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In my work as an author and publisher, I am motivated by a simple, observable truth: many young people — and even some adults — find history boring.
They bridle at the suggestion that they might enjoy time at a museum.
They tolerate the family tour of a historic destination, anxious to get back to their friends both online and off.
The truth is, all they lack is a little context.
History is a collection of great stories: Stories of extraordinary adventures, incredible innovations, revolutionary breakthroughs, horrid acts of injustice. If told well, such tales can capture even the youngest imaginations.
So how can you help #TurnHistoryOn for the young people in your life?
I’m just back from my second teaching visit to the International School of Dusseldorf. It is, without question, my favorite school visit of the year. Not only do I get to share my passion for turning kids on to history with a truly talented and dedicated teaching team, I also get to work with amazing young minds in a world-class learning environment.
There is nothing more rewarding than seeing light bulbs going on before your very eyes. And this happens on a regular basis at ISD!
You can read about my mandate with Grade 7 here. I also worked with Grade 6 students to give them a taste of what’s to come next year when they, too, will be asked to mash historical research up with digital storytelling to create interactive historical narratives of their own invention.
I am proud and honored to be part of such a 21st century interdisciplinary educational program. And I enjoyed enlisting my ISD colleagues in our search these past eight months for the keys to unlocking history for kids.
In last week’s blog and newsletter, Caitlin and I celebrated the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, highlighting how AC and Time Traveler Tours & Tales both To Turn History On. Taking the slogan “history is our playground” as their starting point, Assassin’s Creed developers combine historical research, high art graphics, and state-of-the-industry gaming technology to put users into history. Literally. It’s really quite cool.
But while wandering their magical tours through time – from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance, the American and French Revolutions – I found myself wondering,
Did history not include women?
AC's cast of playable protagonists (the one through which users experience the storyworld) are fictional. On their quests, they meet such fascinating historical figures as Richard the Lionheart, Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Benedict Arnold, Napoleon Bonaparte, Maximilien Robespierre, and the Marquis de Sade.
There is only one woman character in Assassin’s Creed Unity: Elise de la Serre. She, too, is fictional, the childhood friend and sometime love interest of the main, and only playable character, Arno Victor Dorian. Now we’ll admit she is no shrinking violet. She brandishes a weapon along with Arno, being on a revenge quest of her own. And while she cuts a very sexy figure, she does appear on screen fully clothed.
But to be a non-playable character means that Elise cannot act upon the storyworld. She's merely window dressing, part of the background story, scripted and fed to us whenever we, as Arno, wander down the appropriate rabbit hole that, like Dumbledore’s pensieve, triggers the memory that Arno, and we, need to collect the clues and knowledge necessary to complete his mission.
As it turns out, compared to most female video games characters Elise has it pretty good. Indeed, thanks to the swift education provided yours truly by the #gamergate loudmouths and such whip-smart objects of their scorn as Anita Sarkeesian, I have recently learned that in video game culture female characters are more often objects of male desire. "Damsels in distress in very little dress," as I have dubbed them, they exist in their storyworlds as possessions withheld from their playable male sidekicks or victims to be saved from the evil villain. More often than not, they endure serious misogynist abuse waiting for their hero-princes to level up and free them. Sometimes, many times, their only escape is death, usually execution style.
Those of you familiar with the story of Beware Madame la Guillotine will, I hope, agree that one very cool factual female assassin from Revolutionary France fame, Charlotte Corday, would have made an excellent member of the Unity cast.
Just for fun, I did a quick Google search to see if I could turn up any discussion as to why she didn’t make the cut. Here’s what I found on GameSkinny:
Earlier this year, Ubisoft’s creative director Alex Amanico told Polygon that playable female assassins were cut from Assassin’s Creed Unity due to “the reality of production”...
I’m sorry, but what does that even mean? That it takes a different technology to make a female character run at stealth speed than a male one? I doubt it.
And when Wired.co.uk asked Ubisoft’s in-house historian, Maxime Durand, if the AC series is “somewhat limited in creating female protagonists by the fact that much of human history hasn't been great for women?” he responded,
You're right -- it was difficult to be a woman and the presence of women was much more restricted than it is now.
This explains why women characters were overlooked in AC how, exactly? Isn’t the question just offering both company and historian a free pass?
So while we applaud the Assassin’s Creed franchise for their accurate and amazing visual representations of past places, and while we appreciate that, at the very least, their female characters aren’t objectified tropes of victimized female characters, we take AC to task for not advancing the misrepresentation of women in video games, and the under representation of women in history.
Interactive media have the potential to be brilliant educational tools. As we wrote here, AC is an exciting “way into” history, especially for those young people who find history “boring,” that can then be supplemented with more factual materials such as Beware Madame la Guillotine.
But when interactive media merely perpetuate antiquated social biases, it can take humanity back in time (in more ways than one) rather than advance it.
The average gamer in the US is male, aged 30. Present gamer culture appears to be an un-moderated boys club as revealed by the recent #gamergate debate. Fifty years after the feminist revolution, there’s really no reason why game developers can't evolve gender representations and make women heroic too.
If you agree that female characters, like Charlotte,
deserve to be protagonists of their own games,
please LIKE and SHARE this post!
Coming up next: In the interest of first-hand research
Caitlin introduces Sarah to Assassin's Creed gameplay
while Tock the dog expresses her opinions on tropes vs. women in video games!
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.