Learning with Assassin’s Creed

Introduction

When we were asked to choose a game to play over the semester, I felt I had been given the best assignment ever.  The only problem was finding a commercial game that I had already spent considerable time with.  Assassin’s Creed was a game I had watched people play many times, but hadn’t gotten the chance to play myself.  From first view the aesthetics of the game were amazing.  The idea that I could play a game based in the 10th century which, according to my research, was historically sound was mind blowing.  When I heard the second one was to be released in the semester, I figured it would be the perfect game.  By playing both I was able to comparing my learning experiences in each to see the learning principles covered over the semester in action.  Plus an excuse to play to video games for class was just too good to turn down.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed took the gaming world by storm when it was launched in November 2007 by Ubisoft Montreal.  According to the Assassin’s Creed website a user should “Experience the power of a feared Assassin. Your actions can throw your immediate environment into chaos; and your existence will shape events in this pivotal moment during the Third Crusade” (Assassin’s Creed, 2007).

Plot

In Assassin’s Creed the player controls two characters: Desmond and Altaïr.  The player starts out controlling Desmond Miles, the descendent of Altaïr ibn La-Ahad.  Desmond is a test subject for a machine called the Animus, which allows the subject to relive the memories of their ancestor.  Most of the game is played through Altaïr ibn La-Ahad, a member of the Assassin’s Guild, in the 10th century Middle East.  Altaïr is tasked with assassinating nine Knights Templar to prevent them from procuring and using and artifact known as the “Piece of Eden”.

Assassin’s Creed 2

Assassin’s Creed 2 is an example of a gaming development company listening to the gaming community.  “Discover an intriguing and fascinating new epic story of power, revenge, and conspiracy set in a pivotal moment of history: the Italian Renaissance.“ (Assassin’s Creed 2, 2009).

Plot

In Assassin’s Creed 2, you control Desmond and Ezio Auditore da Firenze.  Desmond escapes his captors with the help of fellow Assassin, Lucy Stillman.  He finds out that the Assassin Guild is losing members to its ancient enemy the Knights Templar.  Again, he is subject to the Animus, this time to learn the skills of an assassin.  Most of the game is played as Ezio Auditore da Firenze in Renaissance Italy. Ezio is trying to avenge the death of his father and brothers by the man Rodrigo Borgia and is drawn into the fight between the Assassins and Knights Templar.  This battle goes all the way up to the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope.  Ezio must stop his enemies from gaining absolute power using the “Pieces of Eden”.

Reception of the Games

The reception of Assassin’s Creed 2 was much warmer than that Assassin’s Creed.  According to EmeraldErin of Hooked Gamer “Assassin’s Creed II has received an overwhelmingly positive reception from gamers around the world and from the video game trade press with to date an 91% average critics score according to GameRankings.com” (EmeraldErin, 2009). The scores for Assassin’s Creed ranged from B- to a 9.0, which is a huge discrepancy in the gaming world.  Many gaming community members cited the repetitive play as the major problem with the game.  With the gaming communities critiques in mind, Ubisoft fixed many of the problems people had with Assassin’s Creed and fulfilled many of the promises they had missed.  It is reflected in the overall love of the sequel by gamers.

Motivation

Both games employ Malone and Lepper’s four individual intrinsic motivations through multiple methods.

Challenge

Challenge is central to most traditional theories of intrinsic motivation (Malone and Lepper, 1987).  Most humans tend to seek things that offer a challenge.  Video games, at least the successful ones, provide that challenge in multiple ways.  Both Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 provide that challenge in many different ways.  First of all, there are goals that you need to achieve to move through the game.  In both games, you were given a set of missions that must be completed to reach your overall goal.  These were broken up into increments all working up to the final assassination mission. With the complete of each smaller goal, you are working toward the larger goal.  For example, in order to kill one of the Templar leaders in the games, you must complete a certain number of investigations before can find that leader.  These range from assassinations to pick pocketing in the first game with an increased variety of investigations in the second game (mostly because of the complaints of the gaming community).  Once the correct number was completed, you then could move onto the assassination of the leader.  This continued over and over again, which could get repetitive if it were not for an uncertain outcome.  Each of the missions provided the user with clear performance feedback immediately (Malone and Lepper, 1987), either by giving the player a piece of information that is vital to their mission or by giving them a piece of special equipment or money.

Malone and Lepper identify four techniques in which computer games create a uncertain outcome.  Assassin’s Creed 1 and 2 employ three of the four.  There are multiple levels of goals in each game (Malone and Lepper, 1987).  Even though your goal may always be assassinating a target, the more assassinations you have under your belt, the harder the next one will be.  The game increases in difficulty the further you get into it.  The first game seemed to lack a bit in this area as some of the later bosses were easier to get to and easier to kill than the first, while the second did it masterfully.  While I would become frustrated, it never was enough that I would put the game down and not pick it back up again.  I always wanted to beat the next mission.  Hidden information was a larger part of the second game.  A main mission of the second game was to collect a Codex left by Altaïr.  Without it you couldn’t complete the game which forced you to thoroughly search the world as these pieces were all hidden.  Finally, the game employed randomness (Malone and Lepper, 1987).  The games were designed as an open world to reflect the historical places and time periods.  This included non-playable characters such as citizens and soldiers, who were never in the same place twice.  If you were to desynchronize – the Assassin’s Creed equivalent of dying – the area in which you were in would not look the same the second or third time being populated with different characters and hazards.

