The Assassin's Creed curriculum: can video games teach us history?

Reprogramming the past from the Oregon Trail to Columbine


In Level Five, a movie first released in 1997 by the experimental French filmmaker Chris Marker, a young woman replays a World War II strategy game on an outdated computer again and again, working through various combinations of keystrokes in search of a different outcome, though it seems the game is hard-wired to only allow her one option.

The winning scenario she’s looking for is a less gruesome end to the Battle of Okinawa, where soldiers and civilians facing certain defeat committed mass suicide. The battle, which marked the last major bloodshed of World War II, claimed the lives of about one-quarter of the islands’ largely removed and peaceful population: the total body count included 12,520 Americans, 94,136 Japanese soldiers, and 94,000 Okinawan civilians.

It’s an odd little game, toggling between filmed interviews with survivors, stock footage of the battle, and blinking white squadrons cast across a top-level map on the battle’s titular island. But of course no matter which button the woman presses, the history of Okinawa remains unaltered, and the movie hangs almost entirely on her attempt to finish the half-developed game.

Chris Marker, who was the subject of a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York last month, rose to prominence in the ’50s and circled the subjects of technology and memory for much of his artistic career. Both William Gibson and Terry Gilliam consider themselves fans — Marker’s 1962 black-and-white time-travel drama La Jetée directly inspired Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Before he passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, Marker had moved from making complex, spooky films to working with more modern digital mediums — recent works included a CD-rom that organizes memories using a computer’s filing methods and a recreation of a museum in Second Life.

With Level Five, the Battle of Okinawa game is more parable than entertainment, a comment on the impossibility of altering — or even fully comprehending — historical tragedies that occur on such a mind-bogglingly massive scale. It’s counterintuitive, using a video game for this purpose; gaming has its roots in logical, if idle, pastimes: cards, dice, chess. But if in our modern-day world, we can use "gamification" as a strategy for self-improvement and deeper learning, there may be more potential in gaming than the excitement of a killer head shot.

So what is the goal of playing a game rooted in history like the Battle of Okinawa, once the events have already been set, the books about them written, and the collective memory intact? As one developer told me, games are actually perfectly suited to model complex systems with a number of moving parts — which sounds a lot like the conditions of history, where chance circumstances and actors collide to create the occasional moment of extreme cultural significance. And today, as the historical game genre has expanded parallel to indie gaming’s success, there are an increasing number of ambitious games experimenting with and rearranging those interlocking, constantly shifting components.

Ford the river or float across it? Rest while injured, or press on?

In the early ’70s, three student teachers living in Minnesota created a game that would pioneer an entire genre of educational, historically informed computer programs. Originally conceptualized as a card-and-dice game meant to shake public school students out of their ennui, Oregon Trail was eventually developed to run on the 8-bit Apple II. The game was (and still is) a straightforward simulation of crossing the American frontier in the 1800s. As players make their way from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, they choose from a menu of choices every time a problem presents itself: ford the river or float across it? Rest while injured, or press on?

If dying of dysentery has become one of the game’s longest-lasting in-jokes it’s because, well, a lot of people died of the affliction on the real Oregon Trail. Decades after he helped create the game, Don Rawitsch described poring over diaries kept by those traveling west and creating a "scorecard" of events that occurred, like bad weather. "So if the diaries," he said, "indicated that on 15 percent of the days there was some bad weather, then we could build into the computing code, " and 15 percent of the time a player would encounter a snowy pass.

But Oregon Trail was a self-consciously educational game, and its popularity an anomaly in a genre favored by over-concerned parents and well-intentioned teachers. It was also a two-dimensional sort of adventure, carried by surface-level identification and pure competitive desire. Similar to board games like Risk or chess, it was more about moving pieces around than being wholly immersed in a world, and choices were limited.

But a lot has changed in gaming since then.

These days, the market is flooded with softly historical games; games that mine vague collective memories of moments past to add color and drama to staples of the form: mysteries, shooters, war games. (World War II has really cornered the market on the latter; the Medal of Honor Series, Battlefield, and hundreds of others use period costuming and digitally rendered historical battlefields to add a touch of realism for players looking to launch grenades and rack up kills.) For these games the past is atmospheric — think LA Noire, a detective game that takes place in 1940s Los Angeles and contains references not to individual moments or figures but to other homages like the movies Chinatown and The Black Dahlia.

