The historical (in)accuracy of Assassin’s Creed Unity

Video games can help shape our understandings of historical events. Thus, a debate over the portrayal of the French Revolution in the new Assassin’s Creed:

The former leftist French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, called it “propaganda against the people, the people who are [portrayed as] barbarians, bloodthirsty savages,” while the “cretin” that is Marie-Antoinette and the “treacherous” Louis XVI are portrayed as noble victims. “The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more self-loathing and déclinisme in the French,” he told Le Figaro. The secretary general of the Left Front, Alexis Corbière, said on his blog:

To all those who will buy Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I wish them a good time, but I also tell them that the pleasure of playing does not stop you from thinking. Play, yes, but do not let yourself be manipulated by those who make propaganda.

Ubisoft, the maker of the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, which has been going since 2007 and has sold more than 70 million copies, is in fact French. One of the makers of the game replied that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a “consumer video game, not a history lesson” but did say that his team hired a historian and specialists on the Terror and other aspects of the Revolution. Le Monde lays out seven errors in the game here (in French).

In fact, the debate over who are the heroes and villains of the Revolution goes back to the 1790s. British counter-revolutionary thought often focused on the suffering of the monarchy in their stories, such as the King’s tearful goodbye to his family before his execution on Jan. 21st, 1793 or Marie-Antoinette’s perhaps apocryphal last words to her executioner after stepping on his foot just before her head was cut off: “Pardon me sir. I did not mean to do it.”

So perhaps the game simply reflects the ongoing debates of which actors in the French Revolution should be cast as heroes or villains? This all intrigued me because one of my classes recently considered how historical narratives are constructed and then played several historical video games to see how each portrays history. Some games clearly try to impart more historical accuracy – and these seem to be ones more intent on educational purposes – while others suffer from the gamification of history. This can lead to two things:

1. The games differ in their levels of ambiguity; after all, there has to be a winner. But, even as this debate illustrates, it is not always easy to depict who benefited or should have benefited from particular events. On one hand, it is easy to fight Nazis – there are a video game go-to for a clear enemy – but other events or periods are much more unclear. One solution is to simply drop in an outside story – as the Assassin’s Creed line does – and make it up from there.

2. This often means there is the potential to change history. This may just be a modern fad – This American Life recently asked some Americans about time travel and there was a subset of people who wanted to change big events:

Jonathan Goldstein

And even though they’ve been mulling this over for so long, many still reach for the most well-trodden sci-fi comic book staple.

Man 4

My first impulse about time travel is the same one that I would guess that everybody has. You know, thinking that I’m going to go back and I’m going to kill Hitler.

Sean Cole

What’s funny is that they know it’s kind of lame. You can hear it in their voices.

Man 4

Or kill Hitler when he’s a baby, or kill his mother or something.

Jonathan Goldstein

They preface it with phrases like–

Woman 1

It’s the thing everyone always says is–

Sean Cole

And then they say it anyway.

Woman 1

If there hadn’t been a Hitler–

Man 5

Put a bullet in Adolf Hitler’s head when he was still a student, I guess…

And of course, no one imagines that they’ll end up with an iron collar around their neck, working in a quarry. Instead, they have a starring role in the historical docu-drama. Like this guy, who’d set the controls for the Revolutionary War.

Man On Street 2

I don’t think I’d be like, a general in the field or anything like that. But I’d probably be more of like an adviser to Washington. Like Alexander Hamilton was, right? And a few other folks. So yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

I love how you’re already an officer in this.

Man On Street 2

Exactly. Yeah.

Historical games can pose an interesting “what if?” yet also lead to improbable events or outcomes.

I would guess most of these action-oriented games are not concerned much about historical accuracy outside of how it can enhance the backdrop or the gameplay. Yet, given the sales of these games, the amount of time spent playing them, and who purchases them (often younger people), such games could go a long way toward influencing perceptions of the past.

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