and people looked like centuries ago.”
In the first of the AHR reviews, historian of early America Michael D. Hattem gives a positive assessment of Assassin’s Creed III (2012), praising the verisimilitude of its Revolutionary War–era colonial American setting as well as the way the game emphasizes social history. “The attention paid by the game developers and their historical consultants to details of both the actual and social geography of these urban settings,” he writes, “produced one of the most authentic depictions of eighteenth-century life in popular culture”—far more historically accurate, he adds, than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton. Video games like this, Hattem concludes, are “ideally situated as a cultural form to tell the kind of complex story of the Revolution reflected in recent academic scholarship.”