Surprised to be reading about the educational value of a video game on a blog dedicated to education, history, literature, and learning?

So am I. But bear with me. I’ll admit I’ve been a cynic about video games since they evolved from Pac-Man. I could never understand why would anyone want to waste their time killing virtual enemies on a screen when they could sink into a great story with a movie or a book, practice a sport or an instrument, or just goof off outside.

Caitlin opened my eyes. We were talking about immersive storytelling and she referenced Assassin’s Creed.

You play that game? I asked.

You don’t? She said. You’d love it.

So I checked it out and, you know, she was right. Although the object of the game remains killing (the weapons and gear being big motivators), the assassin’s sandbox is a beautifully crafted 3-D environment rich in historical context. The parent company, UBISOFT, even has historians on the payroll!

Assassin’s Creed gameplay revolves around an age-old rivalry between two ancient secret societies: the Assassins and the Knights Templar. Their enmity dates to the Crusades and follows their successors through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Revolution and modern times. Each game in the series assigns players the task of completing a covert mission, usually involving the assassination of a highly protected public figure.

Assassin’s Creed and Time Traveler Tours & Tales share a similar mission: both Turn History On. That mission dramatically intersects with the game’s latest release, UNITY, set during the French Revolution, the era in which our flagship heroine, Charlotte Corday, inscribed her name in the annals of immortality.

Is the game historically accurate? As a visual illustration of the age, yes. It is stunningly rendered and fully succeeds in transporting you to the time of the Revolution. It makes you feel like you’re part of the history, says Caitlin, which for a history nerd is very exciting!   

Even for the non-nerd, it’s a fantastic “way into” history. And that’s where its educational value lies. As Caitlin informed me,

Assassin's Creed allows you to not only learn about history, but to experience it. You explore places you could never could otherwise. From the streets of Jerusalem to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, Assassin's Creed encourages kids to learn from being there.

So let your kids get their "pure stealth" on (i.e., let them play). Then, their interest sufficiently piqued, grasp the opportunity to build their critical thinking skills by offering them more historically accurate information on the period. Seize the chance to engage them in doing real historical research. Immerse them in uncovering what really might have happened through authentic sources and other media.

Assassin’s Creed makes no claim to be anything other than Historical Fiction. Though a graphical and technological tour de force, it does take liberties with the facts.

The scene in the catacombs, for example, shows human bones stacked and organized in decorative patterns. But this didn’t happen until the early 1800s under Napoleon, who factors into Unity in a way he really didn’t in life. Another scene shows the protagonist, Arno Dorian, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, which was built 100 years later for the 1889 World’s Exhibition. In another, we see the Statue of Liberty under construction, still shackled by scaffolding, also about 100 years too early. And the Cathedral spire, from which Arno takes his death-defying leap into a haystack, was actually taken down during the years of Revolution and replaced in the 1860s.

Don’t even get me started on the accents! Enjoy Conan O’Brien, as the Clueless Gamer, on that.

Even staff historian, Maxime Durand, admits that the developer “takes some liberties creating visual assets, just to do what's best for gameplay'' (Wired Magazine). Whether this is right or wrong is definitely arguable. But they wouldn’t be the first creators to do so: How many of you, like me, grew up believing that Switzerland was just over the mountains from Salzburg after watching the Sound of Music?

The point is, Assassin’s Creed is immersive and engaging and a brilliant way to capture the attention, in particular, of the young person who’s convinced that “history is boring.”

Engagement and learning originate from the same part of the brain. Story and play are our most powerful teaching tools. We all construct new meaning on the foundations of what we already know. So let your teens learn what they can within Unity. Then put something historically accurate in their hands, like my interactive story BEWARE MADAME LA GUILLOTINE, available in app, iBook, and paperback editions. Or bring Revolutionary Paris to your classroom with Marcie Colleen’s Curriculum Handbook.

Use game, book, and role-play to spark discussion, see where it leads. There’s a great bibliography at the back of the book if they want to explore the era even further.

They may want to know, for instance, why Charlotte Corday doesn’t figure in Assassin’s Creed Unity? She was Revolutionary figure, after all. And an assassin.

What do you think about the educational value of Assassin's Creed, in particular, and video games, in general? Click comments to your right and let me know. It's a hot topic right now. Just last night it was discussed on KQED Radio, with parents, teachers, and researchers weighing in on both sides of the issue.

Stay tuned for my next post: Gender Bias in Assassin’s Creed? I Say Yes.