For the Assassin’s Creed series, which keeps a full-time history grad on staff to collect sources and translate documents, it’s about building a world consistent with, among other time periods, 16th-century Italy. As Laine Nooney, a researcher at NYU specializing in the cultural history of video games, tells me: in Assassin’s Creed "Renaissance Italy is your playground, but only that."

The Assassin’s Creed team keeps a full-time history grad on staff

Strategy games, too, often play loose with the specific conditions of history; games like Age of Empires and Civilization allow players to act out the most alternate of histories on the grandest of scales. In Civ, several types of victories are possible as you grow your empire across a fictional map; you win using a famously complicated combination of buildings, resources, and political and military domination. But even as the nations and figures are familiar — play as the United States led by George Washington or France using Napoleon — there’s little rigor in what makes, say, American gameplay easier when you’re buying land, or French military forces more aggressive. A representative tells me the game is built first, and the nationalities added later: "If you have to make a choice between strict historical accuracy and fun," they say, "we’ll take fun every time."

Video games that choose to portray specific, real moments in history — and ask their players to inhabit real people — are controversial, and probably not particularly common for that reason. Re-rendering real-life events is risky, and encroaches on semi-sacred territory: our historical narratives are stuff out of which identity — national and otherwise — is made. Games of this sort mess with the idea of the past as an immutable, concrete thing; like speculative fiction or truly great sci-fi, they remind their players how many variables went into creating history as they know it.

In 2004, Kirk Ewing (also known for his game State of Emergency, a call-back of the 1999 WTO riots) created JFK: Reloaded, a simple first-person shooter in which the player inhabits the body of Lee Harvey Oswald in the moments before he shot JFK. Drawing on official historical documents as much as the obsessive catalogs maintained by conspiracy theorists, Ewing reconstructed the conditions of that day down to the placement of lampposts and the speed of the wind. The aim: to perfectly match the shots fired by Oswald and, as Ewing suggested, put the theories about what happened that day to rest.

In a slightly ill-considered turn, Ewing offered a cash prize to whoever perfectly reconstructed the shots that landed on Kennedy’s body. About $100,000 went to a 16-year-old in Paris. The House of Representatives issued Ewing a letter of condemnation; one of Kennedy’s aides went on record calling the game "despicable." Ewing received death threats, but he also, as he would tell Eurogamer, "got a lot of mail requesting we ‘do Diana.’"

The aim: to perfectly match the shots fired by Oswald and put the theories about what happened that day to rest

Unlike film or other types of documentary work, first-person video games based on real events carry with them the assumption of empathy or identification. As Eddo Stern, one of the creators of 2003’s Waco Resurrection told me, "whereas in film we are more likely to see a balance of positions in several main characters, or say, watch a documentary about Hitler and not assume that the movie is advocating Hitler’s ideology — in a game this is very hard to create, this kind of separation."

Intended partly as an art project, Waco Resurrection takes place during the 51-day FBI siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in 1993, a heavily televised event that resulted in the death of four federal agents and six Branch Davidians. To recreate that moment, Waco Resurrection intentionally mimics traditional PC gameplay. Multiple layers interact in the same world as different versions of David Koresh, each identifiable by their differently colored auras. In broad strokes, the aim of the game is to win the largest number of converts by radiating "charisma" points before Koresh’s time on earth runs out — players face aura drain from interacting with psy-ops, gunfire from FBI agents, and the wrath of god. To level up energy, Koresh must catch Bibles that rain from the sky; objects throughout the compound in which the game takes place hold special abilities and powers.

Stern says that to make the game, he and his team researched the subject heavily, interviewing survivors, taking trips to Waco, and diving into Koresh’s own religious writing. Throughout that process, Sten says, his thinking about the event evolved, particularly as he got a better sense of Koresh as a "complex character." The game reflects that ambiguity by blasting competing sounds into a player’s ears, the voices of covert agents mingling with missives from God — an exercise as much in understanding religious fervor and mass panic as the violence that took place during those months in ‘93.

