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.

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  • Darakou

    You should play more games Fred. For you particularly, I recommend Bioshock, the Assassin’s Creed series, The Binding of Isaac and Spec Ops: The Line. Maybe Braid too, just because it’s so beautiful with a deep hidden narrative.

  • The “read the whole thing” link appears to be broken. Not sure where it’s supposed to be pointing.

  • Tom

    The Assassin’s Creed games are all excellent and incredibly comprehensive (SPOILERS: you spend the first few hours of the latest game playing as the main character’s father – he’s not even born until about 10-15% into the game!).  Sure, there’s probably more unnecessary random killing than is healthy but (aside from obvious supernatural elements) they are meticulously historically accurate, with most of the characters being real people from history.  My favourite bit was in Assassin’s Creed II when the main character (the dreamily handsome Renaissance Italian: Ezio Auditore) has to rescue Da Vinci’s boyfriend Salai.

  • MissMikey

    There was also a really neat story on NPR about using a Native American character as the lead and what the game company did to try and make it realistic. (All of this may have been covered in the review, I just don’t have the time this morning to read the whole thing)


  • Robyrt

    Agreed – the chief draw of the Assassin’s Creed series is walking and parkour-ing inside a historical simulation, looking out on some fabulous city from impossibly tall minarets and bell towers. The actual storyline is nonsensical and ahistorical (at one point you interrupt mass at St. Peter’s to challenge the Pope to a boxing match), but the verisimilitude is unmatched.

  • The best thing about Assassin’s Creed III– I’m playing it now– is that your character (a Native American gentleman whose father is British) will occasionally bust the bubble.  Sam Adams is railing against injustice & double taxation & you say “don’t you own a slave?”  BOOM.  Or your father– a part of a rival conspiracy– will be like “oh, yeah, freedom, tell me more about how the revolutionaries care about the freedom of landed white men, go on, tell me.”

  • Yeah, unfortunately I could never get into the AC games because of how nonsensical the story is, and how long it takes to get past it. The only game I’ve played in the series is AC2, and I basically gave up about an hour in when I was still playing a tutorial with poor voice work and wooden characters (I wasn’t helped by just starting to play LA Noire at the same time) and terrible writing.

    Maybe some day I’ll come back to it and find out I was three minutes from the game getting often, I just can’t be bothered with crummy games, any more. Too many of my own to write.

  • The first four Assassin’s Creed games featured storyline and meticulous world-building.  Assassin’s Creed III, not so much.

  • I’m still somewhere near the end of AC2, as I insisted (much like with AC, though I don’t much advise it in that one–the mechanics drove variation into the backseat and it is quite repetitive) on completing all assignments I could. Balancing it between a billion other games, work, watching things and listening to (and writing about) music has not helped me complete it in any reasonable amount of time  (Steam says: 30 hours of Assassin’s Creed [finished], and 57 hours of Assassin’s Creed II–so far…).

    (that said, I can’t say I understand most of the negative comments above at all, and I have a strange history and pattern of game-playing that don’t lend themselves to a diet of overblown, faceless AAA titles)I must say that “MMLARP” doesn’t quite have the amusingly awkward, pronounceable ring as “MMORPG”. It just sounds like someone who has confused their appreciations and desires the practice of cannibalism on improv’d elf actors.

  • The_L1985

    Assassin’s Creed II was particularly nice for me, since I’ve been to Italy and recognized a lot of landmarks. :) I’m pretty sure Florence was spot-on, too.

  • Looks like Fred accidentally pasted part of the quote itself instead of the URL. I’m guessing it should be the same as the previous link (“The Founders, the Tea Party, and the Historical Wing of the ‘Conservative Entertainment Complex“).

  • OriginalExtraCrispy

    The Assassin’s Creed series has always sounded interesting to me, but I have a boycott against all Ubisoft games due to their overly restrictive DRM. Until their DRM stops punishing paying customers, I won’t be purchasing any of their games. Which is a shame, because they have a lot of games that are interesting to me.

