Let’s talk about how Assassin’s Creed 3 depicts the American Revolution
Ed: We thought it might be interesting to compare how the American Revolution was taught to an American vs a Canadian in light of Assassin’s Creed 3 (made by a Canadian studio!) So we got two NM contributors to examine what the game depicts. We’d love to hear your thoughts on what the game depicts as well–sound off in the comments!
REID MCCARTER: The first topic I want to get into is a pretty simple one. The American Revolution is a massively important event in how Americans — and, in many ways, Canadians — understand the nations we live in. In Canada, we aren’t taught that the Revolution was necessarily a heroic struggle against tyranny. I was told that the revolution was probably an inevitability. I wonder how much of this you can see in Assassin Creed III, what with it being a Canadian developed game.
Many moments in the game appear extremely critical of the American Revolution. The game stresses just how muddy the lead-up to the Boston Massacre actually was (a protest gone wrong rather than the massacre the American naming suggests), its subsequent distortion by “heroic” Americans like Paul Revere as a propaganda tool. On the other hand, Ubisoft Montreal doesn’t shy away from pointing the finger at the British either. Late in the game, Connor explores a British prison ship docked in New York. The pop-up historical notes (which are great if not as funny as they think they are) paints a picture of British brutality when describing these makeshift prisons and the mass graves the Patriots were buried in.
To me, the game ends up depicting the American Revolution in the same way that I ended up coming to view it through studying history in university and in the years since graduating: a struggle where both sides had valid reasons for their actions, but where both sides were equally monstrous in their treatment of the enemy. Like most wars! This might not be a surprising way of looking at the Revolution for a Canadian (as we’re pretty much a weird mixture of British tradition and American culture), but I wonder what you, as an American, thought of these same points?
Were any of Assassin’s Creed III’s portrayals of history surprising to you, as an American? Was it evident that the bulk of the development team is Canadian?
JORDAN RIVAS: I didn’t find it apparent at all the game was developed by a Canadian studio. I think the highest compliment I can pay Ubisoft in terms of their neutrality is that I wouldn’t describe the game as being American, British, Canadian or any other nationality.
The problem with American history today, and when I was in school, is that it’s inherently nationalist. That might seem like an obvious statement, but my objections aren’t so much with the portrayal of the British as oppressors, as much as the justification of everything done by the colonists leading up to, during, and after the war.
The problem with idealizing the revolution as a fight for freedom, is that so many men in America wanted to establish a British style of government and do many of the things they criticized the British for. Men like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton proved after the war that they didn’t really have a problem with a controlling government, they had a problem with a controlling government not controlled by them. So the blood spilled, and lives lost would end up being all for an exchange of power from Great Britain to a select few in America. That idea was fought against by liberty minded revolutionaries, of course, but over the course of time, nationalism won out in America.
Haytham challenges Connor on this in sequence nine of the game. These revolutionaries were mostly privileged, white, landowners. They were acting in self interest. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not altruistic. Trying to establish a government you can control (and thereby control your fellow man) is no more valid than any other government that doesn’t respect individual liberty.
A thought on the Boston Massacre: as many people probably learned in school (hopefully), only a few people died. Tragic, but hardly a massacre. The name itself absolutely reeks of propaganda. John Adams actually served as attorney for some of the British soldiers who were eventually charged in the matter. If anything, I think the depiction in the game could have gone a bit further. Early American colonists were rowdy bunches. That’s not to dismiss their grievances, but I’m sure I’m some point before the shooting, they stopped protesting and started rioting.
Well the portrayal of the villain in Assassin’s Creed games always strays the most from actual history (see: Borgia in AC2). So Charles Lee in the game surprised me a little. Charles Lee was not a popular figure, and he had certain character deficiencies, but what’s telling is that his unpopularity and his legacy are mostly colored by his opposition to Washington.
I’m glad the game points out that Washington lost more battles than he won. He also didn’t think riflemen or muskets were effective for war (Washington pretty much thought guns were a warfare fad), and many people considered Lee to be a better military mind. Washington was really good at retreating. He believed in conscription, and thought anyone who didn’t volunteer to do longer tours of duty than they had originally agreed to should be treated as deserters (i.e: hung). He is shown to have flaws in AC3, but he’s still portrayed as a pretty large figure, and I think part of that is trying to appease that American market that only knows Washington as larger than life.
What are the reasons typically taught in Canada about what made the revolution “inevitable”? I’m curious what Canadians are taught about the colonial reasons for revolution.
RM: What you say about Washington is interesting. I thought the fact that AC3 even touched on his slave ownership, often poor military judgement and responsibility for the Sullivan Expedition — an awful atrocity that I’m glad the game incorporated in some form — was pretty bold. I wasn’t (and I suspect many Canadians weren’t) taught that Washington was anything like infallible: he was just an extremely important historical figure. This was also an aspect that, I think, was telling of AC3′s Canadian development. Would an American developer creating such a big-budget game have been as quick to criticize Washington like that?