Games like Waco and, to a lesser extent, JFK: Reloaded are on the fringes of the gaming world, created on small budgets for niche audiences. They’re joined by shock titles like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and the University of Southern California-funded The Cat and the Coup, a 2011 puzzle game that follows the ‘50s-era downfall of Mohammed Mossadegh, who was removed from his position as the prime minister of Iran in a CIA-backed coup. Which isn’t to mention titles like Special Force Hezbollah, the first-person-shooter as political fulcrum. These games are risky to make and offer little reward to their developers. But as we round the bend of indie gaming’s golden age, crowdfunded budgets and swelling audiences are making it easier for ambitious historical projects to move from the development stage to your console.

Navid Khonsari thinks we’re only just starting to see the potential of video games to deal in detailed, historically complex narratives. The 44-year-old, Iranian born co-founder of the production company Ink Stories says gaming is in its "infancy"; that the parameters we’ve traditionally set for what a game can do are in the process of being upended. Since rising to prominence working on big-name titles like Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne, Khonsari has been working to translate the Iranian revolution of 1979 to a gaming platform; the game is set to debut in March of 2015, with voice actors such as Navid Negahban, an Iranian actor who was in the country during the revolution and has appeared on 24 and Homeland.

1979 The Game follows a young Iranian photojournalist initially inspired to protest after the death of a loved one. Players rush through crowds to take photographs, run from the police, perform triage, tag up walls, choose alliances, and trade contraband recordings. "This is the trajectory of revolution," says Khonsari. "This is what happened in Egypt, what happened in France 200 years ago … When you see Iran in the headlines, you have an understanding, you can engage in conversations that aren’t so one-dimensional about a country that seems so far away."

Drawing on personal experience as well as film, television, radio recordings, and literature, the game’s designers (most of whom are Iranian, and some of whom are working under pseudonyms for fear of complications with their home country) sought to realistically depict Tehran in the late ‘70s. They conducted over 40 interviews with people who were in the street, citizens imprisoned prior to and after the revolution — "fundamental islamic supporters to communists to military groups" — as well as academic experts on the subjects of revolution and protest. The French photojournalist Michel Setboun, who documented the revolution between 1978 and 1980, is also a collaborator: in one mini-game within 1979, players take an in-game photo and compare it to Setboun’s image of the same spot.

But, as Khonsari is quick to note, the "gamification" of a historical moment isn’t really the point. "I want you to feel what it’s like to be a person in a huge crowd of protesters," he says, "and how your own morality can choose how to navigate that particular path."

The subtext to forging such a path through a meticulously recreated historical scene is the concession that, given a slightly different set of decisions and actions, discrete moments in history may have gone down quite differently — and though altering the past in these small ways is a subtle edit, it still counts as an alternate history. And as one game historian, Andrew Elliot, told me, counterfactual histories are important because they teach us how minor decisions can alter what he calls the "grand progression of history."

"I want you to feel what it’s like to be a person in a huge crowd of protesters."

"Video games are really good at doing this," he said, "because the whole process is based on modeling — and that’s what computers and processors can do really well, given the number of balls you have to keep in the air." It’s an unromantic idea but perhaps a viable one: that well-made, immersive video games could someday be a way to understand the hardest thing to communicate about history: that somewhere between the grand narrative and the individual photographs there were a thousand possible futures, that every Wikipedia article is the result of a dynamic set of circumstances in which multiple outcomes were possible. A conceptual understanding like that won’t change the past, but it might stretch us to imagine a present and future radically different than our own.

When Marker made Level Five in the ‘90s, he had the ideas but not the tools to achieve that goal; the game that depicts the Battle of Okinawa is far more Oregon Trail than Oculus. But now that the industry is getting larger and more porous and our ability to temporarily inhabit other realities feels a little more natural, there’s an opportunity to inspect historical mythology from more camera angles than ever before.

Of course, there are dangers in possessing the historical bodies of others and calling it true empathy: the choose-your-own-adventure model of history can only go so far. Still, this false reliving of the past is a compelling counterpoint to the false remembering of reading a history book or first hearing about a battle. As the narrator in Chris Marker’s earlier film Sans Soleil remarks, some of the most pressing histories are the vague and intangible ones. Remembering, he says, "is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?"