I used to like Assassin’s Creed. I enjoyed the climbing and stabbing.
There are lots of reasons to dislike the games, though: super-linear mission structure, the AAA obsession with cutscenes, the twitchy and cluttered controls. I can live with those, though. I played these games year after year because, okay, I can hold down three buttons to run if I really have to. I can deal with the merciless checkpointing. This game does running, jumping, climbing and stabbing like nobody’s business, and that’s why I loved them.
“Loved”. Past tense.
With Assassin’s Creed 3, though, I just couldn’t ignore it any more: the series is, in a word, sickening.
By which I mean it mouths off about this, that and the other – it gets up on its high horse at every opportunity – to make itself feel good. To make us feel good. To congratulate us on how far we’ve come, and something something freedom, something something liberty, and don’t we have such a refined culture, and ooh aren’t the baddies nasty because they want to take our rights away, and oh my God could this be any more American?
The games have some really problematic things to say about freedom, government, politics and history. They shower us with these uncritical messages while taking our money for the privilege. They feed us the same nonsense as most mainstream fiction, and a lot of mainstream news. They are, to coin a phrase, part of the problem.
Let’s look at some specifics.
The Endless Present
I’ll give you an example. In Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Ezio can meet a monk who gives him a mission. The monk says that a corrupt priest has poisoned a number of his brothers. The only solution, the monk claims, is to have the priest killed – but the monk can’t do it because murder is a sin and he’d go to hell. Here’s part of their conversation:
Ezio: How were these men killed?
Monk: They questioned Brother Ristoro’s [the bad priest] habits, and now here they are, poisoned.
Ezio: You question him as well, why do you not fear his wrath?
Monk: A man with nothing fears nothing. I have remained true to my vows. I put my fate in the hands of the divine. Deus asculti.
Ezio:Your vows keep you from acting, so you seek another to do what you will not.
Monk:Please understand. I cannot kill.
Ezio: But I can.
Or click here for video.
When I first played this I remember being deeply shocked. It’s not evident from the brief exchange here, but Ezio’s tone and manner are pretty dismissive. He kills the villainous priest not because he sympathises with the monk, but because the priest is causing mayhem and deserves to die. He doesn’t understand why the monk doesn’t break his vows himself.
There’s a number of things going on in this short conversation. Firstly, Ezio is an atheist – his experiences in AC2 have proven that there is no God, at least not as the Christian church understands it. To his mind, therefore, the monk’s vows are based on lies and misinformation, and are therefore worthless. Secondly, Ezio runs the Assassins, a group of freedom fighters who solve problems by killing anyone who gets in their way. Some Assassins are born with special abilities, but some seem to be trained: AC: Brotherhood introduces a mechanic where you can recruit the poor and downtrodden from the streets to fight in your Assassin army. Ezio’s reasoning, I think, boils down to: “I’m all enlightened and empowered and shit, so why aren’t you?”
Which is nonsense, of course. The monk has only ever known this one, highly repressive Christian culture. He grew up in the Italian renaissance and it’s unfair to expect him to be anything other than a product of his time. And yet Ezio – and by extension the game itself – expects him to, and finds him wanting. What does this tell us about the game’s values?
Well, it means the game’s liberal Western values – our values, really – are considered self-evident. It doesn’t matter that the monk grew up in a time and place where he couldn’t possibly have learned our values or been given the tools to think about his own time critically: since our values are apparently self-evident he is at fault for not thinking about them enough and not coming to this timeless conclusion himself. This also implies that anyone who disagrees with these values is wrong (self-evidently so) and that the fault will always lie with sceptics and critics who “just don’t get it”.
This means that the series’ moral values are static, unchanging, and derived from a moment in history, but nevertheless claim to be self-evident and therefore timeless. Hm.
Another example, more political this time. In AC2, the Templars try to gain control of Florence by assassinating the ruling family and staging a coup to put their own agents in control of the city. Part of this plot involves one Templar (Jacopo de’ Pazzi) stirring up a revolt to make the coup go more smoothly. (Or riotously, I guess.)
Jacopo manipulates them politically by chanting “Libertà! Libertà! Libertà! Popolo e libertà! (Liberty! Liberty! Liberty! People and liberty!)“ The people of Florence join in, and we witness the entire square chanting about liberty.
Except this makes no sense. These people owe feudal allegiance to the ruling family, yes, and in that sense they are not free – they do not enjoy “liberty”. But what do they expect the Templars to do? In the 15th century, the idea of overthrowing the established order and thereby gaining “liberty” was unthinkable. Democracy as we understand it had not been invented. It would have been clear to the people of Florence that what they were getting was not liberty but a new set of rulers – this was just how the social system operated. The crowd might prefer the new rulers to the old – a good leader trumps a cruel one, naturally – but this is in no sense “liberty”.
