In 1997 anthropologists Richard Handler and Eric Gable published their study of Colonial Williamsburg as a living history museum, The New History in an Old Museum. Authenticity, according to the authors, was used by the site to both fulfill the goals of the new social historians, and to further the idea that historic knowledge improves as new facts are uncovered. These two goals are in conflict as social historians understand history as changing according to the work that history can fulfill in any given present, while the idea that more facts contribute to an ever more perfect history is an idea that is rejected by most contemporary historians. Handler and Gable argue that, while the historians in charge of the interpretation are social historians, by the time the message reaches the public via the site’s costumed interpreters, it has morphed into the claim that Colonial Williamsburg is on the path to becoming a complete history of a colonial city as more facts are uncovered.
Assassin’s Creed III, which is also set in colonial North America in the 18th century, also makes claims to authenticity, not through the use of actual historic objects, but through its sheer comprehensiveness of digital reproductions of objects, landscapes, and even people and animals. Colonial Williamsburg, as a site that one must travel to, could be argued to be more immersive, but the immersive nature of video games should not be discounted. Players identify with the characters they control and enter the games spaces via their animated proxies. In this way Assassin’s Creed III does a better job of transporting one to the 18th century than Colonial Williamsburg. In the reproduced physical colonial space, you are merely an observer, as people in costume interpret the space for you. In the digitally reproduced space, you are an actor, an active participant in the events that unfold. Moreover, you have the ability to see things as visitors to a living history museum do not, as in the perspective of colonial Boston you get from climbing to the tops of buildings.
Assassin’s Creed III has emphasized its authenticity in its marketing, and some gamers complain that the attention to historical accuracy comes at the cost of entertaining game play. This claim to authenticity performs the same dual role that Handler and Gable found that it played at Colonial Williamsburg. There are two messages in conflict.
To understand this we first need to get an understanding of who is behind the game’s narrative, and what are their goals. In the video series, Inside Assassin’s Creed 3, historians, game designers, reenactors, and even a Navy Seal comment on the authenticity of the game, from environments to fighting style. These people presumably had a role to play in the design and narrative of the game. At the start of the game, as with every game in the AC series, a title card is displayed which reads, “This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” Clearly the design team is proud of including many voices in its depiction of the past. This was one of the goals of the social historian; to give voice to those who had been underrepresented by political, intellectual, and military historians. In AC3, there are many points of view represented. There are opportunities in the game to interact with people of varying race, class, and genders. These depictions are not without their problems.
One theme that is reiterated several times is the brutality of the war and of the fighting in the game. The main character, Connor, is half British and half Mohawk, and Mohawks were called in to advise on the “language and values” of the Native American character, furthering the idea that this is an authentic depiction. This character is repeatedly called “brutal” in the Inside videos. One commenter called him, “A ninja and a tank with a wolverine in there.” They watched people fighting with a tomahawk and decided it was not “awesome enough”, so they increased the brutality. While this character is meant to be an assassin, the depiction as an extremely brutal assassin only serves to feed the stereotype of Native Americans as bloodthirsty killers.
The noble savage gets its turn too as Connor moves through the game using an athletic method called Parkour. This method had as one of its antecedents a method developed by Frenchman named George Hébert. Hébert had developed his method based on training he had observed in African tribes, about whom he said, “Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skilful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in Gymnastics but their lives in Nature.” It is astonishing to see Connor leaping through the trees and over buildings, one of the authors of the game calls his amazing strength and agility “part of his nature.” These types of athletic movements have strong cultural ties to ideas of the natural savage.
Connor’s nobility is emphasized. He is called by a game designer, “Humble, and more grounded to nature.” He is “motivated by a desire to do the right thing” and is “fighting for freedom and against tyranny.” He is able to assess a situation and fight on the side of the greater good. This is hardly a nuanced study of the motivations that Native people had during the Revolution in choosing against whom to fight.
Having many voices involved in designing the game did not prevent it from reinforcing long-held essentialist racial beliefs. But the designers knew they could not challenge beliefs too strongly, with one of them commenting that the audience came with, “a rough understanding that they’ve never really experienced.” Apparently this game will not do much to challenge that rough understanding, and it will also allow the history to be experienced in this unchallenged way.
In the designer’s defense, the majority of “shooter” games have white men as the protagonist, acting out violence and superhuman agility; this is a standard of the genre. However Connor’s character has to be believable in this role, and having his character be half white and half native perfectly melds the reason attributed to white men (Connor fights for freedom), with the savage violence and childlike naturalism present in stereotypes of Native Americans. The Founding Fathers in this game, while never matching the native’s agility or ability to kill, are even called “badasses” by the designers, which is possibly an improvement over stiff political depictions, but still papers over people’s motivations for fighting. These portrayals can only add to the Founder’s mythic masculine virtues; it will not knock them from any pedestals.
Handler and Gable also criticized Colonial Williamsburg’s ability to challenge visitors’ beliefs about history and the 18th century. The museum is fairly timid about creating narratives around characters that are not documented as specific individuals, such as most of the enslaved. AC 3 freely creates fictional characters, but it relies on present-day ideas of what those characters should be, rather than looking to the past in constructing people. It is worth noting that both endeavors are money making ventures, and it is unrealistic to expect them to present a history that flies in the face of audience beliefs. While Colonial Williamsburg is a non-profit that funnels tourist dollars into its research and curatorial arms, AC 3’s profits benefit none but Ubisoft’s shareholders.
This game does use its technical advantages to expose gamers to history in a unique way, however problematic the portrayals. First, Connor is a Native American protagonist, which is something rarely seen in the video game world, even as enslaved people are reduced to being anonymous people who populate cities with the correct number of black faces. Mohawks did get a voice in the depiction, even as the game’s narrative necessarily directed the character’s actions, which is an improvement over older depictions of Native Americans that were born completely in the minds of white men. Second, the game does a great job of reproducing environments such as ships, forests, and colonial cities, offering players a chance to explore and get a sense of historical spaces. Third, the game will further the interest in the events of the American Revolution for around ten million game players who may not have been interested otherwise.
Both Colonial Williamsburg and Assassin’s Creed 3 are hamstrung by what they signify to audiences in their ability to challenge. While they both want their visitors to experience historical accuracy, the narratives their audiences expect and enjoy prevent them from really depicting all that is known about the pasts they seek to represent and especially the depiction of rich, multi-dimensional characters from the peoples of the past who did not often represent themselves in writing. Their claims to authenticity encourage those who venture into their worlds to accept these portrayals as complete and accurate, reaffirming their audience’s beliefs.