Junto historians review Revolutionary role-playing games

History prof and never-dull blogger John Fea was talking up the Junto before the new group blog on early American history even launched in December.

Fea was right. The team of academics contributing to the Junto offer a consistently intriguing stream of smart commentary that, like all the best history, tells us as much about the present as it does about the past. It’s a great read even for those of us who aren’t historians and who sometimes can’t remember if it’s Philip Vickers Fithian or Philip Fickers Vithian.

For a taste of what the Junto has to offer, let me recommend two recent posts discussing two popular fantasy role-playing games that draw on the American Revolution.

American Revolution: The Game,” a post by Michael D. Hattem, looks at Assassin’s Creed III. Hattem says the game designers did their homework and all that research pays off in a meticulous, thrilling game-world:

I found the gaming experience of walking around Boston (as an English gentleman) to be both personally thrilling and historically enlightening. The cities were designed from historical maps and are incredibly accurate renderings. But it’s not just the layouts that are accurate. Walking down the streets of Boston in 1754, one witnesses robberies (of which no one bothers to take notice), various groups of persons interacting, random dogs and pigs wandering the streets, small groups of children in ripped clothing and no shoes harassing passers-by, and groups of British soldiers marching through the streets who will just come up to you and push you around if you make yourself too conspicuous. It really brings to life the sort-of — for lack of a better term — Wild-West nature of colonial urban life.

… Both the settings and the storyline … are amazingly detailed and complex. … In the end, barring a time machine, this game is as close as one can get to a dynamic visual experience of colonial and revolutionary settings. For the non-historian, the game will also bring home the violent nature of the Revolution, something often downplayed in popular history and oft-ignored even in the scholarship. Being an early Americanist, the game has led me to consider more the nature of the settings in which the historical subjects about whom I write lived.

One of the highlights, Hattem says, is the sequence in the game in which players participate in the Boston Tea Party:

I found it quite exciting to walk into the Green Dragon Tavern to interact with Samuel Adams and to subsequently board the Dartmouth to take part in the Tea Party. At one point, your character has to ride his horse from Boston all the way out to Lexington on a snowy evening, the rendering of which was stunning.

It is exciting to imagine oneself as a participant in a courageous act of revolutionary change like the Tea Party. And that may explain much of the popularity of the other game recently discussed on the Junto — the movement that named itself after that very event.

The “tea party” is often treated mainly as a political movement, but that view quickly becomes untenable, since it requires us to try to make sense out of the movement’s political views and agenda. And from a strictly political perspective, that can’t be done. The movement begins to make more sense if, instead, we view it as a massive multiplayer live-action role-playing game.

Hattem doesn’t explicitly use that language, but that understanding informs his post on the movement, “The Founders, the Tea Party, and the Historical Wing of the ‘Conservative Entertainment Complex.’” Hattem says this game, unlike Assassin’s Creed III, isn’t much fun. And the game’s creators didn’t do their homework:

In recent years, men like David Barton, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, among numerous others, have written a number of books on 18th-century figures and events. But though they claim to be getting their principles directly from “the founders,” what they are really doing is giving their principles to the founders and the 18th century, more generally. This revisionism, promoted by conservative think tanks, was lapped up by hardcore conservatives and perhaps no group of people has been a more receptive audience than those who identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party.

A few years ago, Tea Partiers began appearing at public rallies dressed in inaccurate historical garb and carrying homemade signs, some of which took a decidedly 18th-century approach to spelling. The rank-and-file claimed (and believed themselves) to be independent of the GOP and sincerely called for a return to the Constitution and to our “founding principles.”

But, as the agenda of the right-wing intelligentsia and their interest groups insidiously took greater precedence, the Tea Party and the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex were forced to twist the founders into ideological and historical pretzels until they appeared to be nothing less than spokesmen for the 21st-century GOP agenda, i.e., the founders as right-wing “fellow travelers.”

Through this revisionism, the founders have not only become honorary NRA members, they have also by turns become monolithically anti-tax, anti-government, pro-free market, pro-individualism, and deeply religious fundamentalist Christians.

Do read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.

I don’t play video games much, but Assassin’s Creed III sounds appealing to me for its storyline and meticulous world-building. I find that sort of thing a lot of fun. The tea-party LARP, though, doesn’t seem much fun at all. Resentment never is.

