For some reason, my high school World History teacher saw it fit to skip over the entire Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. This thus left me with the general feel that those empires were a completely disposable era of history. That’s high school in South Carolina for you.
This all changed when I begun playing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
The basic conceit of the Assassin’s Creed series is built around genetic memories; that is the idea that your DNA has the memories of your ancestors and, if you’re lucky, your ancestors were hooded badass assassins. You spend much of the game romping around Crusades-era Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, or Revolutionary War-era USA (depending on the game). What adds to the fun of stabbing soldiers in the back is the attention to detail the team at Ubisoft put in these games. Landmarks — both famous and less so — are rendered in game for your scaling pleasure. Not just that, though, every landmark/city/person of note you encounter is accompanied by a database providing a quick rundown of the Hagia Sophia/Boston/Cesare Borgia.
So back to the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. Revelations follows Ezio Auditore as he travels to Constantinople and his exploits therein. You’ll encounter a young Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim I, and Sehzade Ahmet, among others. Investigating the surroundings in Constantinople reveal those afore mentioned database entries and bits of history. Steadily, you begin to put together a functional history of the Ottoman Empire as well as the remnants of the Byzantines. Or, in my case, everything I know about the Ottoman Empire I learned from Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
This is something that makes the Assassin’s Creed series relatively unique: they’re history lessons. Sure, the main plot of the game seldom revolves around real life incidents, but bits of actual history find their way into the plot (eg: how horrible the Borgias were). These games are decidedly not educational games, but by immersing the player in the world, you wind up learning stuff anyway. You’re able to recognize places like the Rose Mosque and the Basillica di San Lorenzo since you use them to navigate the city. Figures like Niccolò Machiavelli stick in your mind because of their importance in the game. You’re not so much taught by the game was you are immersed. You’re learning by doing.
There’s another game I’ve been playing a lot this past week; Kerbal Space Program. It’s an independent game by Squad wherein you run, well, the Kerbal Space Program. What makes it different is that it’s a bizarrely realistic space simulator where getting into orbit requires managing thrusters, detaching stages, adjusting your angle of ascent, and paying attention to your apoapsis and periapsis. You also learn what words like apoapsis and periapsis mean.
Kerbal is more intense than Assassin’s Creed in it’s ‘educational’ department. In order to be half-decent at the game you are forced to learn these concepts. Even if you’re not exactly clear on the math —and if you’re me, then you’re definitely not clear on the math — you wind up with a working understanding of stuff like thrust-to-weight ratios and atmospheric drag. Why? Because you have to. The information isn’t just background set dressing or details to make it seem more real; it’s vital knowledge to making sure your rocket doesn’t become a fireball. Though that’s fun too.
I love video games and it annoys me to no end how often they get written off as meaningless drivel. A game like Kerbal Space Program teaches players rocket science, though more for the fun of it than any practical reasons. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty worked as a functional analysis of Meme Theory (amongst a lot of other stuff) — back in 2001, before memes were a thing. I learnt a lot of my eight-year-old vocabulary from the Pokémon games. All this to say that you can learn a lot from video games.
Now then, I have a few more ideas to send Kerbals flying into space I wanna try out.