Curiosity

Assassin’s Creed 2 improved greatly on the idea of curiosity.  The first game was fairly linear.  I could guess what was going to happen next.  Other than the beauty of the historical landscapes, there was no other reason to explore the world.  This was not the case with Assassin’s Creed 2.  Now included with the normal missions of the game were side quests that, while not essential to completion, tended to peak my curiosity.  Hidden throughout the cities of Renaissance Italy are glyphs put there by a previous test subject.  In these glyphs is hidden knowledge, in this case videos, which helps explain the back story of the Assassin’s Creed world.  It isn’t necessary to complete the storyline, but every time I found a video clip I found myself becoming curious of what the next one would show me and what the whole video would be overall.  As the old saying goes “curiosity killed the cat.”  I found this to be true in both of these games.  I tended to die the more curious I became because I was willing to take risks I would have normally avoided just to fulfill that need to know.

Control

The need to control our environment is fundamental to all humans, whether we admit it or not (Malone and Lepper, 1987). These games fulfilled that need for control.  Like most computer games, you are controlling a character(s) and deciding how they act and what they do.  While against the tenets of the game, if the civilians were annoying me enough I could go on a murderous rampage through the streets.  Not always the smartest choice when you’re trying to be a sneaky assassin, but the option was still there.  I was allowed to choose what missions I wanted to complete in the first game in order to unlock the assassination target.  Assassin’s Creed 2 allowed for much more control because of a richer environment.  Again I could pick and choose the side quests that I wanted to complete, in a much greater number, but also there were more ways to get to my final goal.  The larger open world of Assassin’s Creed gave me the choice of many different routes in which to sneak up on my targets and silently dispatch them.

Fantasy

Malone and Lepper’s final piece of intrinsic motivation is fantasy of which the Assassin’s Creed world is ripe with, as are most video games.  The engaging story with its historical roots mixed with the designers’ fantasy draws players into Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2.  I found myself identifying with the characters, especially with Ezio in the second game (Malone and Lepper, 1987).  His charismatic attitude and athletic abilities made him a fun and amiable character who was enjoyable to play.  The mix of sci-fi aspects, with the Aniumus and playing through DNA, meshed well with the historical aspect of the game instead of making one or the other look out of place.  I found myself pulled into the fantasy of the game and at times found it hard to put down the controller.

Learning through Transfer

After giving my presentation and mentioning the upcoming sequel, it was suggested that I focused on Gee’s 29th learning principle, transfer.  He defines the transfer principle as “Learners are given ample opportunity to practice, and support for, transferring what they have learned earlier to later problems, including problems that require adapting and transforming that earlier learning” (Gee, 2003).  I found it to be a mixed bag of positive and negative transfer, with the negative being most obvious and frustrating.  There were three main areas in which transfer could be seen: story, controls, and the HUD (Heads Up Display).

Story

Assassin’s Creed is set up as a trilogy with the main story evolving throughout the games.  They are connected by familiar characters, Desmond Miles, the protganist and an Assassin, Lucy, the deuteragonist and fellow Assassin, and Professor Vidic, the antagonist and modern day Knight Templar.  Also the main objective of the games transfers from one to the next.  You, as an Assassin, are trying to prevent the Knights Templar from creating their “perfect” world by taking away everyone’s freedom of choice.  As you play Assassin’s Creed 2, that objective grows and morphs into a much more serious problem.  To find out exactly what that is, you’ll have to play Assassin’s Creed 2 or check out the Wikipedia article on that.

Controls and Basic Game Play

Where most transfer happens in games is with the controls and basic game play.  Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 are no exception.  I found there to be mostly positive transfer with the control scheme as far as the basic controls.  The button scheme was the same, including the need to press the right trigger in order to do high profile actions.  While this may have been a positive transfer between the games in the Assassin’s Creed world, it was a negative transfer to other types of games, especially first and third person shooters.  After playing Assassin’s Creed 2 for 24 hours over 4 days, a switch to a more traditional shooter left my gaming partner fairly upset because the pressing the trigger button didn’t result in my character running.  Instead it resulted in a barrage of bullets that left him dead.