  • The_L1985

     By “a day to cross Hyrule Field,” that means a day/night cycle, on foot.  So about 20-30 miles for the field itself.  From the easternmost part of the Lost Woods to the Spirit Temple in the western desert, I’d estimate about 40-50 miles across.

    If we’re going by the longest route (SW corner of Lake Hylia up to Death Mountain), then definitely 50+ miles.

    Considering the size of actual medieval kingdoms, that sounds about right.

    I tend to think of Lon Lon Ranch (OoT only) as a town of maybe a couple hundred people, tops, and Kakariko, Castle Town, Goron City, Zora’s Domain, the Gerudo’s fortress (OoT only, though TP has some nice ruins) as larger cities of about 10,000+ people.  (In medieval times, 40,000 was a pretty big city.)

  • Worthless Beast

    On the Zelda forum I frequent, whenever there’s a thread about overworlds, I give the unconventional answer of liking Zelda II: Adventure of Link’s overworld best. I mean, it’s scraggly ancient NES graphics and had some RPG  and platforming bits that I found annoying (I much prefer the third-person adventure format), but I actually do like that game (and wear my having completed it back in the day without a guide as a badge of honor. It’s notoriously difficult).  Anyway, in that game, there were many environments, it took what felt like a long time to get anywhere, and there were towns full of people everywhere.  Sure, they were copy-paste clone-people – but it’s the *concept* of that kind of “actually well-populated Hyrule that you don’t have to imagine extra people for” that I like. 

    All of the other games of the series feel sparse.

  • vsm

    I liked the same studio’s ICO much more. The plot was simple yet effective, with enough hidden details to keep one guessing. Shadow of the Colossus gave out so little information I had no idea what was going on in the conflict between Dormin and Emon, which made it a bit difficult to connect emotionally with the ending. It’s still a great game, though.

  • Carstonio

     I wasn’t talking about the transition in tone but simply the tone used in that last  sentence. Bathos describes the Cracked approach but not the Badass of the Week approach, which is total absurdity without irony. Badass reads like Mickey Rourke reciting Paul Bunyan stories.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    I tend to think of Lon Lon Ranch (OoT only) as a town of maybe a couple hundred people, tops, and Kakariko, Castle Town, Goron City, Zora’s Domain, the Gerudo’s fortress (OoT only, though TP has some nice ruins) as larger cities of about 10,000+ people.  (In medieval times, 40,000 was a pretty big city.)

    Even 10,000 would be a pretty big city for medieval times… though Hyrule is certainly not strictly medieval (its tech is hard to pin down, but most of the ‘advanced’ stuff is apparently dated back to the Goddess Era (aka ‘before Skyward Sword’)).  In OoT era, I’d probably put only Hyrule Castle Town (and maybe Kakariko) in the 10-20k range (though, say, Clock Town may be similarly large).  Hyrule Field, it stands to reason, is just that – farmland administered from the castle (though, of course, it doesn’t *appear* cultivated in game, but food has to come from somewhere).  The bulk of the population would be in various villages around the area (Lon Lon ranch is likely one of these villages) with the total population 50-80 thousand.
      The Goron & Zora cities are harder to determine… they could be quite large (particularly for the Gorons, who apparently eat rocks and are situated next to a volcano, which one must imagine is sort of like their equivalent of a river valley…).  Their leaders are also referred to as Kings, but don’t seem to rule an equivalently large area – though this is perhaps explained by the fact that OoT is *immediately* preceded by a ‘Hylian Unification War’…
    (Also, sheesh, how many apocalypses can one kingdom have?)

  • DStecks

    “Anywho, I liked ACII, but won’t be touching III. By all accounts it’s just more of the same, only now with added Jingoism.”

    You do realize that the Assassin’s Creed series is made by Canadians, right? And absolutely nobody hates America like Canadians do. Oh, sorry, I forgot, if anybody ever expresses the slightest admiration for anything American, it’s jingoism. Got it.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I don’t play video games much, but Assassin’s Creed III sounds appealing to me for its storyline and meticulous world-building. I find that sort of thing a lot of fun. The tea-party LARP, though, doesn’t seem much fun at all. Resentment never is.

    I think that you probably would enjoy it Fred (storyline and meticulous world-building are some of my favorite parts of any game) but I would discourage you from jumping directly into AC3 before playing through the prior Assassin’s Creed games.  The protagonist of each numbered sequel is a different character in a different era, but there is a framing story that ties these characters all together, and you might miss a bit of what is going on and why if you skip to the middle of the series.  

