This is a post about Assassin’s Creed 3 and Jingoism
In Assassin’s Creed 3, you don’t kill native Americans. Or at least, you mostly don’t kill native Americans.
Ratonhnhaké:ton, an Assassin ancestor of series protagonist Desmond Miles, serves as the main character for Assassin’s Creed 3. He’s a member of the Kanien’keha:ka — which means People of the Place of Flint. Not long after the game begins, Ratonhnhaké:ton (called Connor) sees his village burned to the ground by the game’s fictitious version of Charles Lee, a ruthless Templar who sees the native Americans as standing in the way of colonial progress.
Years later, Connor learns that George Washington has ordered his village destroyed once again, this time because of reports that certain natives are fighting with the British.
When Connor learns of the plan to use his tribesman as fodder, he rushes to stop them. As I led Connor into the forest in a careful dash, the optional objective flashed on my upper left screen — “Stop the Kanien’keha:ka with non-lethal methods”.
In the one moment when it could be argued that the native American portion of the cast in Assassin’s Creed 3 was as open to a bloody exit as anyone, the game still emphasizes the non-lethal approach.
AC3 does an admirable job of maintaining a balanced approach when dealing with the representation of native Americans, and achieves one of the more tasteful, least exploitative, and most honest representations of the culture seen in gaming. I could go on and list a whole number of examples, and expound upon them for pages and pages. But this example speaks the loudest to me.
Throughout the story, all sides see casualties. Colonists, British, and at least one native American die at Connor’s hand. But the narrative doesn’t skew in favor of one side or another. It feels even handed, impartial. The deaths are the product of character choices, and clash of ideals, not ethnicity.
It could be argued that by that logic, the People of the Flint tribesmen choosing (however mislead they may have been) to involve themselves in the war, was a choice that fairly included death as a possible outcome. You can choose to have Connor kill his fellow tribesmen. Or you can use non-lethal takedowns.
But the optional objective, the slight nudge towards that alluring “full synchronization” ranking all Assassin’s Creed veterans strive for, is a subtle but telling hint that Ubisoft trod lightly on this subject matter. I applaud the choice, among others that try to keep the precarious balance amongst the three historical factions that meddled in revolutionary era America.
When the Ubisoft surveys were initially distributed that proposed revolutionary America as a possible setting for Assassin’s Creed 3, I knew it was the standout option among the potential settings. It also came with a dense problem — picking the bad guys.
Granted, in the Assassin’s Creed series the bad guys are always the Templars — another representation that is psuedo-historical. The fictionalization of the Knights Templar order could be questioned for its own set of reasons, but at least in avoiding specific nationalities and ethnicities they make a conveniently faceless enemy.
But Assassins and Templars both stir trouble in all kinds of ways. So as Haytham and Connor, you have to kill British loyalists, American colonists, and at least on one occasion, a native American. That was to be expected, but I never imagined the game would manage, or care to manage, making sure killing native Americans occurs so infrequently.
Connor himself is native American, and we follow his journey from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood. We’re given opportunities to cherish his culture and people throughout. Native Americans are never cast as the enemies in gameplay, except for the one exception I outlined above.
That leaves the role of bad guy to either the British or the colonists. Here, AC3 surprises me again, but not as much.
Selling the considerably large UK market on their own villainy during a crucial point in history would be difficult, and even if it was successful, it wouldn’t make for a rousing, blockbuster entertainment experience. Ubisoft is a French developer, with a strong understanding of worldwide marketing, and I never expected them to trample the British perspective in favor of an American one.
I did, however, expect them to be tepidly conciliatory about the clash between the colonists and Great Britain. Instead, through the character of Shaun Hastings (British), Ubisoft portrayed an aggressive counter argument to the idealization of American revolutionaries, which I found refreshing.
In one conversation with Desmond, Hastings argues the right of Great Britain to tax the colonies in order to minimize the massive debt incurred by the French-Indian war, fought in the colonies by the British. Hastings makes the argument that is seldom seen in American entertainment — that the colonists were being unreasonable for not paying taxes to support the British war efforts, as the colonists were directly benefitting from the securing of the British/colonial territory against the French.
