Graphic from Assasin's Creed: Mirage

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What video games can teach us about the past

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Outside of fun and excitement, video games have the potential to offer relevant history lessons. How much impact can they have on our understanding of the past?

Graphic from Assasin's Creed: Mirage

Video games are among the most popular forms of mainstream entertainment, with an estimated 3.38 billion players globally – about 17 percent of whom are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). One of the most anticipated video game titles of 2023, “Assassin’s Creed Mirage”, puts the spotlight on medieval Islamic civilization.

Given the popularity of video games, and research showing how influential they are on the public’s understanding of the past, academics and developers need to work together to create authentic game worlds that address problematic colonialist and orientalist stereotypes.

Exciting history

The next instalment of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed” franchise will be released on October 5 and follows the early years of fictional protagonist Basim Ibn Ishaq in ninth century Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. It will also include a new in-game educational feature that offers players a way to learn about Mirage’s historical setting.

This is big news for anyone who cares about the art, history, and cultural heritage of the MENA region. For many, seeing the now-legendary city brought to life by such an iconic history-themed game will be a dream come true. Expectations are high and the implications go beyond mere entertainment.

Most history-themed video games still locate the medieval past in Europe, and specifically in northern Europe. The low profile of Islamic sites and objects in these games reflects the persistent hierarchies of knowledge production – despite longstanding efforts to critique legacies of colonialism and empire.

This situation risks perpetuating a problematic trend for global audiences, implying that the monuments, landscapes, objects, and histories of MENA and Islamic societies are insignificant on an international scale.

By contrast “Assassin’s Creed” offered detailed visualizations of 12th century Damascus, Jerusalem, and other cities in the medieval Middle East, in the process creating one of the industry’s most recognizable history-themed franchises.

city of Baghdad in Assassin's Creed: Mirage

Wide influence

The visual appeal of these games is clear, but historical Islamic environments in games like “Assassin’s Creed” aren’t just eye-catching. Research suggests that video games are nearly as influential as film and television in shaping public understanding of history, especially unfamiliar premodern times and places.

Experts estimate that the market for video games will continue to grow and to be driven by increasing player numbers in emerging markets (MENA and Latin America are the regions predicted to see the most growth this year). If accurate, this suggests that more game developers will design games with settings and narratives from MENA, and from other cultural traditions and histories beyond the Anglo-European historical canon.

One hopes so, and that we will see more developers producing games that portray Muslims and premodern Islamic history in ways that prioritize historical authenticity over easy Orientalist tropes and misinformation, and that make good on the medium’s potential to make substantive academic knowledge accessible beyond the academy. This could help shape public understanding of more inclusive global histories.

In game shot from Assassin's Creed: Mirage

Educational tool

As I’ve learned from experience – including as an advisor to “Assassin’s Creed Mirage” – video games can aid in understanding the built environment, visual culture, art, and history. The process of choosing what to show, and how and why to show it, helps me and my students better understand the potential – and the problems – that video games have for education.

While the choice to work on video games might be unorthodox for a scholar, this work is important. As educators, we need to look not only at images but also at immersive 3D environments with an informed, educated, trained eye. Historians of visual culture and the built environment especially must be able to bring their expertise to game environments that purport to represent the past. Understanding how these game spaces are created and made will help us educate a new generation of historians.

Video games can shape public understanding of history and cultural heritage in ways that supersede even the most popular academic publications. For this reason alone, educators should be aware of and engage with these platforms.

At stake is the relationship between decolonization and historical knowledge, as these are deployed and consumed in the form of games like “Assassin’s Creed.” While teaching students in universities and sharing research in scholarly circles through traditional academic publications remains the central work of scholars, we can and should do more to help the public find and interact with research on Islamic art and history.

The popularity of history-themed games shows that people are interested in the past, and that the video game console can be a direct route to reaching the widest public audiences.

Dr. Glaire D. Anderson is Senior Lecturer in Islamic Art at Edinburgh College of Art. Her work with Ubisoft is supported by Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation service.

This article was first published by the Syndication Bureau

All images: Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft Entertainment

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