    By contrast, you might want to give Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation a go, if you have a PS Vita. It is a side story to the main plot, so you can pick it up without missing anything, and it takes place concurrently with Assassin’s Creed III.  Instead of focusing on the American Revolution, it focuses on the Louisiana rebellion, and features slavery as a major them.  The protagonist is a woman of mixed French and African ancestry, which gives her an understandably personal stake in the matter.  To quote Evan Narcisse, “Liberation proves that game design inspiration can be found in the ugliest moments of history. But American history doesn’t just inspire the mechanics and rules of Liberation’s gameplay. The game’s story and characters feel more alive thanks to a smart infusion of tropes drawn from the history of black people in the United States.”

  • GDwarf

     

    “Anywho, I liked ACII, but won’t be touching III. By all accounts it’s just more of the same, only now with added Jingoism.”

    You do realize that the Assassin’s Creed series is made by Canadians,
    right? And absolutely nobody hates America like Canadians do. Oh,
    sorry, I forgot, if anybody ever expresses the slightest admiration for
    anything American, it’s jingoism. Got it.

    It’s made by about a half-dozen Ubisoft studios all over the world.Perhaps the game itself is better, but the trailers and promotional material have been nothing but “America is awesome!!!” which I get enough of everywhere else in my life, despite being Canadian.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Anywho, I liked ACII, but won’t be touching III. By all accounts it’s just more of the same, only now with added Jingoism. II was fun, but then they re-released it under new names two more times, at which point it became pretty obvious that Ubisoft was just trying to churn money out of the franchise.

    Two comments on this:

    First, there is not nearly as much jingoism in this game as some of the North America-targeted advertising would lead you to suspect.  It is pretty good about showing the “warts and all” of the period, both among the Patriots and the Loyalists.  If anything, it plays on (American) players coming to the story with a set of assumptions about the Revolutionary War, and then blasting those to pieces through reveals throughout the game (someone familiar with the history of it will see these coming even if the character’s do not.)  

    Secondly, a big part of the reason why Ubisoft cranked out two interquels to AC2 is because AC3 had to have an entirely new engine created for it, and that took them a lot more time than they expected.  The group in Ubisoft responsible needed to maintain some kind of cash flow for the company to justify that long a development time, hence why they created two stand-alone expansion packs to AC2.  I think that some of the new features were worth the wait.  For example, “tree-running” required an entirely new parkour system, and the dynamic naval combat had to be built from the ground up.  

  • http://profiles.google.com/mondojohnson Christopher Johnson

    Hi Fred, the second link (“…read more”) is broken.  Excellent read as always!

  • Randall M

     there is not nearly as much jingoism in this game as some of the North
    America-targeted advertising would lead you to suspect.  It is pretty
    good about showing the “warts and all” of the period, both among the
    Patriots and the Loyalists.  If anything, it plays on (American) players
    coming to the story with a set of assumptions about the Revolutionary
    War, and then blasting those to pieces through reveals throughout the
    game (someone familiar with the history of it will see these coming even
    if the characters do not.) 

    Are you allowed to turn on the colonists and support the Brits?  Cause if you’re not, I for one am not interested.  :)

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Fred: Dragon Age. Dragon Age. Dragon Age. Go play Dragon Age, both I and II. 

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Desert Bus was created by Penn & Teller as a response to critics of video games who whine about them being violent/sexy/magical/exciting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penn_%26_Teller's_Smoke_and_Mirrors

  • Nick

     Um, am I the only one confused by the article apparently characterizing the Tea Party/American right as “pro-individualism”?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Without having read the article: that’s an accurate characterization. They’re all for individualism. Individualism means (to them) that they only have to care about individuals, that is, themselves personally. Maybe anybody they personally know and like, but that varies. Anybody who’s one of Them? Fuck ‘em.

  • DStecks

    “It’s made by about a half-dozen Ubisoft studios all over the world. Perhaps the game itself is better, but the trailers and promotional material have been nothing but “America is awesome!!!” which I get enough of everywhere else in my life, despite being Canadian.”

    That doesn’t make you any less of a twit who jumps to conclusions.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Are you allowed to turn on the colonists and support the Brits?  Cause if you’re not, I for one am not interested.

    In the main game, no, but honestly?  Yeah, it actually could happen.  As I understand it, they are expanding the long tail sales of this game through single-player “what if” scenarios.  The first to be released is “The Tyranny of King Washington”, being an alternate version of events in which George Washington accepts the offer of kingship of the newly independent states.  