If this were set in the French revolution then yes, playing on the crowd’s desire for freedom would make sense. Perhaps this is something we’ll see in the upcoming AC: Unity. I can see how the Templars could use liberty as a carrot to whip an 18th century crowd into a frenzy, because at that point in history there was a possibility for systemic change, and desire for that change was part of the zeitgeist. Not so here.
In other words, the writers have taken a concept rooted in a particular time and have transplanted it to a time where it is completely meaningless. And yet they act like this concept makes perfect sense to everyone here – as though those poor renaissance peasants knew all along what democracy and equal rights meant, but were just too lazy or scared to revolt. Again, there’s this assumption that the “correct” values (Western, liberal, democratic) are eternal and have always existed. There’s no suggestion that values are socially and culturally formed, that they can only arise at a certain time and place because of what makes up the cultural mindset.
In other words, this is an example of that weird Western idea that democracy must be exported everywhere because it’s suitable for literally everyone even if they don’t realise it yet.
By all means point out, in Assassin’s Creed 3 and other pop culture works, that 18th century Britain was a controlling, exploitative Empire. In that context, the American war for independence fits neatly into our “Star Wars” narratives of David and Goliath struggles for freedom. But what worries me is that modern America and this idealistic past are conflated here (and many other popular works). The struggle for freedom which Connor is part of (and which, incidentally, won’t benefit his own people in the slightest) is seen as part of the greater Assassin/Templar struggle, not as its own conflict. Just as Connor fights the Evil Empire of the British/Templar bloc in the 18th century, so Desmond fights modern Templars in the 21st; just as the founding fathers fought against their oppressors, so too does America wage war today for “freedom” against evil empires that are perceived but often illusory – and this outlook is supported at every turn by America’s history, the way it weaponises the past, or rather, drags the actions of its past out of their proper context so it can throw its weight around.
This is what I call the endless cultural present: the assumption that our ideas and our culture can be applied correctly and sensibly and with no change whatsoever to literally everywhere else in time and space. Renaissance peasants? Need democracy. Afghanistan? Democracy. Iraq? We were giving them a loving, helping hand when we gave them the magical gift of democracy. These values claim to be timeless, and can therefore be applied with no context whatsoever – which is just as well, because the people who apply it are usually not too bright.
The real problem with this mindset is that it’s deeply conservative. If these values are timeless and not subject to change then we can never move past them. (See: gun nuts.) My concern is that our culture doesn’t care about the history and development of culture itself: a lot of films and games suggest, like Assassin’s Creed, that these are eternal values. (I was surprised when the recent-ish Robin Hood movie transformed the Magna Carta, a document which shifted power from the monarchy to the nobility, into a medieval Bill of Rights.) If we don’t understand that these values only came about as a result of history and cultural change, we’ll be powerless to change our own culture for the better. After all, if these values were timeless then clearly there’d be no reason to fix what ain’t broke! There’d be no need to work on any of our cultural hang-ups like misogyny, racism and classism or to change our culture to be more accepting of oppressed groups because, apparently, we’re already there. The world is perfect now, so why change it?
The answer, of course, is that the world is perfect now for 1) straight white cis men and 2) massive companies like, say, Ubisoft who can afford to make AAA blockbusters. These games and the people who mostly play these games have no incentive to change their tune and may have no idea that there is a problem with the tune they’re already singing.
A few bad apples
Let’s think some more about this conservatism, and how it affects the way we think about the people and systems which control our lives.
The Assassins are a politically radical group who stand for freedom, liberty and a better social order.
Or do they? Their Creed certainly suggests that they stand for social reform. This creed, which is recited by every Assassin initiate and is the central tenet of the order, claims that “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”. Ezio expands upon this cryptic phrase in AC: Revelations:
“To say that nothing is true is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”
So according to Ezio, the Assassins are an enlightened group of people who are socially conscious, culturally aware and have a responsibility to dismantle corrupt and oppressive systems of control.
I maintain that this is pretty weird – that medieval hired killers somehow gained many centuries-worth of social thought and became anarcho-activists – but let’s run with this. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that the Assassins think about culture, society and freedom the way we do. In other words, the Assassins have the ability and awareness needed to free the people of their time from their cultural and political chains.
Which they then fail to do. At all. It might be better to simply say that the Assassins exist to frustrate the efforts of the Templars, and leave it at that.
