'Assassin's Creed': Teaching History with a Throat-Cutting Hero

The future of education may include assassins and video games

Assassin’s Creed Origins is every bit an Assassin’s Creed game, filled with opportunities to quietly slide a blade into the back of a passerby, to erupt into violence in the middle of a crowded town square, to down guards, peasants, royalty, hyena, vulture, all with equal aplomb.

But this time it’s something else too, a tool not just for entertainment and occasional bloodlust, but one for peaceful exploration and potential education.

Sometime after the game’s full release later this month on computer PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, months after the vast lands of Ancient Egypt have been well-explored by Bayek, after his story has been played, developer Ubisoft plans to release a free update to anyone interested.

Discovery Tour by Assassin’s Creed: Ancient Egypt will hit sometime next year as a free mode added to the game’s start screen. When selected it will strip away all of the weapons in the games, the aggression of all non-player-controlled people and make the animals docile.

Players will be able to select a character from the game and then drop into this vast, living world of Ancient Egypt and explore it. If they want, they can also go on guided tours, learning virtually first-hand about the creation of the pyramids or the process of mummification. With one download, the game makes the leap from entertainment to education and, everyone involved hopes, blurs the lines between the two.

Educational Assassins
“It's fantastic. History demands context, and a virtual experience that puts you there as a tourist is an incredible tool for helping students understand the past. Now they just need to make a VR version. “

Under President Barack Obama, Erik Martin was the point person for the use of video games in education at the White House. These day’s he’s at game-engine builder Unity, but also helps to organize the games for education element of the annual Games for Change festival held each year in New York City.

Back in 2015, Martin invited Ubisoft to present at the first Games for Learning Summit the U.S. Department of Education hosted with Games for Change.

“They had two teams present; the Assassin's Creed team (and their on-staff historian, best job ever), as well as the team that made their Rocksmith guitar-learning game,” he says in an email interview with Glixel. “Ubisoft had collaborated with some educators prior to the Summit, so we were eager to have them share how a leading video game company approaches learning and demonstrate that ‘learning games’ don't just have to be Oregon Trail and Math Blasters, but can be as rich and complex as the other games kids play today. It's great to see their work has continued. “

The decision to release this free, full-on educational mode for Assassin’s Creed actually traces its roots back to before that gathering in 2015, says Julien Laferriere, Assassin’s Creed Origins’ producer.

“We were always serious about our history,” he tells Glixel during a recent demo of the game in New York City. “Right off the bat with Assassin’s Creed One, it was important to depict regions and the civilization we were playing with.

“Story accuracy was always important.”

By the time the team was developing Assassin’s Creed II, which is sent in Italy during the Italian Renaissance, the team had amassed so much information about the world and time period in which the game was set, they decided to include a sort of in-world encyclopedia that players could access while playing.

“We decided, let’s bring forward the history a little bit,” Laferriere says. “The Italian Renaissance was a pretty complicated part of history. It required an in-depth understanding of the time period.

After that, the game’s animus database became a mainstay of the series.

Assassin’s Creed III, which is set during the American Revolution, brought with it not just the animus, but a doubling down by the team on historic accuracy as a backdrop to the game.

“There was so much written about the American revolution,” Laferriere says. “You don’t want to mess it up.”

The series was so invested in history that they hired an in-house historian, a historian employed full-time by Ubisoft who helped research the context of its Assassin’s Creed games.

And while the game continued to rake in awards among gaming press and players, Ubisoft started receiving a different sort of kudos from some fans.

“We received a letter from a high school student thanking us for our game because he was able to use it to write a paper on the Italian Renaissance, referencing Assassin’s Creed II,” Laferriere says.

Assassin’s Creed Origins is Ubisoft’s most homework intensive game to date, Laferriere says.

“We talked to archeologists, experts in hieroglyphics, Egyptologists,” he says. And of course they used their in-house historian.

Origins is set Ptolemaic Egypt shortly after Cleopatra has been deposed and during the time of Julius Ceasar.

It is a time packed with history.

“We had this feeling that we were making a game, but also more than a game,” Laferriere says. “We had crafted this world and then we thought, ‘What if we removed the quests and the fights and let you be a tourist in it?’”

So the team decided to create this post-release mode for the title.

Once it’s downloaded, players will select Discovery from the game’s start screen and then pick which character they want to play as and decide which region they want to start off in.

While players can simply roam the entirety of the game without having to warn about the dangers of enemies or animals, they can also decide to go on educational tours.

“We have a mummification tour,” Laferriere says. “You get to go to stops and see the process.”

The trick is that the developers are essentially reusing bits of the existing game and layering over more information to deliver these educational experiences. So, in the case of the mummification tour, there was already a moment in the game where you see the mummification happening. The Discovery tour just delivers extra content through text and audio.

Another example Laferriere mentioned was the ability to walk inside the pyramids and see more information about them and how they were built.

On top of the obvious tours added to the game, players can also simply roam the complete world of Origins and see history in action.

To ensure that this experience would be as educational as possible, the team removed quest givers in the game, weapons and animal aggression.

“We didn’t want a teacher trying to explain something and suddenly be attacked by a crocodile,” Laferriere says.

The Future
“I always feel we have a super-powerful medium, to teach, to explore, to discover new things,” Laferriere says. “I really hope since that this Discovery tour will be embraced and used, we took it very seriously.

“It’s a tool we put out there and hope people will use and love. Who knows what will come out of it.

If it’s successful, Laferriere could see the team perhaps adding in new content to Egypt, or even going back and adding the mode to previous games.

“ That’s useful knowledge that we can open up for people to explore,” Laferriere says. “As a producer on this game, I want the game to shine as much as we can. Have as many people as we can experience it.

“We crafted this game for four years, it would be super cool to see it have a broad appeal even to non gamers. “

Ultimately, though, this new mode is a complete experiment.

“We don’t know how it is going to be received,” he says. “It becomes a matter of: is there an audience for this. Is there somebody interesting in having this piece?”

Martin sees this concept combined with virtual and augmented reality as a powerful next step in education, especially if those technologies become more accessible to schools and students.

“Maybe it sounds a little silly to have VR headsets in the classroom, but when you watch a class of students take turns jumping into virtual worlds, and getting excited and asking all kinds of questions, you realize there's something powerful possible,” he says. “We're seeing a growing amount of immersive education content built for these platforms, a lot of it is history or science focused since both subjects are great for VR/AR, a student can do all these things that are impossible in real life - meet Cleopatra like in the Assassin's Creed DLC, or screw with planetary orbits or tinker with Mitochondria. VR is also unique since it demands your full attention, you are separated from distractions, the power of which shouldn't be underestimated nowadays. “