    I would not doubt that there could be a scenario coming which would have the Revolution coming out in an entirely different manner, with the Loyalists trumping the Patriots.  

    Incidentally, Conner is not strictly pro-revolution, in as much as his goals sometimes align.  He is primarily interested in hunting down the Templars operating in North America, who can be found trying to orchestrate things on both sides of the conflict.  For example, Charles Lee is one of the biggest targets in the game (and the one for whom the issue is most personal to Conner) and he was a general of the Continental Army.  

    By the way, one of the members of your group in the present-day framing story is a Brit named Shaun.  He is the team smart-guy, and writes all the in-game database entries for the player to browse and get additional historical information.  Shaun though is a bit of a sarcastic snarker, and that comes through hilariously in his writing, where he is not afraid to take some of the hot air out of the rose-tinting of history.  

  • Makabit

    Sam Adams is railing against injustice & double taxation & you say “don’t you own a slave?”  BOOM.

    My understanding is that the woman in question was a wedding gift to his wife, and a young teenager at the time. He seems to have freed her. I don’t know the entire circumstances, it seems rather complicated, but I don’t think Sam was quite the hypocrite that simple question suggests. 

  • GDwarf

     

    That doesn’t make you any less of a twit who jumps to conclusions.

    Nor does it make you any less of a petty, judgmental, moron. Perhaps you should quit before you hit rock bottom.

  • http://omorka.blogspot.com/ Omorka

    If the Tea Party are an MMLARP, then (a) the GMs are doing a horrible job, and (b) I’d like to see their conflict resolution system – it seems to have a glitch exploitable by power-gamers.  (Also, the prestige system is broken, but that’s sort of par for the course.)

  • Hypocee

    The consensus I’ve gotten on ACIII:
    + Great writing and acceptable AAA focus-group third-person action
    -  Buried under unimaginable masses of needless complication, including a boringly trivial yet requisite economic management game. I believe the guys on the latest PC Gamer UK podcast were saying it took 10 or 15 hours to leave the tutorial section of the story. Bring snacks, I guess.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    10 or 15 … hours for a tutorial? Oh, for the love of… (O_O)

  • GDwarf

    AC II was like that, too. On the one hand, combining the tutorial and story makes it easier on first-time players and less boring. On the other hand, it makes replaying the game painfully dull.

  • Darakou

    Yeah, totally slipped my mind. I got both versions, either one will do, and old PS2s are cheap so that could be a good option for Fred, being unemployed and all. I’d say SotC has aged better than its predecessor ICO, but they’re both masterful works of interactive art. 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    10 or 15 … hours for a tutorial? Oh, for the love of… (O_O)

    That is not… precisely correct.  

    It really depends on what defines as a “tutorial”.  The game does ease the player into the adventure, slowly adding layers to the system and teaching you about them as you go, but I would not say that this is entirely a tutorial.  A great deal of story exposition goes on during this period, and it has its own set of challenges that need to be met and overcome.  

    As far as stories, these are needed to establish context for the setting, and to let the player develop a relationships with the characters as they develop.  For example, the first several hours of the game are played from the perspective of Conner’s father, beginning in England, following his trip across the Atlantic, his search for an artifact in what will eventually be upstate New York, trying to work with the indigenous people to find it, helping them during the Seven Years War, and eventually falling in love with one of them.  

    The game does a time skip and picks up about ten years later, with the player controlling a young Conner.  Living in the village with his mother, playing hide and seek with the other children, and facing terrible loss at the hands of invaders.  Another time skip and he is a teenager, out with his friend hunting for the village, eventually leaving when he comes to believe that the best way to protect his people in the future is to leave the village and seek out someone who can train him and point him to the people responsible for his loss.  This then segues into his finding a mentor and learning to integrate himself into the colonists’ society, etc.  

    Sure, that takes a good eight hours at least, but the player has things to do at every stage there, the challenge is kept, and it does a great job of story-telling.  Were this a book it would try to keep a similar pace.  If one’s idea is just “I want to get in and start murdering people as soon as possible,” then this is probably not a game one would enjoy.  

  • Donalbain

    People with German names talking about the Boston Tea Party being a shameful act= adorable.

    People who think that someone’s name is relevant at all to a conversation? Not so much adorable as fucking idiotic

  • Turcano

    So to borrow a turn of phrase from Yahtzee, they actually came out and made Faffing About Creed.