Consider the plot of AC: Revelations. Ezio comes to Constantinople and falls in with Prince Suleiman, a political figure who will one day become Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman seems like a decent bloke, valuing cultural exchange and understanding, seeing Constantinople as a rich tapestry of peoples and creeds. Unfortunately, Templar agents have their eyes on the throne of Constantinople, and want to get rid of Suleiman to put themselves in power. Naturally, Ezio sides with Suleiman because he’s a nice guy and is not a Templar.
And yet. By the game’s own logic, Ezio possesses liberal, Western values. The Templars stand against those values, believing that order is key to civilisation and that only they can be trusted to rule the world in a top-down fashion – that rule, order, and conquest (whether by force or subterfuge) are key to civilisation and to their efforts.
But this philosophy was shared by monarchs the world over. For centuries, Europe was ruled by kings and queens (mostly kings) who owed fealty to God alone. The people living under their protection owed fealty to them and any other intermediate rulers (such as earls and dukes). The world was seen as an ordered Creation which was thrown into disorder after that whole garden of Eden thing. As such, the king’s subjects were obliged to know their place and submit to the established order: the king had been placed on the throne by God (because God was all-powerful and was therefore in charge of who got to be king). To obey the king was to submit, ultimately, to the will of God. To rebel was to reject that order, question God’s will and abandon the established order in favour of social, religious and political chaos.
The Templars and the institution of monarchy therefore have a lot in common, sharing a commitment to order and a belief that those who rule are the right people for the job. So it’s easy to see Assassin’s Creed’s overall plot – Assassins with Western values vs. Templars with feudal values – as a metaphor for the rise of Enlightenment ideas (democracy, freedom of expression, basic human rights) gaining ground against medieval ideas of fealty, resulting in our current political systems.
So Ezio’s actual mission (beat the Templars) is a metaphor for another, historically-based mission: overthrow the institution of monarchy and establish democracy. So why does he fall in with Suleiman? Suleiman is a monarch, or soon will be. He fits right into the established order. He is the real-life counterpart to the metaphor of the Templars, and his position exists only because of Templar-like assumptions. Ezio should be working against him, not with him.
Granted, Ezio is a single man in a difficult position, trying to do the best he can. And if the game depicted Ezio as a historical character with his own historical values I would accept that. But the game has already established that Ezio has contemporary, Western values. At the very least, the game should follow through on that and condemn the political systems of the eras we play in and which we no longer consider acceptable – but it doesn’t. Why not?
The reason Assassin’s Creed perceives Suleiman as an ally and not a problem is because Suleiman is a great guy. He likes multiculturalism. When we first meet him he pretends to be unimportant – just a travelling scholar – out of humility and an interest in his subject’s lives. He doesn’t want all the pomp that goes with royalty: he values his citizens for who they are. But there’s a problem here. Just how free are the people of Constantinople under Suleiman’s rule? The rights of women aren’t respected. Neither are the rights of other minorities, whether that’s racial or sexual. Again, I’m (somewhat unfairly) applying our own value judgements to the 16th century, but only because the game is so intent on doing so. If Ezio somehow knows about these problems because the Creed gives him the cultural know-how then he should be able to fix this. Perhaps he and the Assassins could found a radical state where they use the Creed to create their own values. Or perhaps the Assassins would do well to found a social awareness program to give people the tools they need to think through their own prejudices.
Except they don’t, the logic being that if Suleiman is a just ruler then his empire will be just as well. The Templars are bad apples: they want to use their power for social control and tyranny. Suleiman is a good apple, so the systems of power he presides over and is supported by will help, not hinder, his people. In this “bad apples” model, the medium of power – here the hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire – is irrelevant, and acts only as a channel for the whims of those at the top. Good ruler equals good nation. Bad ruler equals bad nation.
But that’s not how power works: there are all sorts of subtle flows of power that do not interact directly with the monarch. There are cultural values, which might play a part in racism or designate rape victims as unclean and worthless. There are religious codes, which might demand that that rape victim be stoned to death. Power is never a straight line travelling directly from emperor to peasant. Suleiman is only one player in a vast nexus of power-flows. He may be the most powerful one, but whether he is a good or bad person is much less important than the influence that this invisible power-structure has on the lives of his citizens. As Noam Chomsky put it, “When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual. So slavery, for example, or other forms of tyranny, are inherently monstrous. The individuals participating in them may be the nicest guys you can imagine.”
