Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Historical fiction in gaming

I'm not a gamer, but I do have a teen-aged son. He and his cousin both want Assassin's Creed III for Christmas. When I heard this, I dismissed it as another stupid video game. I was wrong.

As my son excitedly explained to me, Assassin's Creed III is the story of a Mohawk man caught up in the American Revolution. It is set in colonial Boston.

In fact, many of my son's video games have a historical setting. He's learned about Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology from gaming. He knows about 20th-century military battles and political alliances because of gaming. Call of Duty taught him about England's involvement in the Middle East during WWI and WWII. "They wanted to cut off Germany's oil supply," he told me. Who knew? And Age of Empires taught him about European imperialism in the 19th century. These are things he's not learned in school yet. I'm not sure they aren't even in the curriculum.

Recently I heard an NPR interview with the creative director of Assassin's Creed, Alex Hutchinson, and the actor who plays the main character in the game, Noah Watts. Hutchinson and his team did extensive research on the Revolutionary War Boston setting, bringing in historians to ensure they got the details right. They hired an Algonquin linguist, Thomas Deer, to assist Noah Watts in learning to speak the native language properly. Deer also made sure the details of the Mohawk village were correctly portrayed in the game.

I shouldn't be surprised by this attention to historical and linguistic detail. Perhaps if I'd been paying more attention to the games my son and my nephew were playing, I would have known not to assume game creators would be sloppy with historical details.

As a writer of historical fiction, I try to get my details right because I've seen firsthand how historians dismiss fiction novelists for getting details wrong. Novelists often turn around and critique film-makers for their disregard of historical accuracy despite their vast resources. I didn't even realize game creators were in the hierarchy of those who have a platform to speak about history.

However, I'm really excited to learn that game creators are exploiting history for their plot lines. Because as much as historians crab about novelists and film makers, they need them to keep the public engaged in events of the past. The average reader of historical fiction is a middle-aged woman. Middle-aged women are also the target audience for costume dramas like the popular Downton Abbey PBS in the United States and BBC in the UK.

Gaming has a different audience, one that is less likely to read a novel, especially a historical fiction novel. But boys and young men (increasingly older as they grow up as gamers according to game marketers) ARE engaging with history. Maybe some of these males will want to know more about a particular event or era in history and read a historical fiction novel about it.

Or maybe middle-aged female novelists like me will begin to play video games with their teen-aged sons. Either way, history stays alive.

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