  • Andrew_Ryans_Caddy

    One of my many favorite things about AC3 is that the team didn’t have to put in a lengthy conversation with Benjamin Franklin about how much he loves him some milfs, but by god, they did.

    Also you can pet doggies.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    …which is what Sam Adams says to your character, in point of fact. My point is that the game addresses these issues– not well enough, in my opinion, but it acknowledges that slavery & genocide are the good old fashioned values our country was built on.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Also, how did you block quote that?  I don’t know how to do that!

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Slack, everybody:

    I have long figured that a lot of Political Activists are LARPing without admitting to it.

    My type example was around 10 years ago in the antiwar movement over the Iraq War.  The vibe I got from a lot of the activists involved was LARPing without admitting to it; I could even tell what ruleset they were LARPing:  Star Wars: the Roleplaying Game (West End D6 or WOTC D20 system, take your pick), role-playing Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance against the Evil Empire of Emperor Dubya, Grand Moff Cheney, and Darth Ashcroft.

    Another type example are the Spiritual Warfare types, LARPing high-level Clerics or White Wizards against the 666 levels of the Abyss.

    Or the End Time Prophecy types preparing for their LARP of either Tribulation Force, Warhammer 40K, or crossover between the two.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

     I am playing it now; I actually hated playing as Haytham, I found him insufferable, & wish I had known it was a framing device.  Conner is much better.  Also, I sort of don’t like the main plot– load screen, follow guy nattering on, load screen, cut scene, load screen, chase a guy, load screen– but I think the side missions are oodles of fun.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    …which is what Sam Adams says to your character, in point of fact. My point is that the game addresses these issues– not well enough, in my opinion, but it acknowledges that slavery & genocide are the good old fashioned values our country was built on.

    I remember a scene near the end of the game, during evacuation day when the last redcoats are leaving Boston, and the ship they are on fires a parting shot into the harbor, falling short of the quay.  The people are cheering, but Conner is not satisfied.  He looks over one shoulder, and sees a few slaves being sold on a raised platform, knowing that whatever “freedom” the Patriots were fighting for was not the kind of freedom he would recognize.   This being part of a series of deliberate sour notes the game ends on.  

    I recall when that cutscene ended the first thing I did was climb up on that platform and shank the guy trying to hawk the slaves.  I know it counted as killing an “innocent” but damn that felt like the right thing to do.  

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Yeah, I’m like “these homestead missions are fun, but WHY AM I HELPING WHITE PEOPLE MOVE INTO THIS VALLEY?” I wish it was a little more sandbox & I could like, get my tribe to expand & maybe start a community of runaway slaves. THAT is the homestead I want to help– sorry brawling Irish dudes & Quebecker miner guy.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Disqus obeys some of HTML4, so the blockquote, i, b, strong, em and strike tags definitely work. I think people have had iffier luck with other tags.

    Item 1
    Item 2

    Ok, so yeah, lists don’t work :P

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Awesome to know. I’m familiar enough to write in HTML markup lingo; I just didn’t know it would work!

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    Wouldn’t the most realistically boring game be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QWOP ?

  • GDwarf

    Wouldn’t the most realistically boring game be [QWOP]

    No, because QWOP is hilarious. :D

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    If you liked AC, might I recommend _Dishonored_?  They’re rather different games, but I like what I’ve played of it, and it’s mostly about sneaking around shanking people in a Fantasy Victorian-London-ish city that’s ‘simultaneously being taken over by the Black Plague and the Combine’, to misquote Yahtzee.

  • Tricksterson

    I maintain that Cheney, not Bush II was Palpatine.  George was Jar Jar.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     The world’s most realistically boring game is Journey to Alpha Centauri in Real Time

  • Randall M

     Dishonored reminds me most of Bioshock 2.  With both you have a first-person hero, double-weilding, with your actions setting a moral example for the girl/young woman you’re acting in loco parentis .  Both also great games, of course.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     Really? You’re going to do a Star Wars/Bush Administration mashup and you give “Darth” to Ashcroft? Dick Cheney really is more machine than man now

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    I tried to play ACII, as the concept and design looked great.  But then the game royally pissed me off by insisting that I complete a time challenge while I was still getting used to the controls.  No “skip the silly race against your brother for now and go back to it later” option; it seemed to be, “if you’re just a casual gamer, we don’t want you”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    The  “Darth Cheney” nickname was originally bestowed by White House staffers.


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