The “bad apples” model is a conservative staple. If you can just blame bad individuals for a problem, you can remove them from the system and keep going unchanged. It abdicates responsibility and ignores systemic problems and biases. My concern is that if players are being trained to see the people and not the systems in these games, they will approach real-life politics, economics and other arenas with the assumption that the best outcome is to select the best people, rather than to lobby for beneficial change – that the systems we’re stuck with now are the only option. If we’re being trained to see Chomsky’s slave-owners but not his slavery then we’ll never reform the system: the slave-owner just has such a winning personality.
Ezio understands this, or says he does: “To say that nothing is true is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization.” Social norms and cultural values are relative and can be changed. And yet he doesn’t change them, or even acknowledge that there’s a problem with helping kings and emperors instead of criticising them.
I think it’s important to remember here that Ezio is a straight white cis man. He (and the overwhelmingly straight white cis male game-development culture which gave rise to him) may not know that there are serious social injustices in the systems he supports. This is because he doesn’t get much of an opportunity to perceive them. He has, as far as I recall, never been groped, slut-shamed, raped, called a racial slur, denied service on the basis of race or been attacked for his sexual preferences. He therefore doesn’t perceive the oppression of marginalized groups which is taking place all around him. He may have the intelligence and the education to fight social injustice, but he simply doesn’t have the first-hand experience to even know it exists.
This reminds me of rich white college kids who have a good education but think racism and misogyny are over. In other words, me as an ill-informed teenager.
“Sorry about colonialism”
Which brings us neatly to the discussion of race and privilege in the AC franchise or, to put it another way, how white people screwed over everyone else and how the franchise patronises the victims.
AC3 is the go-to game for this one. The main character is half Mohawk, he starts the game in his Mohawk village and (spoilers! Well, not really…) by the end of the game his people (and most indigenous American people) have been run off their land by white folks. It fits neatly into an existing genre of media such as Dancing with Wolves and Avatar in which white people get to relive the (now unacceptable) colonial era and behave nicely instead. I think it was Bob Chipman who described this as the “Sorry about colonialism” genre. Regardless, it’s a great phrase and I’m going to use it.
(Sidenote: I originally referred to the indigenous people of North America as “Native Americans”, but according to wikipedia a majority of these people identify as “American Indians” instead. So that’s what I’m calling them. Also worth noting that they were never considered a single mass until white people showed up.)
Ok, before we dive in I have to point out that this “Sorry about Colonialism” genre doesn’t really apologise for colonialism. It’s often just parroting post-colonial cultural messages because that’s what media does: parrot cultural messages. For example, since they decided to set AC3 during the American Revolution, Ubisoft were bound to echo the accepted cultural position on that era, which is that American Indians were treated horrifically. This doesn’t mean that Ubisoft are good people or necessarily care about American Indian rights; their goal is to make as much money as possible which means taking the path of least resistance, so taking the party line on this issue.
This is not to say that they’re wrong about the treatment of American Indians – our culture is right on the money here. But just because a piece of media says it cares about American Indian rights doesn’t mean it cares about any such thing: more often it’s a ploy to sell more units, or just a kneejerk emotional response.
And this, ultimately, is the problem I have with race and gender in these games. It’s not that they’re wrong, it’s that they don’t go far enough. And I don’t think they actually give a damn about these issues, or that any AC3 players will give a damn about real-life social problems after playing.
Here’s the thing. I guess it’s a good thing that Connor is half Mohawk. I guess it’s a good thing that we have a positive depiction of a non-white character in a series which has, up to this point, been dominated by white guys. But I can’t shake the feeling that this depiction is very shallow. When we first meet Connor he’s a child playing in his tribal village. There are happy, innocent children running around, and his adult neighbours are stoic in that well-established “noble savage” kind of way that pervades 19th century literature, stereotyping and patronising them in equal measure. There’s a smattering of apparently Mohawk language in this idyllic village, and a shaman-like character who gives Connor his quest.
This isn’t a depiction of Mohawk life: this is 21st-century Native American tourism. The tropes through which these people are depicted are so well-worn that I just can’t see these scenes as depictions of an actual indigenous community. Rather, they are representations of the 21st-century fascination with “native” life.
This is similar to the depiction of racism. At one point Connor is told to go into a shop and buy some supplies by his black mentor, Achilles Davenport. Achilles can’t buy them himself because he’s black and wouldn’t get served. Like the depiction of atrocities against American Indians, this depiction of racism against black people is accurate – but I still have a problem with it.
There’s a common caveat present in all “Sorry about colonialism” works: “That was then, this is now – look how far we’ve come!” Yes, we seized land that didn’t belong to us, extracted valuable resources without considering the social and ecological costs and treated your people like animals – but we’ve come around! We’ve learned our lesson! If we knew then what we know now, it never would have happened.
