For over a decade, the hugely-successful Assassin’s Creed video games have managed to convince us that history can be and is, fun.
While their plots have always verged on the fantastical, throughout every era of history the developers have applied an almost monastic level of attention to detail in recreating these time periods.
When set during the French Revolution, the game’s developers went to great lengths to make sure that every brick, every piece of stained glass housed within the Notre Dame, was accurate down to the pixel. While visiting Venice during the Italian Renaissance you could trace the canals exactly as they would have been.
It should be no real surprise then that as its worlds became more realistic, more vast and more interactive the question began to be asked: Could they do more than simply entertain? Could they educate?
Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour is the answer to that question. Set within the world of the series’ newest game Assassin’s Creed Origins, it lets you explore Ancient Egypt free of any violence and plot lines. Instead you take part in ‘tours’, which lead you around the world while taking in the atmosphere of the time period.
And there is plenty of atmosphere. From the bustling streets of Alexandria to the quiet hamlets where farmers tend their crops, this was always a game that deserved to be stopped and absorbed.
Each tour places you at a location within the game upon which you follow a trail. At each checkpoint a narrator explains what you’re looking at and historical images are shown alongside the virtual world.
To make things fun you can play as 25 different characters including of course Julius Caesar and Cleopatra.
Creating a giant explorable ‘textbook’ out of a video game is something that has actually been on the developers’ radar for some time, explains Assassin’s Creed’s franchise historian Maxime Durand.
“Ever since the first Assassin’s Creed game in 2007, some professors and teachers were already mentioning that they felt the game could be useful in some ways for schools, despite the conflicts in them and the narrative.” he explains.
The game’s creative director Jean Guesdon adds: “For years we have been getting testimonies from teachers, from parents etc. We knew that some people were using the games already, of course with some difficulties, which is that the games were not meant to be used that way.”
It was settled then, they would create an educational experience. With the entire studio now fully on board with the idea it was left to the game’s publisher Ubisoft to green light the project.
“From the get go...we had support for this kind of initiative,” explains Guesdon. “Our CEO keeps telling us that we need to enrich our players lives meaning that we have to go beyond the fun/entertainment level that games are all about, we also have a mandate to try and bring them knowledge.”
Based on the world that they had created, the studio asked a team of historians and Egyptologists to write 20 curated ‘tours’, where players could walk through the game world and learn about Ancient Egypt. These 20 were then split up into the full 75 that are playable today.
Because Discovery Tour was made at the same time as the game, it has ensured that the depiction of the time period is quite stunningly lifelike and while many of us will relish the chance to stand on top of the pyramids like a time-travelling adrenaline junkie on YouTube, the team made sure that inside you would find the same map of tunnels that we know of today.
Over in the Eastern mountains of the map you can explore a vast half-built Roman aqueduct while in the northern villages there’s a chance to learn how the Egyptians first made beer.
While developing the game and the Discovery Tour, Durand attended educational conferences and realised pretty early on that if they wanted this experience to have a really meaningful impact then they would need to carry out an academic study.
That academic study would come courtesy of Professor Marc-André Éthier, from the Université de Montréal.
″[Professor Êthier] contacted me at first because one of his masters students was actually working on the scripts of one of the Assassin’s Creed games.” remembers Durand. “I had him sign a non-disclosure agreement and then explained the full concept to him, that was around two years ago.”
Professor Éthier remembers that moment well, admitting that: “At first I was a bit skeptical. I was not expecting so many explanations, so many details on everyday life, on the locations themselves…”
Despite his skepticism Éthier was intrigued, and so worked with Durand to come up with a study that could put Discovery Tour to the ultimate test: could a video game teach you as much as a university lecture?
To make it realistic the study would use eight schools and some 300 students.
“Students were randomly assigned in two equal groups of twenty people - the experimental group and the control group. The students of each group individually passed two tests (a pre-test and a post-test) about their knowledge of the Library of Alexandria.” explains Éthier.
One half of the group would then play through the part of the Discovery Tour which taught them about the Library of Alexandria. The other half would sit through a lecture which taught them exactly the same amount of information.
Finally, both groups would then have to take a post-test to see how much they had learned.
The results were surprising to say the least. The students who were taught by a teacher saw their test results rise from 22-53%.
What was really remarkable however was that the students who played Discovery Tour also saw their results leap from 21-41%. Now while it’s not as much as if they’d been taught in a lesson, it’s considerably more than anyone had expected.
“I did not think the difference would be significant,” said Éthier. “I thought it would only be a few points. But it ended up being really important. You must not forget that we are dealing with scientific knowledge that is not widely spread and is not often spoken of.”
Éthier was also surprised by the enthusiasm shown by both teachers and students. Despite their already busy work schedules teachers were more than happy to engage in the study and were actually keen to learn more about how it could work in the future.
What’s next? Neither Durand or Guesdon have ruled out creating another Discovery Tour alongside the next Assassin’s Creed game but are going to sit back and wait to see how this one is received.
“If we can have teachers in classrooms saying: ‘you know what, history is super cool and there is a lot to learn.’ Well then that’s effectively what our mission is all about, to make history everyone’s playground.” enthuses Guesdon.