    (I buy most games through Steam. That’s already DRM; it doesn’t need more).

  • Münchner Kindl

    It is exciting to imagine oneself as a participant in a courageous act of revolutionary change like the Tea Party.

    You mean the act where smugglers who made more money on inferior tea dressed up as Indians – since they were too much of cowards to come openly as themselves – and destroyed other people’s property, harming the average consumer (who could’ve gotten the officially taxed tea cheaper than through them) and then spread a bunch of inflammatory lies about it? That historical event?

    I don’t see what’s either courageous or revolutionary about it. (Maybe because our teachers try the best to teach facts not myths about history).

  • Carstonio

    The movement begins to make more sense if, instead, we view it as a massive multiplayer live-action role-playing game.

    A better comparison might be historical re-enactment hobbyists, specifically Civil War ones.

  • Münchner Kindl

    Smugglers, like John Hancock, hate being told they can’t smuggle. Their
    businesses were metaphorically dependant on everybody remaining
    horrified by Great Britain’s terrible, (reasonable), awful, (in
    retrospect economically responsible) taxation practices, so they started
    a smear campaign in New York and Pennsylvania, painting the Tea Act as
    just a sneaky way to get everyone to accept new taxes. By this point,
    “new taxes”, while vital to paying down the still-a-massive-problem
    national debt, was a phrase now capable of making the colonists go
    apeshit like it was the fucking secret word on Pee-Wee’s playhouse.Read more: http://www.cracked.com/article_18442_5-reasons-founding-fathers-were-kind-dicks_p2.html#ixzz2Hy1kuoN6

  • Eminnith
  • The_L1985

    They’ve quit using that horrible DRM about 3-4 months ago, IIRC.

    (And of course, the console versions don’t have the same DRM problem, but you have to own the relevant consoles to be able to play them.)

  • Carstonio


    a phrase now capable of making the colonists go
    apeshit like it was the fucking secret word on Pee-Wee’s playhouse.

    Is there a term for that style of writing? I sometimes read Badass of the Week ironically because the foul-mouthed exaggeration is so childishly silly.

  • Hexep

    The trouble with Assassin’s Creed is that they get the programmers, and the level designers, and the researchers, and the art people, and they get this whole industrial movement going – I mean, look at the end credits for AC3, they take ages to run through, there’s Ubisoft Bucharest and Ubisoft Singapore and Ubisoft Budapest and Ubisoft Montreal and there’s just this endless cavalcade of hundreds of names, maybe even thousands.

    But there’s no intelligent direction at the core. It’s like a Michael Bay movie; you have the best lighting techs and the best sound techs and the best camera techs, and all of these people are masters of their respective trades, but there’s no spark of genius at the center.

  • The really remarkable thing for me about this comment is how you go out of your way to encourage people who might have learned something from it not to do so, in favor of engaging nationalist outrage. Is that intentional, or accidental?

  • MaryKaye

    Fred, you might like _Confederates in the Attic_ by Tony Horowitz.  I accidentally got to listen to it on a long car trip, and it was both very, very funny and quite insightful.  It’s about the legacy of the Civil War in the South as it plays out in things like Civil War reenactments.  The author is a participant rather than an observer, and he has a lot of things to say about what this means.

    I have to say, though, the comparison of evil political movements to roleplaying games always comes across to me as a slur on my hobby.  Gamers, generally speaking, know when they are playing and when they are not.

  • P J Evans

     I suspect it’s a combination of both.

  • Thanks. I read the link based on the one up above the quote, which worked marvelously. They’re bookmarked now, incredible mix of history and commentary.

  • That seems like a wonderful critique.

  • P J Evans

     Not just that tax on tea. There was the tax on paper, and on required government stamps, and the courts that were hundreds of miles away, and the soldiers being billeted in local homes.
    You really need a good US history text.

  • They’ve quit using that horrible DRM about 3-4 months ago, IIRC.