This is why these works often involve a white protagonist who sees how corrupt his culture is and fights with the American Indians against the invaders. Bob Chipman again: “What a strange, oblong loop it all eventually makes: From the White Adventurer as the only hope of saving the native through Colonialism to the White Adventurer as the only hope of saving the native from Colonialism. And how emotionally and morally convenient for the Western/European-descended members of the audience, who get to be on the good team without the discomfort of having to fully see themselves (or their own history) in the bad team[.]”
(Connor may not be white, but he passes as white, spends most of the game in white-dominated environments rather than tribal ones and is, most importantly, probably being controlled by a white player. This point is incidental and I’m not sure quite how I feel about it – is Connor a good depiction of a mixed-race person who has to pass as white, or is he just white enough to be tolerated by the mainstream? – but I thought it worth mentioning.)
But there’s a bigger problem, I think. When I was growing up I was exposed to all sorts of books, films and TV shows which depicted the evils of racism, of classism, of sexism – all those bad things that humanity has apparently overcome in the last 100 years. We’d learn about the civil rights movement, about slavery, about women getting the vote, about the rights of gay and bi people. (We didn’t hear much about trans, asexual or queer issues – my school wasn’t perfect I guess.)
This is good as far as it goes, but all of this information was heavily slanted towards the past. People talked about segregation, but not about how race plays a key role in whether a defendant gets the death sentence. People talked about the heroic efforts of the suffragists, but not about the misogyny still present in our own culture.
By focusing on our past injustices, and only depicting them in the past, we’re doing a disservice to marginalized groups. White people can pat themselves on the back for having “solved” racism in the ‘60s while people of colour are shot dead for setting foot in white neighbourhoods unannounced. Men can pat themselves on the back for giving the vote to women while women continue to be harassed, assaulted and raped. We may swoon and tut-tut over the persecution of American Indians in the past, but it was only last year that a loophole was finally closed which had allowed white people to trespass on American Indian reservations and rape with impunity.
With all this happening in the present day, isn’t it insulting to say sorry for 19th-century atrocities while turning a blind eye to those going on in the 21st?
Yes, our noble protagonists – Ezio, Altair and Connor – are aware of these problems, and they do their best to stop them. This is good. But I think we see these horrific cultural trends as teething problems on the way to Enlightened Democracy. They’re seen as unpleasant but acknowledged exceptions to the “endless present” – but now that we recognise them for what they are, they will just melt away. Except racism isn’t over, not by a long shot, and it’s immoral to suggest that it’s something from our past that we can safely ignore. All Desmond Miles, the contemporary Assassin, has to deal with is the Templars. Connor has to deal with them too, but also with racial prejudice. But the mere fact that Ubisoft couldn’t be bothered to animate a female playable character shows that we are still fighting the same cultural enemies, whether we’re aware of it or not – and whether we, like Ubisoft, claim to be enlightened.
I’m so tired of these games and their shallow political rhetoric. If you can still enjoy them for the running, jumping, climbing and stabbing then I take my hat off to you – have fun, those systems are expertly done and are unlike any other game I’ve played. But I just can’t stand their nonsensical treatment of culture and history, their lazy attitude to social injustice, their utter failure to think critically about any aspect of society or bring anything new to the discussion. Even their “Templars are bad because they want supreme order” shtick is tired, worn out, a simplistic re-framing of 1984 or V for Vendetta.
This isn’t limited to Assassin’s Creed – it’s just that the franchise is a pretty bad perpetrator, and is a good springboard to understanding these phenomena. Games – all media – transmit cultural values that we’re barely aware of. What happens when those media tell us that our values are eternal and unquestionable? That systems of power are less of a problem than how nice your leaders are? That social injustice is a thing of the past, and that anyone who complains about racism, for example, is whining about nothing? The answer, I think, is that those with privilege will continue to listen to those narratives, and use them to ignore legitimate outrage from marginalised groups: “Why are you upset about this? Don’t you know we fixed racism?”
I’m tired of being told what is or isn’t right by media that care less about rights than about profit. I’m tired of being lectured on social justice by protagonists so privileged they own their own palace and town. I’m tired of being sold the same dull, uncritical nonsense in a shinier package year after year.
Noam Chomsky again: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” This, ultimately, is my problem with the games: the series encourages you to take a stand on liberty and freedom, but only if it falls within a highly controlled part of the spectrum. For all the blood they spill, the Assassins are never going to carve out a place where people are truly free because someone else will always have a monopoly on the meaning of “freedom”.