‘Assassin’s Creed’ video game becomes tool to teach history
RICHMOND, Calif. — Students sit huddled around a computer monitor. Headphones are planted atop their heads. Armed with a video game controller, they plunge into an exploration of ancient Greece.
This could be what education looks like in the future.
At the Fab Lab on the Kennedy High School campus in Richmond, 18 students stopped by recently to check out “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: Discovery Tour.” Unlike the main games in the series, this version cuts out the violence and ratchets up the learning. It’s a project that repackages the video games developed by Ubisoft Montreal as experience that makes history come alive.
“It’s a lot better than a textbook,” said Angel Sanchez, a sophomore at Kennedy High School. Although he has never played an “Asssassin’s Creed” game, he was drawn into the environment that “Discovery Tour” offered. “There’s audio. They give you a tour about a place.”
Jim Hollis, executive director of the nonprofit Calculus Roundtable, said the game is a way for educators to connect with students. The nonprofit, which looks for ways that companies can aid education, organized the gathering. To show what he means, he asked the youths how many played video games, and nearly all of them raised their hands. He said video games are a medium that kids are familiar with and finding a way to allow them to learn with it makes the game-playing experience more tangible.
In “Discovery Tour,” students control an avatar and explore a re-creation of Greece circa 500 B.C. Players can venture to a thriving Acropolis full of worshipers and Athenian citizens before time and wars ravaged it. They can converse with famous historical figures such as Socrates or wander the temples and learn about the Greek civilization at the time.
Second in series: This is the second edition of the series. The first was “Assassin’s Creed Origins: Discovery Tour,” a 2018 title that focused on ancient Egypt. Both are free for those who already own the game. In this sequel, the developers reward players who go off the beaten path by giving them rewards such as the option to switch their avatar to a new character. They’ll be quizzed at the end of each tour to reinforce what they learned. They can also stumble upon discovery sites scattered throughout the world that give more detailed information.
During the event, the students had a worksheet that they filled out. They recorded some of the information they gleaned while roving around Greece and taking in-game pictures of the sights.
“It’s a wonderful tool for the classroom,” said Tanner Kamphefner, a history teacher at Kennedy High School. He has played nearly all the games in the series and said he uses it as an incentive for students in class. If they do well, he brings in his Xbox One and allows them to explore the cities that were created with a fine attention to detail. He said the students are learning without even realizing they’re learning.
He said he can ask his students about a landmark, and they can recognize it because of the video game. “It’s an incredible way to teach,” he said.
Future opportunities: For Hollis, the partnership between the lab and Ubisoft also offers students a glimpse into the opportunities available in the video game industry. He told students that they didn’t need to be an expert at programming or know how to animate characters to work in the field.
To emphasize this point, he introduced the event’s main speaker, Ubisoft Montreal’s Max Durand. He went to college and focused on history of all things. That background made him a perfect hire for the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, which is a video game based enveloped in historical fiction.
He started with “Assassin’s Creed 3” and showed how the creation of the video game takes experts from all disciplines and even the community. Regarding the origins of the series, he said the idea for the “Discovery Tour” series came from teachers themselves. Ubisoft Montreal received messages from educators who say they used previous “Assassin’s Creed” games to show their classes Italy during the Renaissance. The studio adapted that idea to gear it toward the classroom.
“It makes history accessible,” he said. “There’s the intuition. There’s engagement. These are tours. If you see a monument (in the game), you can’t unsee it.”
Testing effectiveness: Although the company has good intentions, the question remains: Does it work?
Durand said Marc-Andre Ethier, a professor at the University of Montreal, is studying to see if “Discovery Tour” could improve learning in classrooms. The professor did a test comparing a group of students who learned via a teacher’s lecture and another that used “Discovery Tour.” The results, which were talked about in the Games for Change festival last year, found that the old-school way was better but they also found the kids who were taught with the video game had scores within 7% of the other group.
Durand said “Discovery Tour” won’t replace a teacher, but it is a way to augment learning, and it shows that “entertainment turned toward education” can help connect students with the subjects.
“Our goal is to make history accessible to as many people as possible, especially outside of the gaming realm,” the company said in an email. “We believe we have a very unique tool that has tremendous potential to allow people to enjoy discovering the past.”