    Sort of, I think. I had to berate a friend into playing them at all (after he bought them of his own accord), as he’s a hardliner against DRM (and in general a sort of obstinate fellow–not that anti-DRM people necessarily are, he just is on this and other subjects) and refused to even deal with creating “Yet Another Account”.

    They did stop the “always on so you have to be connected even if playing single player” a bit ago, but of course you still need to create a UPlay account (my friend’s issue) and the servers have to be up when you connect, I think. Sometimes, anyway. Well, if nothing else, I know I was shut out because I was being lazy about turning it to offline and had some difficulty when they were down, as a result. Though only once. And definitely as a result of my wanting to be sure I got my silly “rewards”, in case I hit the waypoints/milestones that earn them.I also am not sure of the reality, but I got the impression that they periodically revive the “always on” thing with new games. Could just be that people who don’t play them because of that policy ever existing are just convinced it’s still present though.

  • caryjamesbond

    Münchner Kindl

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

  • Cracked – while funny – is not my go to source for reliable historical commentary. Nuanced it is not.

    If you want a calmer more nuanced version try http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01724mf  (Michael Portillo is a Tory prat but he makes pretty good documentaries).

  • Deborah Moore

    I did follow your link and it agrees with my impression.  The Tea Party claim that they want to duplicate a pure and unsullied 1780’s society (minus the trivial detail of slavery, of course).  But what they really want to recreate sounds a lot more like the 1880’s — the Gilded Age (minus the trivial detail of militant unions, of course).

  • Frankenchoky

    If Fred did play AC3 I wonder if, as a fellow southeastern-Pennsylvanian, he’d be bothered as much as I was about the fact that you can leave Boston, run through the woods for 10 minutes, and arrive at Valley Forge. That took me out of the experience more than it probably should have.

  •  Yes!  I was wondering why Valley Forge was north-west of New York City, and how the Schuylkill had grown from a small creek into the river it is today over the course 230 years.  There were some massive geographical problems with that game.

    Of course, I’m fairly certain that Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem aren’t all that close to each other, either.

  • Worthless Beast

    Are you sure things weren’t running on videogame-time?  Sometimes, you have to suspend disbelief for videogame-time. 

    I’ve not played any Assassin’s Creed as of yet.  Most games I’ve played run on an “endless day.”  I’m a hardcore fan of “The Legend of Zelda” series and some of those games (most notably, Ocarina of Time) has days that are something like 15 minutes long from sunup to sunset. I figure a 10-minute run in a videogame is supposed to be the equivalent of traveling for days.  (Unless it’s a time-race, then things are just magic there).

  • Worthless Beast

    My recommendation, though I don’t know what it’s worth and it depends upon if you can get your hands on it since it’s somewhat rare: “Shadow of the Colosuss” for PS2 (or the cosmetically-enhanced version on PS2). I just have a PS2, myself, which means some of the graphis wobble, but it’s still my favorite videogame.

    It’s a stark game that gives the player more questions than answers, which is why Fred might like it… it runs on a gray-morality. It’s a fantasy game so I don’t know if he’s into that. The plot is that you’re a young man seeking out the help of a mysterious entity that can bring back the dead to bring back the soul of a ritually-sacrificed maiden.  To do this, you of course must do a series of ritual sacrifices – of elegant giant creatures dotted around a mysterious, abandoned land.  Your tools are minimal. A horse, a bow, a sword, and your own stamina.  It’s a game that has you do a typical videogame task, but asks you to question it the whole way.  You may be doing it for a good reason, but you are no hero in this game. 

    It’s very… for lack of a better term… “arty.”  Not sure how many people would enjoy it as much as I did. It is much, much more sparse than most games.

  • Worthless Beast

    “cosmetically-ehanced version on PS3,” excuse me.

  • AnonymousSam

    It’s also quite epic and redefines the concept of “giant boss fight.” I’ve described it as that scene from the third Lord of the Rings movie where Legolas takes down a giant elephant — except you do that several times, in increasingly amazing ways. In particular, running up the side of a sword that’s at least ten times your size to clutch onto the arm of the colossus wielding it so that you can scramble onto his head is an experience everyone ought to share.