Whatever side of the argument you stand on, it’s valuable that both sides are not only considered, but argued for in earnest.
Hastings also serves as the historian for Desmond’s trips through time in all the Assassin’s Creed games, writing all of the character and location summaries, in addition to commentary on historical events. In AC3, more than in any other installment, his penchant for editorializing is evident. While I’d typically discourage personal slant on historical recapping, I found myself amused and appreciative of Hastings constantly challenging pro-American sentiment when it came to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, other early American revolutionaries, and revolutionary ideas in favor of a more British perspective.
The perspective of Hastings is wholly subjective, and can’t be taken at face value, but his point is consistently that neither can the traditional history education received by most Americans (which would include those playing the game).
There are no bad guys that can be spotted by skin color or uniform color. Ubisoft obviously made an effort to portray the tresspasses of both the colonists and the British as contentious, and gray. The native Americans are almost entirely absolved of any blame, which is a favorable generalization, but preferable to marginalization and stereotyping.
The point that Assassin’s Creed 3 makes is that since its nascent beginnings, America has been a battleground of ideology, that there were few who intended harm towards the burgeoning nation, that most of these men simply won or lost and were painted differently by history.
It asserts that self interest, as much as an altruistic pursuit of liberty, drove the forces behind the revolution, and that self interested drive was similar, not different, from the interest of the British, the French or anyone else.
When Connor and Haytham are forced to work together for a handful of missions before the game’s third act, they have an exchange in which Connor presses Haytham to know the Templar’s motivations. Haytham replies, “Order” and then chastises the Assassins’ goal of freedom, saying freedom invites chaos.
Connor disagrees. He asserts freedom is the way to peace. There contention continues to center around Haytham’s support for Charles Lee as the American Commander-in-Chief during the Revolution, while Connor supports George Washington. Connor tries to argue that “the people” have chosen Washington.
Haytham replies with one of the most poignant points an American will ever hear about the country’s first president: “The people chose nothing. It was done by a group of privileged cowards seeking only to enrich themselves. They convened in private and made a decision that would benefit them. Oh, they might have dressed it up with pretty words but that does not make it true. The only difference, Connor — the only difference between myself and those you aid — is that I do not feign affection.”
He stops short of mentioning that Washington was a wealthy plantation owner who owned slaves, but that’s covered by Hastings in the summary of Washington.
What Haytham contends against so vehemently is the idealization of certain revolutionary figures. And that makes sense. The Templar order, in this fictional version of revolutionary America, also includes patriots like Charles Lee. The Templar order also includes British components like William Johnson. Haytham isn’t necessarily opposed to the revolution, and certainly doesn’t see himself as the bad guy, but he acknowledges he can’t get to victory in straight line. He knows that if history was truly unaffected, it would never remember the winners kindly.
Connor struggles with this, and only comes upon it slowly. As we see in the example that opened this article, at one point Connor is even forced to face his own tribesmen. That’s something he would have thought unthinkable at the onset of his journey as an Assassin.
Connor tries to remain committed to ideals and principles, and he learns that nationalism doesn’t mesh with commitment to ideals. The same Washington who would gladly have the help of a native American like Connor, would also give the order to eliminate his tribe’s village if it’s in the national interest.
Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy comes to mind: “in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.” And furthermore that, “the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”
Assassin’s Creed 3 exposes jingoism. It shows us that the bad guys are the ones willing to sacrifice principle for country, and those guys are on all sides. Haytham sees it, and accepts it. Connor sees it, and rails against it. He turns his back on Washington and Haytham both. Connor even fights his own people, when he realizes they’re not insusceptible to the lure of war.
You’re encouraged not to kill them and that’s an important message because it goes against an old stereotype in America that the native Americans are the bad guys. But it’s more than that.
It’s the message that adhering to principle can take precedence over loyalty to clan or country. Connor knows that in this case, the People of the Flint fighting against the colonists is wrong, and while he values the safety of his people above all, he takes action to stop them. In the process he saves his people.
He keeps his people safe by fighting against them. You’re steered towards doing that in a non-lethal fashion, which is crucial. Connor takes a stand on principle, briefly in opposition to his own people, and manages keep them free a little longer.