When it came to basic game play, I found quite a few instances of negative transfer.  First came with controlling the character of Ezio versus Altaïr.  Ezio is a more powerful character, stronger and faster than Altaïr from the first game.  Until I was used to the character, I tended to over compensate for the perceived lack in speed and strength.  This led to many deaths as ledges were missed or rooftops overshot.  However the most frustrating negative transfer was something I didn’t notice until halfway through the second game.  One of the most common complaints of the gaming community is the lack of the ability to swim in most action adventure games.  Sure, you can climb like a monkey, jump distances no human could ever possibly jump, and have knives hidden in your sleeves, but you can’t swim.  This isn’t evident in the first game until you accidentally fall into the water and “die”.  Because of this experience, I had avoided water at all costs, sometimes leaving a nice bit of treasure behind.  It wasn’t until I came to a point where I had to go over the water and fell that I found out Ezio could swim.

HUD (Heads Up Display)

The HUD (Heads Up Display) is the screen that contains most of the information a player needs to know about their environment and character.  The HUD underwent a major redesign from Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed 2 rendering all of your prior knowledge fairly useless.  While this is considered a negative transfer, many aspects of the HUD were upgraded.  Most importantly was the map redesign which took the confusing and bland map of the first game and updated it to the useful, detailed map seen in the second game’s HUD.

A History Lesson?

One of the big questions that has been looked at over and over again is “Can a commercial game be used in a curriculum to teach and reinforce lessons?”.  Commercial games are now finding their way into the classroom.  Whether it’s using Sonic the Hedgehog to learn about Odysseus quest or “Rome: Total War” to learn about being a Roman general (Yusuf|, 2008), games are being used as supplements to the school curriculum in schools.

When I first chose Assassin’s Creed I was very interested to see if it could be used in history lessons to teach at least some aspects of being in the 10th century Middle East, especially the crusades.  Graphics wise, it wasn’t disappointing.  You feel as if you are walking down the ancient streets in Jerusalem or Damascus.  The people dress and act in much of the same way their real world counterparts would’ve.  But other than the fact that many of the characters were loosely based on real people of that century, nothing seems to lend itself to a history lesson.

Assassin’s Creed 2, on the other hand, added something very interesting into the mix: a database.  This database is full of the information that you collect as you explore Renaissance Italy including building and people.  You meet historical figures such as Leonardo daVinci (and get to fly one of his inventions), the Medicis, and Rodrigo Borgia, who is better known as Pope Alexander IV.  At first I wondered if any of this information was true and a quick Google search backed up many of the facts.  An interview with Sebastien Puel, a producer for Assassin’s Creed 2 helped explain the accuracy of the information.

Assassin’s Creed lets players relive pivotal historic moments. Our goal is to be as closely historically accurate as possible but we also leave some place for our creativity and a bit of fiction. We have historians who are working with us and serve as a guide to what we should and shouldn’t do when using historical characters and events. Players will be able relive major events like the Pazzi conspiracy but from our perspective. (Thöing, 2009)

Conclusions

Overall, I enjoyed both of the games thoroughly and have recommended them to anyone who has asked about either.  While Assassin’s Creed  didn’t quite live up the hype that was generated when it first was launched, it still was an enjoyable experience.  Playing with this paper in mind led me to examine the games in greater detail to find the motivating factors that I had never thought about before.  The usual answer why I like playing a game was always “because it was fun.”  Now I have a more in depth knowledge of what makes a game “fun.”  It was also interesting to see how the skills that I learned in one game actually hindered my playing in the second.  Normally games don’t change that much from the first to the second, but Ubisoft’s acknowledgment of the gaming communities’ complaints led to a whole new gaming experience and a whole new way to play.  While I don’t see Assassin’s Creed or Assassin’s Creed 2 being assigned in a classroom, I do see video games being an important part of education, whether it is formal or informal.  For someone interested in history, being able to become some part of the past, even a virtual part, is an exciting idea.

Bibliography

(2007). Assassin’s Creed. Retrieved December 17, 2009, from Assassin’s Creed: http://assassinscreed.us.ubi.com/assassins-creed-1/index.php

(2009). Assassin’s Creed 2. Retrieved December 17, 2009, from Assassin’s Creed 2: http://assassinscreed.us.ubi.com/assassins-creed-2/

EmeraldErin. (2009, November 24). Overwhelmingly positive reception for Assassin’s Creed II. Retrieved December 17, 2009, from Hooked Gamers: http://www.hookedgamers.com/blogs/emeralderin/2009/11/24/overwhelmingly_positive_reception_for_assassins_creed_ii.html

Malone, T. W., & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In R. E. Snow & M. J. Farr (Eds.), Aptitude, learning, and instruction: Cognitive an affective process analysis (Vol. 3, pp. 223-253).

Thöing, S. (2009, May 18). Assassin’s Creed 2 Interview: “Die Missionen sind nicht mit dem Vorgänger vergleichbar.” . Retrieved December 17, 2009, from PC Games: http://www.pcgames.de/aid,684781/Assassins-Creed-2-Interview-Die-Missionen-sind-nicht-mit-dem-Vorgaenger-vergleichbar/PC/Special/?page=2

Yusuf, H. (2008, September 18). Video games start to shape classroom curriculum. The Christian Science Monitor. From http://tinyurl.com/3h9pcf .

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~ by reluctant_gamer on December 31, 2009.

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