  • No, it’s really not videogame-time.  You have to run (or ride a horse) from Boston to Valley Forge, and it takes about 5-10 minutes.

    Also, you can run the entire way, even if you’re carrying 35 elk carcasses.

  • The_L1985

     I think he actually is German.  I’ve had a conversation with him wherein I learned that he does not understand English legalese at all, only conversational English, but is reasonably well-educated (which means English is probably not his first language).  Combine that with a German screenname, and there’s one fairly logical conclusion to draw.

  • The_L1985

    I remember reading somewhere that the day/night cycles for both OoT and Majora’s Mask are 3 minutes of day, followed by 3 minutes of night (with the obvious exception of the “slowing time” song in MM).

    It was one reason why Twilight Princess was both incredible to play, and a powerful reminder of the sheer size Hyrule is supposed to be.  The map is identical (once you account for the mirroring from the Wii version) to the basic world map of OoT, but everything is substantially larger, giving a better sense of scale.  This is further reflected by the fact that TP forces you to have Epona from the beginning, but OoT can be beaten without the horse at all, in a fairly short time.  The in-game days were also made longer to fit with the idea of it taking a day to cross Hyrule Field.

    It’s harder to determine the scale of Hyrule in Skyward Sword, because of the sky-land dynamic and the deliberate separation of the 3 land areas from each other (you can’t walk straight from Faron Woods to the desert or Death Mountain, you have to warp to the sky and then skydive into the other area).

  • The_L1985

    Are the distances between all the cities that short, though, or is it just Boston/Valley Forge?  If the former, then yes, it’s videogame-time (and the “running while carrying elk carcasses” bit is generally considered acceptable suspension of disbelief for a video game).  If the latter….well, that’s just sloppy on Ubisoft’s part.

  • AnonymousSam

    As I see it, rather than what you experience (even participate in) isn’t necessarily to be taken as literal unfolding of the sequence. What takes you five minutes to play took the character days or weeks, but the experience is truncated to make it more enjoyable. The world you see and the world the character experiences are parallel, but not identical. Some designers use cutscreens to make this apparent, but others just don’t speak of it at all.

    I thought this several times while playing the first Assassin’s Creed when I realized that it takes longer to run from one side of the city to the other than it does to run from one city to another. The cities are built to scale, but the roads aren’t. One is more fun and impressive to navigate than the other, and so we see the “real” city, but get only the “short version” of the road.

  • MikeJ

     In GTA San Andreas you can drive fro LA to San Francisco to Las Vegas and back to LA in about five minutes.  In a game that is already supposed to take 50+ hours to complete nobody wants to spend hours doing nothing but travelling from one location to another.

    I do recall Penn and Teller put out a video game back at the dawn of time.  You drove a bus through the desert at a maximum of 45 miles per hour.  You could not stop and you could not pause the game, and it took eight hours.

  • The games under the ACII banner solved this pretty effectively by not bothering with the wilderness between cities. If you needed to travel between them you got a cut scene or a loading screen.

    In ACI and III, you have to run from one point on the map to another.  And even if you argue that there’s loading in between, it still doesn’t make sense that Valley Forge is to the North and West of New York City.

  • J_Enigma23

    I’m pretty sure it’s called “bathos.” Shares a common root with “pathos,” but means the opposite thing. Generally speaking, bathos, when unintentionally invoked, is a bad thing. Cracked, however, uses bathos for humorous purposes and invokes it on purpose. I use bathos when I write comedy, too, since the sudden change in diction and tone from the serious to the absurd is sometimes makes a joke a lot funnier.

  • Assassin’s Creed, I remember, tried to give a sense that there was a long road they were skipping between the cities and the Crossroads.

    And of course, the series gets to be using two doses of videogame time, since you’re technically playing a guy playing a videogame based on his ancestral memories. 

  • AnonymousSam

    Even better, the vehicle has a natural drift to the side, and if you try and stop too long, the bus overheats and you have to be towed back (also in real time). If you play long enough, bugs splat against the windshield, though!

