Tag Archives: history?

A Civilized History

History, owing to the fact that it’s primarily written by white men, tends to be very white and very male. History is, ultimately, a narrative with facts chosen and framed to fit that narrative. Disagree? Look at how the Civil War is taught and remembered in the American South; it was firmly impressed upon me while living there that slavery had nothing to do with it and it was all about state rights. Those writing history have an agenda, and when the writers are white and male, there is an attempt — knowing or not — to maintain a status quo in which history and the narrative are controlled by white men.

So when we (and that we is a general we, including myself, probably you, and the general cultural awareness that exists) think of the Really Big Important People of History, chances are we’re gonna settle on a bunch of white guys. Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates. Hitler, Edison, Caesar. The big historical stuff, for good or for ill, was mostly done by people who were white and/or male, at least until this whole newfangled thing called ‘diversity’ showed up recently.

Following this logic, if you’re gonna make a game about, say, the rise (and fall) of civilizations over the millennia, you’ll want the iconic leaders that your payers will have some frame of reference for, and the civilizations that gave rise to them too. So: white guys.

Fortunately, the Civilization games do not follow this logic.

A scroll through the list of leaders and civilizations available for play in Civilization VI reveals an eclectic selection of nations that go beyond a collection of Western superpowers, with an effort made to have as varied a selection of leaders as possible. Of course, you’ve got the United States, led by Teddy Roosevelt, Germany as led by Frederick Barbarossa, and the Roman Empire led by Trajan. But France is helmed not by Napoleon, but by Catherine de Medici, who led France as Queen Mother for thirty years. The Greeks are present, but you can choose to have Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, as your leader instead of Pericles. It is Cleopatra who leads the Egyptian Empire.

The Civ games have been doing this for a while. Civ V featured the Zulus amongst mainstays like India and the Aztecs. England’s most always led by Victoria or Elizabeth I. The Chinese, Japanese, and Arabians have been in most of the games too, a staunch reminder that not all culture comes from the West. Civilization II notably had a male and female leader for each civilization, although some of them were apocryphal, the idea that not all world leaders are men has been present for a long time.

What’s notable in VI is the extent to which the development team has gone to find these lesser-known leaders. I had not heard of the Scythians until I played this game, let alone their leader Tomyris. Turns out, they were a nomadic people who lived in the Central Asian steppes, and though not much is known about them, they did briefly have a queen named Tomyris. Firaxis highlighting this in their game, by making Tomyris one of the leaders, is a pleasant reminder that there’s a lot more to history than the common narrative we’re taught (contrary to popular belief, the history of modernity is not a straight line from Greece to the founding of the US) and that there’s always gonna be more to learn.

I do appreciate learning stuff, always have (see: my biggest issue with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), and learning about, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mvemba a Nzinga of Kongo, or Kristina of Sweden is a real plus.

Look, my High School history class skipped over the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires chapters of the history book, so I know I have some gaps to learn. Why not do so while engaging in some world domination?

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As I’ve said before, there are two reasons I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey; the first being that I got to control a ship again (seriously, after Black Flag gave me a pirate ship there was no going back). The other was that you could finally play as a woman for the whole game. It only took, what, eleven games to finally feature a female protagonist, albeit an optional one.

Anyway, naturally, I’m playing the game as Kassandra (instead of Blandy McWhiteGuy #38 that is Alexios), because I am here for badass women in my video games. It’s a lotta fun, but it’s also patently untrue. See, Kassandra’s a woman, and when it came to women, Ancient Greece wasn’t so great about it. Well, neither were most eras, really. Or right now. But that’s beside the point.

The Assassin’s Creed games are historical fiction, as played out through genetic memories in a fancy device called the Animus. Given that most all of the assassinating takes place in the past, whichever character the player inhabits must thus belong to the era and be fitting enough to be able to pass inconspicuously as needed. Naturally, the games want to focus on Big Cool Bits of History; unfortunately, due to a westernized view of history, Big Cool Bits tend to focus on that as seen by the West: the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Victorian Era, Ancient Egypt. They’re the eras and events we learnt about in our (westernized) history books and what we’ve learnt to associate as those Big Cool Bits. The Ming Dynasty, various Caliphates, and pre-colonial India are relegated to footnotes.

Because of this, the problem inherent to Assassin’s Creed is that most of (western) history isn’t great for women or people of color, thus necessitating that most of the game’s protagonists must be caucasian or white-passing. It was game number ten, Assassin’s Creed Origins, that introduced Bayek as the main character. He’s Egyptian, and, unlike a lot of depictions of Egyptians in popular culture, not white. Which is cool! And honestly, I’m keen to check out Origins sometime, to see how it is in comparison with Odyssey

Having Bayek be a person of color makes sense, because, well Egypt. It’d be far more strange to have him be some white dude. Were Ubisoft to ever make an Assassin’s Creed set in the Ming Dynasty or some other non-western historical period, the protagonist would probably have to be a person of color, because, hey, we’re finally telling stories that aren’t about white dudes. But history being history, if we wanted to give an accurate portrayal of the era and its culture, the protagonist would have to be male to be able to go about society doing things (like assassinating people).

