The latest mess on the Internet about gaming is the Globe and Mail article about Assassin’s Creed 3. Once again, our media lumbers stupidly into the full cultural spotlight, and once again, the full culture rejects gaming as wrong, while gaming culture reacts with its usual hysterics.
That aside, the Globe gets a few things wrong in this editorial, and I want to simply set some records straight. The first is agreement: yes, there is a deplorable and utterly preventable decline in public education, including history education. This is opinion, not fact. It is based partly on the usual fabulous and ridiculous stories that circulate among us every day, but more so by how commonly they are taken for fact. This point is important, because it is here that the Globe itself stumbles; video games are (or have) narrative! They are story, and stories don’t have to be true, or make sense. Being unable to recognize this and critique it as such is why we have such a poor time telling “truth.” “Truth” here is in quotes because it stands for objective truth, which is a whole other blog for another time.
Okay, so I’ve said my piece about Assassin’s Creed III. Now for a bigger problem made apparent here. The Globe is challenging ACIII for failing to be something society wants, but the designers never intended it to be. This mysterious thing is called “edutainment.” While the word is an ugly corruption of entertainment with education, it refers to struggling offshoot of interactive software development that attempts to make learning fun. While there are some successes in this endeavour, the genre as a whole struggles to find support from either the education tool purchasers or the game players, keeping a tight lid on its growth. Is it any wonder, then, that Ubisoft decides to make money (its unstated objective) by making something very different than education software?
Edutainment is a deeply desired commodity for society. The Internet is riddled with “Best Edutainment” lists, every bit as much as the “Best Video Games” lists that dominate YouTube. Consider this one by Emily Gera on GamesRadar. Extra Credits has also touched on the demand here. There’s also teasing news that one of the oldest classics in the genre, Carmen Sandiego, may be coming to the big screen. Everywhere you look there is evidence that edutainment is still on the rise. The Globe has merely fallen into a trap, assuming that the ambitions of Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed III were the same. But consider the nature of edutainment.
The original Carmen Sandiego was released in 1985, and is only just now going Hollywood in 2012, taking 27 years to win mass-media acceptance (if mass-media acceptance can be judged based on getting a Hollywood picture out of it). The Mario Bros launched in arcades in 1985 and have been to the Silver Screen in 1993, after only eight years. Other titans of gamer culture that have made to the movies include Street Fighter (vg II 1991, movie 1994), Mortal Kombat (vg 1991, movie 1995), and Double Dragon (vg 1987, movie 1994). I never said any of these were good, but the pattern is pretty clear; video game licenses get made into movies much earlier than edutainment (so far). This is genuinely too bad; Oregon Trail (1971) has the makings of a better movie than Resident Evil (vg 1996, movie 2002) ever did. But it does speak to popular culture`s preferences; that when Hollywood goes looking for new characters to make into movies, they look to popular junk food entertainment media, and sell it. That last bit is important too, for when consumers are bored and looking for something to do, we look to that popular junk food entertainment where better edutainment may be on offer. It`s just how the culture operates.
If the Globe is looking for a bright spot in its game reviewing column, then it should look aside to these great edutainment titles. But they won`t; it`s much easier to spin an editorial out of misplacing and misinterpreting things than getting them right. I`ve as much as said Assassin`s Creed III will be junk food entertainment; I`m going to stand by that characterisation. I also will not be making the mistake of looking to ACIII for historical accuracy, though I expect we haven`t heard the last of this.