    There’s a charity event featuring that game. The more donations the players receive, the longer they drive the bus. http://desertbus.org/about/

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Even better, the vehicle has a natural drift to the side, and if you try and stop too long, the bus overheats and you have to be towed back (also in real time). If you play long enough, bugs splat against the windshield, though!

    Bug.  Singular.  Once.It was one reason why Twilight Princess was both incredible to play, and a powerful reminder of the sheer size Hyrule is supposed to be.  The map is identical (once you account for the mirroring from the Wii version) to the basic world map of OoT, but everything is substantially larger, giving a better sense of scale.  This is further reflected by the fact that TP forces you to have Epona from the beginning, but OoT can be beaten without the horse at all, in a fairly short time.  The in-game days were also made longer to fit with the idea of it taking a day to cross Hyrule Field.If it consistently (or at least canonically) takes a day to cross Hyrule field, though, that should allow us some impression of it’s expected ‘real’ dimensions – anywhere from 40 to 100 miles, according to The Internets account of how far a horse can travel.  So not exactly ‘immense’ on a state scale, but Hyrule seems closer to a city and outlying lands than a a huge nation… with it being a bit more populous in ‘later’ games?

  • GDwarf

    I’ve never seen video games messing with scale as a problem. Their primary purpose is to entertain, and it’s a rare consumer that wishes to have to watch their character sit in a carriage for a real-world week to move on to the next fun part.

    If scale is of critical importance to you, then give Desert Bus a try. It’s almost Dadaist; Consisting solely of a bus that moves slightly to the side (so you have to adjust your heading every so often or you drift off the road) that you have to drive in a straight line for hours on end. If you drift off the road you get towed back to the start in real-time.

    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.

    Plus, yeah, while Ubisoft’s PC DRM was improved immensely a few months back that still only bumped it up from “Worst DRM on the market” (not an easy title to win, given that some of their competitors actually broke DVD drives and caused computer crashes) to “Tolerable nuisance”. You still need to register an account with them, If their servers go down (and they’re down at least 5% of the time) then you can’t play, it patches itself separately from the games its for, so every time you start a new Ubisoft game you have to wait 10 minutes for the DRM to patch itself, and it demands you use Twitter and co all the time.

  • The_L1985

     A real-time driving game?  What was the point of that?

  • Worthless Beast

    Behold! I have found the TV Tropes page with an excellent image of that 3rd Boss Fight as a display image!  http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ColossusClimb 

    Shadow of the Colossus is definitely recommended to anyone who likes their videogame bosses to be the size of mountains.  (There are two that are only about the size of tanks, but they make up for it by being speedsters that deliever epic beat-downs if you don’t haul ass away from them in time). 

    As for other games mentioned: I think the problem with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is that it was originally made with certain software limitations (being on a cartridge)  that Twilight Princess didn’t have (being made for GameCube).  The entire Legend of Zelda series really shows the evolution of technology and art styles in gaming, and just to add to that, modern games of the series go for vastly differeing art styles just for the hell of it.  (Twilight Princess and Wind Waker were made for the same console)!  – I personally haven’t met a game in that particular series that I didn’t like, but my favorite (TP) is often complained about in the fandom circles I run in for being “too easy” or “not Zelda enough” or whatever-I-don’t-care-I-love-the-game.   I wish that I could have flown my bird overland/below the cloud cover in Skyward Sword, though.

    Currently, I am playing Spirit Tracks – it’s the cute little cartoony-style Zelda with adorable trains.  I actually like the transportation system in it to the point that I’m enjoying the sidequests in that game more than I’m enjoying the dungeon crawls and boss-fights. I love hauling frieght and passengers and hunting by train.  It actually takes you a while to get places, too, unless you use the warp-gates.

  • GDwarf


    A real-time driving game?  What was the point of that?

    I believe the idea was to make the most realistic game of all time. Or possibly the most boring. Perhaps both. :P