Now, back to Odyssey, where I’m playing the entire game as Kassandra, a female character. Due to the game allowing you to pick between characters, gameplay and plot are essentially the same if you’re Alexios or Kassandra (since making things different would require more coding and work). There’s no difference in your ability to captain a ship, fight in a war, or sneak your way into a symposium based on whom you pick — or based on your gender. This means that Kassandra can do everything Alexios can; she can rub elbows with the Herodotus and Aristophanes all the same, she can be a respected and feared general, she can romance the exact same cast. In essence, Kassandra is equal.

Which is bullshit. Gender roles were established in classical Greek culture; you weren’t gonna have some woman running around as a mercenary fighting other mercenaries (some of which are women!). It’s plain unrealistic.

And so what? The game takes place two-and-a-half millennia ago, in an era that’s almost as much myth and legend as it is recorded history. Where’s the harm in taking some big liberties? Yeah, yeah; I get it, it’s ‘unrealistic’ to have a female mercenary roaming the Greek World and jumping around Big History Bits, but this is also a game where I merrily and repeatedly destabilize nation-states without plunging each society into ruin, so really, there’s a lot of ahistoricity going on there. 

But Josh, you say, that’s just gameplay mechanics built around the whole idea of reducing a nation’s power by killing its leader. And to that I say: So what? We’re okay with small breaks from realism for the sake of fun, why not for the sake of narrative? Video games, like so much of other fiction, has an overabundance of white dudes and needs a hefty splash of diversity. I am happy for Odyssey to take a break from reality and let me play as a female mercenary for the whole game. It’s cool, and, c’mon, we already know how history went; let’s have a little fun with it.

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Where’s My History Lesson?

The Assassin’s Creed series might be my ultimate guilty pleasure of a video game. Some of them are really good (II and Brotherhood), some… less so (the original and, honestly, III). Then there’s one like Black Flag which has a really cool central mechanic (ships!) but really accentuates the worst parts of the series (missions where you have to follow someone and then not be seen… and failing makes you have to slowly walk with the followee again). Then there’s the overall lack of polish: Edward clips through the ship’s rigging when he runs along the bulwark, something you will do several times when you sail up to an island and run to jump off into the water. I’m hesitant to call them really great games, but they are fun, especially when III and Black Flag gives you a pirate ship.

Given that the succeeding games did not give you any pirate ships, I didn’t play any past Black Flag in 2014. Eventually, I finally came around and picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey because not only does the game give you a pirate ship (sorry, a trireme), but at long last, the game finally gives you an option for the player character to be a woman. And something about RPG elements being a big part of it too.

Anyway, I’m days into the game, though I’m not sure how far into the actual story I am — I keep getting distracted fighting soldiers and sinking ships as my badass warrior pirate lady. Odyssey reminds me of why I enjoy these games so much, they’re fun, a little ridiculous, and there are few things as great as staking out a camp and then one by one killing the soldiers within before they know you’re there.

But, I’m kinda bummed that Odyssey has kinda lost its history lessons. Part of the whole schtick of these games is that you’re someone from present day reliving the past via the Animus and genetic memories. The framing device means other characters from the present can provide you with information about places and people you encounter. This means there’s a whole bunch of reading you can do about historical people and places you see. Running around Renaissance Italy and see a funky tower? Here’s some history! Wanna know what the big deal about the Hagia Sophia is? Here you go! What’s up with Colonial Boston? History! Yes, it’s kinda like homework to read through these database entries, but it really adds to the overall sense of place.

But this info is nowhere to be found in Odyssey. Islands in the Greek archipelago are just islands, places and temples are just places and temples, with little indication of their importance of factuality. Early on the game, you visit Ithaca and the ruins of Odysseus’ home. Which is awesome because, hello, The Odyssey! But without a measure of familiarity with Homer’s epic, you wouldn’t realize what a big deal it is. I’ve recently met a historian by the name of Herodotos who’s helping me with my quest, but the game itself has given no indication about the lasting reputation he’s had on the modern world. When I vied against the Borgias in Brotherhood it was an added bonus to know that these were, to an extent, actual historical people. Losing that framing robs Assassin’s Creed of one of its fun — and surprisingly educational — aspects.

This isn’t really a big knock against Odyssey. Like I said, it’s a really fun game, even with the small bugs (that may or may not be features). It’s an open world game, a genre which I have mixed feelings about, but there’s a lot to do so it stays pretty fresh. Plus, I bought a skin from a blacksmith that turns my horse into a unicorn, so at the end of the day, I’m okay with a little lack of history.

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