While recommendations for books, articles or occasionally a documentary are expected on a History course, it was surprising to hear a lecturer say that if you want to get the best feel for what London was like during the Victorian era, play Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. After all, video games are just now gaining more mainstream acceptance as ‘art’, so citing them as a valid learning tool can seem strange to many. However, there has always been an appetite in the community for games that attempt to recreate the feeling of existing in a certain period or event. Syndicate’s London is an impressive city with smokestacks and horse-drawn carriages aplenty. With the design of London, Ubisoft incorporated everything that we would expect to see based on popular knowledge of the period. Now, one of the key questions facing historical games is whether or not it is advisable to try and create a truly educational experience that is completely accurate to the past, or if learning is still possible when a push is made for authenticity over full accuracy. Additionally, how far can preconceptions of the past be challenged before historical authenticity is lost as well?
Perhaps the greatest issue when addressing historical accuracy in games is the medium itself. As an interactive product, there will always be compromises made for the sake of gameplay. Something as simple as respawning after death is both historically inaccurate and essential for the game. The effect of the medium on accuracy also depends on the type of game in question. Strategy games such as Company of Heroes and the Total War franchise are often (rightly) praised for their attention to historical detail and respect for real-life events. However, neither address the numbers of soldiers who would die from disease before even reaching a battle, or how a bad storm could render key equipment unusable. Unlike other visual products such as cinema and television, games place the user in an active role, the purpose of the product rests on the developer realising that ‘true’ historical accuracy is both unattainable and unadvisable.
With that being said, why could a game like Syndicate be held up as a positive example of media that depicts Victorian London? The answer could rest with the idea that when people say they want historical accuracy in a game, they actually mean authenticity. While 19th century London wasn’t the stage for a secret battle between assassins and templars, it was a hub of the industrial revolution, a city with deep wealth-inequality and a rapidly expanding criminal underground. When exploring the city, it is obvious that Ubisoft understands how the city worked and how people lived their lives in this time.
Authenticity becomes even more important when there are fewer reliable primary sources from a period or when strong emotions are associated with it. Addressing the first point, the most recent Assassin’s Creed game, Odyssey, is set in Classical Greece where the idea of recording facts took on a different meaning to how we understand the practice today. Greek mythology and wonder is built into many of the sources from the period, so Odyssey creates an authentic experience by taking what we do know about Ancient Greece and building up a world by using speculation to fill in the blanks. We know that Athens was under siege for much of the Peloponnesian War, so Odyssey creates personal stories and adventures based on what life was probably like at the time, rather than by slaving over sources for a significantly less interesting experience.
Moving to the idea of emotions forcing authenticity to be placed above accuracy, the Battlefield series is now allowing players to create female soldiers in the multiplayer mode. This has led to accusations of disrespect for the people (largely white men) who fought on the frontlines in the World Wars. However, women did play an integral role in both wars, keeping industry going for the Entente/Allies and acting as partisan fighters for the French and Polish in WWII. While it may not be accurate to show women and minorities on the frontlines, it is authentic to allow players to give optional representation to the groups who did have a key role in the overall war effort.
Ultimately, while it is easy to understand why people demand historical precision in games, particularly where it relates to periods of history where respect is essential, authenticity allows for an equally valid exploration of the past, while giving representation to the people who may not have had their stories told otherwise.