As I’m sure you all know, Assassin’s Creed: Unity came out last week, and if you didn’t know before, you do now. I haven’t played the game myself yet, and judging by early critical coverage of the game I don’t think that’s a situation which is going to change any time soon. From the reviews I’ve read so far, Unity is a glitchy, bug-ridden mess of a game, and as someone who loves the Assassin’s Creed games (yes, even Assassin’s Creed 3), the fact that Unity has so spectacularly failed to live up to expectations is something of a disappointment. However, whilst I’m sure you’d all love to hear my arguments as to why Assassin’s Creed is one of the best video game series of all time, you didn’t come here to read about video games. What I am going to do is use the Assassin’s Creed games as examples of the ways in which video games can be used by historians, the first of which is as a tool for ‘tangential learning’.
I first came across the concept of ‘tangential learning’ in an episode of Extra Credits, a web series which examines various elements of video game design and also the social and cultural issues surrounding video games as a medium. The episode can be found here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlQrTHrwyxQ) and it goes into a lot more detail about the term, but put simply it means that video games can be used to introduce people to topics and issues which they may not have heard of before in a way that encourages them to learn more about them.
Speaking purely from my own personal experience, this point is one hundred percent correct. When I was playing Assassin’s Creed 2, I’d often find myself pausing the game to find out more about the characters I was interacting with, the various buildings I was climbing up, or the various high-profile figures I was turning into living pin cushions. More often than not, these specific searches soon became far broader, and so what started out as a quick search about, for example whether Rodrigo Borgia became Pope in the year the game said he did or not would turn into a study of the entire Borgia family and their various acts of villainy. Admittedly, a lot of the time these searches began as fact checking exercises, but the fact that the game made me want to check these facts in the first place demonstrates the potential video games have as a learning tool.
Admittedly, this can also be said of historical fiction in any medium, so why are video games more useful than films, books or television? In my opinion, their main advantage over competing mediums is the fact that, unlike a book or a film, video games can use in-game menus and interfaces to deliver information directly to the player. To a certain extent, games have always done this, but until fairly recently the amount of background information developers could provide was limited by the fact that it all had to fit onto a physical disc. However, this is no longer the case. All seventh (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii) and eight generation (PS4, Xbox One, Wii U) consoles have inbuilt internet connections, which means that, in theory, this extra information can be stored in one central database, rather than on the disc, and that as such, all developers have to do is find a way of linking this database to an onscreen interface in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.
Imagine how amazing that would be. To use another example from Assassin’s Creed 2, the way I see it you could be casually chatting to Leonardo Da Vinci, when a prompt would come up asking you if you wanted to learn more about him. By doing nothing more than clicking a button, you would be taken to a page which told you Da Vinci’s life story and contained links to related pages, for example ‘Renaissance art’ or ‘Florentine politics in the fifteenth century’. Hell, if game publishers can get the right people to write the content and the right copyright clearances these in-game encyclopaedias could be damn good ones. You could have a page with reproductions of Da Vinci’s entire canon, art complete with expert commentary on its influences and cultural significance, or a page dedicated to his inventions with historians and scientists giving their opinions on whether they could have ever worked.
This shouldn’t be too hard either. Whilst I’m no expert in video game development, if it’s possible for game developers and publishers to create interfaces which take the player to an in-game store where they can buy extra levels and costumes, surely the same technology can be used to take the player to an in-game encyclopaedia, and I’m sure that actual game developers could find a way to incorporate these features in a way that doesn’t necessarily need to take the player out of the game.
I had originally planned to talk about a second way in which I feel video games can be used to enhance the study of history, but as this post is already too long I’ll do it as a separate post instead. For now, I’ll end by saying that as a tool for ‘tangential learning’ video games have no equal, as since pretty much every console is connected to the internet, it is now possible to create centralised databases holding lots of information which can be accessed by anyone playing the game. Furthermore, the fact games are interactive means players become far more invested in the experience they are having, and as such they are more likely to want to learn more about the world it takes place in, and indeed interactivity is a theme which I’ll return to next time.