March 30, 2010
During both the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign and on occasion while in the White House, President Barack Obama has urged parents concerned about the education of their children to turn off the videogames. Personally, I agree with the president – to an extent. Despite studies showing that videogames increase critical hand-eye coordination, there are many, many students that forgo their homework for just one more round of Modern Warfare 2, which can indeed be detrimental to their education. I don't believe Modern Warfare 2 is some sort of murder-simulator, but is there any real value in blasting the hell out of friends online other than a few chuckles and an earful of truly vile rhetoric from the worst gamer stereotypes out there?
However, not all games are created equal in this regard. Notwithstanding the Civilization series which is a history buff's playground, the number of videogames that use history or literature as source material has jumped significantly in recent years. World War II shooters or The Saboteur may take a slightly fanciful view of the global conflict, but they still have some very good history in them. The Assassin's Creed games unfold during the Crusades and the Renaissance. God of War is a gateway to the rich world of Greek and Roman mythology.
Rare, though, is the videogame that presents history without taking liberties. The same can be said about film and television. To turn real world events into a gripping visual-dominated narrative, some figures or events have to be cut or consolidated. The actual life of Oskar Schindler is different than the man portrayed in "Schindler's List" and the events of "Apollo 13" were shaved to squeeze into two hours. But nobody would ever condemn you for watching these movies over something of pure fluff, like "Fast & Furious."
That same appreciation for a historical movie (or a smart literary adaption like the Colin Firth-starring "Pride & Prejudice") needs to be extended to videogames with similar aspirations, much like schools made special room in their curriculum for games like The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Should the PlayStation 3 be wheeled into the classroom when the subject of Greek mythology comes up in a Humanities or Literature course? Absolutely. Battling Zeus for a few moments will fire the imagination of students and show them that Greek myths are indeed pretty damn cool, even when not experienced in 1080p. Plus, a discussion of actual mythology versus the story of the God of War trilogy is a smart way to sneak in lessons not only about the source material, but also that students should be cautious accepting history and literature portrayed in film and games as gospel. Make them understand and appreciate both the art and limitations of taking liberties for the sake of storytelling.
Ezio isn't real, but the world he inhabits was.
But videogame developers should also bear some responsibility in making sure gamers know when history is being tweaked so they are not confused about the actual events games use as springboards. Call it the Dan Brown Effect. (I visited the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland during the nadir of "Da Vinci Code" mania. You cannot believe how many people – carrying the book with them as they toured the magnificent building -- were devastated to find out there was no secret room under the chapel, just a tiny vault.) The Assassin's Creed games are the biggest "offenders" in this respect. History is woven into conspiracy so tightly that until the bizarro supernatural stuff kicks in, it would be understandable to really believe that Leonardo di Vinci palled around with an assassin. To its great credit, Dante's Inferno offers a timeline of Dante Alighieri's life, which placed the game in proper context. It helped alleviate the number of gamers that picked up the poem and were disappointed to find out the protagonist wasn't really a whoring Crusader knight.
This trend of games using history and classic literature as jumping off points is a trend that only deserves further embrace; it is an answer to the loaded question of whether or not videogames have any real value. Escapism in itself is a worthy pursuit, but it is not sensational in the least to demand that games sometimes – but not always – offer more than action or puzzle-solving. Assassin's Creed II may be a wild interpretation of the Renaissance, but if a single gamer sets the controller down and picks up a book to learn more about the actual Bonfire of the Vanities, then Ubisoft – and the entire videogame industry -- has indeed scored an epic win.
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