Educating the next generation has been the reason for human progression since the dawn of humanity. Teaching one’s knowledge to their children has allowed the human race to progress by building on the back of others. It is the true building block of intelligent life.
The problem with education, particularly for kids, is that it can be extremely tedious. Sitting in a maths class looking at a whiteboard with an ungodly amount of numbers and symbols on it can be terrifying. Equally terrifying can be opening the used copy of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and struggling with the lexicon and plot. As a historian, even I realise that, like the other examples, looking at the Bayeux Tapestry is likely to put anyone to sleep.
Education doesn’t have to be boring, though, and it can be achieved with some ‘outside the box’ thinking. More over, that ‘outside the box’ thinking could conceivably be achieved through games.
One of the games that got me into history in the first place was Assassin’s Creed. Now, granted, running around shanking people with a hidden blade before scaling a tower and jumping off with nothing to slow your fall but a craftily placed hay cart, is not exactly educating the younger generation. That would simply be taking the game at face value, though. In fact, under the surface, Assassin’s Creed has many mechanics that facilitate learning.
In each of the games, the Animus is a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge concerning the time period the game is set in. Want to know about Machiavelli, Charles Darwin or Napoleon? The Animus database gives information on all of them, so long as they are in the specific game. Ok, you won’t be able to write a dissertation or use it as a secondary source, but the information it gives is a great way to interest people, young or otherwise. For example, here is an extract from the Animus database concerning Blackbeard the pirate.
Known variously by different sources as Thatch, Teach, Theach, Tache, Titche, Teatch, Tack, and more, we are fairly certain this Edward was born in or around Bristol and took to the sea at an early age, most likely in his teens. It is also speculated that he arrived in the West Indies quite soon after leaving England.
If this was indeed the case, Ed Thatch would have seen his fair share of the War of Spanish Succession, a protracted fight between most of the Empires of Europe that pitted Britain against royalist Spain and France. In these early years, from 1700 to 1713, he would have been a privateer or at the very least a merchant seaman, doing his part for the crown — Queen Anne at the time.
But with the Treaty of Utrecht bestowing peace upon a troubled Europe in 1713, Thatch and his fellow sailors would have found themselves far from home and out of work. They thus turned to piracy as a means of sustaining themselves. In the ensuing years, Thatch befriended a Captain named Benjamin Hornigold and soon after joined his crew as quartermaster, at some point between late 1714 and early 1716.
Settling in Nassau, Thatch, Hornigold, and the rest of the “Flying Gang” as these pirates called themselves, began cooking up schemes far larger than most pirates of the era dared dream. Wanting nothing less than a country of their own, they worked to turn Nassau into a place of liberty and freedom for all who desired an escape from the bonds of imperial rule.
Obviously, there is nothing here that can’t be found somewhere like Wikipedia, but in the game, its ease of access makes it far accessible than going on to the internet and looking up what interests you, if you can be bothered, of course. When a place of interest is near, players are just the press of a button away from information surrounding that place of interest. Its ease of access means that players are not spirited away from the game when something piques their interest. That appetite for discovery is fed in-game.
Of course, many people won’t find this sort of information interesting and won’t read it. However, for the few that are interested, the information gained, while not hugely detailed, could be a springboard for a more formal attempt at an educational path or at least a secondary interest or hobby.
Now, trapesing through lines and pages of information can be just as dull in a game as in the classroom, but there are other ways Assassin’s Creed gives up historical information that are far less boring, far more interactive and even subconscious.
Many people, when told about great historical architecture like Big Ben or the Colosseum may have only seen them in pictures or films or read about them in books. They have no idea what the Bastille was like in its heydey or the vastness of Notre-Dame compared to the other 18th-century architecture of Paris. When they are climbing them from the perspective of a human, suddenly those paintings and descriptions become easier to conceptualise. Again, they probably won’t win awards for historical accuracy, but the point is to engage the younger people, and nothing is more engaging than climbing Notre-Dame on a sunny day in Paris.
This theme continues when just running around the created historical worlds. Being able to explore Renaissance Rome or Industrial London is interactive history. Players can experience how these worlds were inhabited at the time. In Revolutionary Paris, we see small spontaneous uprisings and the discontent between the classes shown by the disparity between the slums and the palaces. In industrial London, we see horse drawn carriages patrolling the roads and freight trawlers patrolling the Thames. We even see the age of steam, with the hulking steam-powered trains running right through the heart city. Players playing these games are learning about cities like Constantinople, not because they have to, but because they can, subconsciously, simply by walking around. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then how many words does an interactive picture speak?
FOR INQUISITIVE MINDS
What is so good about how Assassin’s Creed handles the information embedded in it, is that it is not necessary to complete the game; each game could be completed without even venturing into the database or having a clue about the historical setting. The information is there for the inquisitive and it is those who are inquisitive who are more likely to become interested in history than those who don’t care.
Those curious minds may well be put off by being forced to learn about Henry VIII and his wives in a more traditional way. With something like a game, they learn at their pace and when and what they want to. If a prompt comes up to learn about the Tower of London, players can hit it, if not they can ignore it, they’re in control. It is a more fluid learning experience.
If more games and more education providers use this facility, fewer people are going to lose the chance at stumbling across a love for history, they may otherwise never discover. Of course, it extends further than history. Any subject can feasibly be embedded into a game with education on that subject being a possibility.
I didn’t discover my love for history until much later in my life–Assassin’s Creed went along way to facilitate it–, but I was lucky enough to act on it. Games like that, with education there for those who want it, but not necessarily forced, can be and should be, applauded for it. Video games certainly have a lot to offer modern education.