I felt like the way Ubisoft Montreal portrayed Washington was reflective of the way I (and likely other Canadians) learned about why the Revolution was, maybe not inevitable, but at least warranted. We learn our history in the context of British colonialism (since that’s the basis of the founding of our own nation) and I think that imparts a perspective that makes it difficult to blame American revolutionaries for rebelling against excessive taxation, unfair representation, etc..
When we look at our own history as a clash of British and French colonial interests, many Canadians are able to see our ancestry as a land of émigrés, all hoping to find a living in a new continent while being affected by the whims of far removed powers. When you have to view your own history as a (less bloody) struggle for independence in the New World — colonial “settlers” just wanting to make their own way apart from the nations they left behind — I think it creates sympathy for the course of American history. That isn’t to say that Canadians endorse all aspects of American history of the period (the War of 1812 is a pretty striking example to the contrary), but I think that helps explain why we’re taught the Revolution in a non-negative light.
It’s also interesting that you say that the way you were taught American history was inherently nationalist because I think that’s probably true in any nation. Canadians, as much as we enjoy a reputation for being modest, are the biggest internal braggarts of all. We’re told to be proud of our achievements in the arts and sciences and even our military’s history (it may be surprising due to the fact that Americans make the most popular war films, but Canadians did play an enormous role in both World Wars — something we learn a lot about in high school). We wave our flag just as loudly (maybe not as publicly, though) as Americans while glossing over the darker aspects of our history.
That brings me to (probably) the last topic I want to get into: North American Native history as it’s shown in AC3. Canadians have just as shameful a history in our treatment of Native Canadians as Americans, but I think there are probably great differences in how we perceive/are taught about our pasts. AC3 does a fairly good job of illustrating many of the horrible acts committed against Native Americans (I also liked the line where American liberty is said to be great for “white, landed colonials” while not being so for Black and Native peoples) when they could easily have been ignored by a less ambitious developer.
I think that’s great, but would it be as effective if I hadn’t been given a good foundation to care about Native history through the Canadian school system? Would an American who hadn’t independently studied history pick up on the historical injustice illustrated in the game? A lot of it is buried in the historical notes (which I read, but I’m sure a lot of people ignore since they badly break the flow of many sequences) so, aside from the fate of Connor’s village, it could all be pretty easily ignored by an ill-informed player. Canadians, I think, are decently informed of Native Canadian history through school, even if we’re still disgustingly lax about actually confronting this dark past head on. Are Americans the same way?
Were you surprised by some of the portrayals of American treaty breaking and atrocity in AC3 or were you already familiar with these events through junior high/high school history?
JR: I think American entertainment companies in general tend to have a poor understanding of international audiences not just culturally, but commercially. The idea in Hollywood is that domestic matters, and international (while important) is secondary. I think the game industry elements based in America fall prey to this mentality to a degree. I think an American developer would have idealized Washington more, not out of a sense of patriotism, but based on the presumption such a depiction would appeal more to the domestic audience, and garner more sales. I give credit to Ubisoft not only based on their education in history, but the business sense to understand their multinational audience.
As far as reasons the revolution, I think mostly romanticized ideas about freedom are taught here. It’s a deceptively selective way of portraying the birth of the country. The Jeffersonian thinkers, and the liberty mindset were what sparked the revolution in people. Those ideas culminated and the result was inevitably declaring independence, and fighting a war in response. The reason why I call it deceptive is because what caused the revolution was not a desire for different government, it was a desire for less government.
The idea of freedom and the principles of liberty are inherently opposed to the dangers of government, regardless of who leads it. Jefferson, James Madison, and others recognized this well at the time. But eventually the federalists like Hamilton took charge, got the ear of Washington, and early American government just went about creating much of the problems they accused Britain of. We’re taught the nice parts about freedom that make everyone feel good and inspire people, but rarely are people taught how American government has been trampling the Principles of 1776 (as Jefferson called them) since before the revolutionary war was even over.
That’s kind of what I meant when I said the history was nationalist. Perhaps I should have said it has a pro-federalist slant. There was a point when it looked like America would become the Jeffersonian, small central government, high individual liberty nation envisioned during the revolution, but things turned towards stronger central government and history has taken that side.
I am a little surprised that Ubisoft showed some of the blatant misdeeds of Washington and the colonists in regards to Native Americans. I think most Americans have a general idea that Native Americans did not get a good deal in all the colonial expansion, that is certainly taught, but I don’t think most secondary school curriculum includes Washington’s note to Sullivan about the total destruction and devastation of Iroquois settlements. I think that kind of specificity can stun some Americans, to know that the man they view as the father of the nation was that ruthless, that he specifically said he wanted no talk of peace. I did go into it with an understanding of the history, and I was looking for how they’d portray it. I was pleasantly surprised, but you’re right, that without further context, I think some American audience members may just be confused. I think that’s why it’s vital we have discussions like this.
RM: Exactly. I hope, with time, there are more articles written about the game’s portrayal of Native history. So far, the only ones that stick out in my mind are discussions of how AC3 painted Connor as a “noble savage” or compromised too much by having him be the son of a white father (which I actually think serves the plot in interesting ways that fall outside of the purview of this dialogue). There’s probably a bit of validity to these points, but they’re maybe too condemnatory when the game is actually attempting something fairly bold. Critics are responsible for ensuring that developers are kept on their toes in regards to cultural, political and historical sensitivity/responsibility, but it’s also important that writers give credit where credit is due. Personally, I can’t think of any other game that has achieved what AC3 has in depicting Native history with proper consideration (Prey doesn’t count) and I’d applaud their work, imperfect as it may be.
I think Ubisoft has accomplished something really remarkable with the character and their willingness to tackle Native American history in a largely uncompromising manner. Connor’s Kanien’kehá:ka/Mohawk childhood friends are not idealized, their inevitable suffering isn’t the result of naivety, but of deception and the “use” of Indigenous soldiers by British and Patriot forces alike is fairly well represented.
When you say that most Americans are taught the general awfulness of colonial expansion, but maybe not the fine details that actually condemn its leaders it reminds me very much of what we’re taught in school. There’s likely a similarity in both of our nations: we are all taught that bad things have happened, but not the full details of who is to blame, the circumstances involved, etc.. It’s horrible because, without a few good teachers, I don’t know if my public school education would have been enough to keep me interested in learning more about Canadian Native history and current events. I imagine this is a problem that is true for any nation built on the exploitation of others. In a perfect world, someone who plays AC3 without any familiarity with American Native history would have their interest piqued and be curious to learn more. The possibility of that is great and I hope it’s happening.
So, this is becoming really lengthy and I think we could go back and forth for a long, long time without fully discussing everything there is to cover here. What I’ve taken away is how closely our formative historical backgrounds are, despite how different I imagine the American and Canadian public education systems to be. Sure, we aren’t taught to revere the Founding Fathers here, but I think there are many similarities in how Canadians and Americans view the American Revolution.
Where we’d probably end up veering off in different directions is just down the chronological road at the War of 1812 (we’re taught that the pre-Canadian Brits “won” while I’m sure Americans are taught the opposite). 20th century history, I would think, only continues splitting the historical difference further. Just the same, aside from some key differences, we’re taught very much the same things. This was a bit surprising to me. I know we only represent one example from both countries, but I would have imagined that our backgrounds would diverge a lot more.
AC3 is the only example of a game that I can think of that would have allowed us to have a discussion like this and I think that’s great. Games are extremely influential in modern society and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. As Canadian development studios continue to gain prominence it will be interesting to see how our national understanding of international history, culture and politics is explored — and how the rest of the world reacts.
Any closing thoughts of your own?
JR: It’s interesting that you mention Prey, and some criticism AC3 has taken. If I recall correctly, Prey was actually praised when it was released by quite a few people for representing Native American culture in gaming. In hindsight, I think most of us recognize Prey was being shallow in its portrayal of Natives, perhaps even exploitative. But at some point someone scrutinized those shortcomings until the community at large began to recognize them. I think we both agree AC3 has done a fine job showing an honest portrayal of Natives and Native culture, but I’m sure we’d also agree that the aim of honesty across cultures is a constantly moving goal and we can always improve.
There are a couple of key items that stand out for me, after playing the game and after our conversation.
First is that the game itself is a good tool to spread the message of liberty. As we were both able to attest to, nationalist societies are prevalent and so much of the programming we receive from a young age is meant to align us with our country’s government, even skewing around parts of history when our country’s government didn’t live up to the country’s ideals. It’s remarkably refreshing to see a piece of media, especially a video game, make a clear statement about the dangers of statism without bias against any particular nation.
Ubisoft wasn’t overt about that message, but I do think we see the agents able to operate independent of national allegiance are most effective. Connor obviously has strong allegiance to the Kanien’kehá:ka tribe, but there is a sequence in the game which I wrote about on my blog recently where Connor has to fight with members of his own tribe. You can choose to neutralize them non-lethally, but that Connor is able to face even his own people when he feels they’re starting down a wrong path shows at least some measure of personal conviction that supersedes group identity for Connor (even if he was still trying to save their lives by stopping them).
Second, is that we’ve had a relevant and insightful conversation about Native Americans, without any Native American input. That’s not good or bad of itself, but I do think it’s telling. I can applaud Ubisoft for having a multinational developer team, but I don’t know how many members of their team have Native North American heritage. It’s great that Americans, Canadians and others can have this kind of discussion, but I wonder what someone of Native American descent would say.
I think it’s fantastic and necessary that we have these discussions to hopefully shed some light on history for people (and for that reason why I applaud AC3, for bringing that about through gaming), but I also want to encourage Americans and Canadians to learn about how those of Native descent are being treated now. Within the past decade or so both Republicans and Democrats in America have introduced legislation meant to stop recognizing tribal governments. And those tribal governments that are recognized are still limited by a federal government in the US that has no right to preside over their affairs anyway.
We can’t try and talk about all these things at once, but while we have people’s attention, I definitely encourage readers in the US and Canada to learn about this situation in the present, with the history that we’ve touched on in mind.
Reid, lastly I’d just like to thank you for including me; this was a fine discussion that I enjoyed, learned from, and hopefully will give people something to think on.