It may be visually striking, but Kings Colleges Alana Harris found Ubisofts game seriously lacking: If were liberating poor children, what are we liberating them to?
Victorian London is something we think we know. The architecture and urban planning of the era remain visible in todays 21st century metropolis, while TV programmes like Ripper Street, Jekyll and Hyde and the forthcoming festive treat, Dickensian, celebrate its culture, both high and low.
It was no surprise, therefore, when Ubisoft decided to set the latest instalment of its historical action adventure series Assassins Creed in the 19th century capital. Following the members of a secretive assassination sect from the 12th century to the modern day, the games have already taken in Renaissance Italy and Revolutionary France; the promise of the series is that you get to explore cities and cultures at key moments in time, investigating their iconic buildings as you carry out your missions.
But does the historical tourism of Syndicate actually give us any viable insight into 19th century London? To find out, the Guardian sat down to play the game with Alana Harris, a social and cultural historian of modern Britain at Kings College London and filmed the experience. This is what we discovered.
The Assassins Creed series often features historical figures who provide missions to the lead character, helping to anchor the games fictitious plot in an authentic setting. In Syndicate, Karl Marx provides a series of tasks relevant to his trade union activity during this period. Its an inclusion that Harris finds immediately intriguing. The interesting thing in concentrating on Marx is that youre also getting a sense of the connections between London and the European continent and the cross-fertilisation of European ideas and political ideas, she says.
Gladstone and Disraeli also appear, but Harris laments the missed opportunity to include lesser known characters of Victorian politics. The extension of enfranchisement is mentioned (the game takes place after the second reform act), but only in the context of working men. Why no John Stuart Mill, and the proposal for the extension of the franchise to women? asks Harris. In some ways I would have thought hed be a much more interesting character to focus on if you open out a gendered perspective on political discontent.
In some ways, the game confirms common beliefs that the Victorian period was a time of class struggle, with gender issues arriving later in the early 20th century via the suffragettes. Syndicate missed a chance to explore some interesting and lesser known elements in womens history, which might have been a great way of engaging with the period.
Children run about the streets in Syndicate, often shoeless, searching through piles of rubbish. It is a familiar depiction of poverty in the 19th century city. The game seems to explore the Victorian cult of the innocent child the Dickensian picture of innocent cherubs waiting to be saved.
However, Harris argues that the games jarring mechanic of allowing players to liberate a select few children working in a factory is an example of us imposing our own anachronistic views of Victorian London onto the past. Child labour was an ongoing concern for the Victorians, and there were concerted efforts to address it, particularly as we start to move into the 1870s and 80s with the Education Acts, she says. But, of course, the ongoing issue was the need for child labour to actually supplement the family income, so if were liberating these children, what are we liberating them to? And what does this actually mean for their families and the family structures that were dependent on their wage?
The socio-economic underpinning that was the reason behind child labour and the persistence of child labour, despite the efforts of various authorities to address this, is not acknowledged in the liberation strategy. The game has a very reductive understanding of what liberation for children might have meant in 1868.
Prostitution and gender
Prostitutes are notably absent across the landscape of Syndicates London, despite the fact that prostitution was the cause of both moral and medical panic throughout society at the time. The issue also represents an interesting clash between modern culture and an engagement with womens history.
In the wake of Contagious Diseases Act, there was an opportunity to engage critically with the issue of the regulation of prostitution and a feminist debate around this too, which might have added a really interesting dimension to this, says Harris. Josephine Butler campaigned to protect female prostitutes and to acknowledge [prostitution] as a wider social and moral issue. Perhaps that is too much to expect of the game.
Its interesting that, although Ubisoft made a big deal of including a female protagonist the resourceful assassin Evie Frye theres no attempt to consider womens history. Of course, Assassins Creed is not a realistic series; its a game where you can leap from buildings and land safely in a pile of leaves. Furthermore, why should the character have to deal with womens issues just because she happens to be female?
However, including a protagonist who has agency in a time when women had none could have lead to some enlightening moments without recognition, its jarring. Syndicate is willing to address issues such as child labour, but sanitises race and gender. Perhaps its about distancing: in some ways child labour is a problem thats been solved in the modern west, but race and gender issues are still very much ongoing. The game backs away from drawing parallels. As Harris says: Theres an ahistorical representation of women here and whether that actually fully engages with the issues of womens history, or gender history for that matter, its a missed opportunity perhaps.
It seems like our first real engagement with prostitution will be through the brutally murdered victims of Jack the Ripper, whose crimes are set to form the basis of an extra downloadable mission for the game. The recent controversy over the Jack the Ripper museum has shown the necessity of tackling these murders with both insight and sensitivity. The Whitechapel murderer became a kind of bogeyman to Victorian Londoners, but to treat the killer as a kind of mythical monster demeans the lives he took.
The challenge for Syndicates developers will be presenting the lurid details of the murders, and the voyeurism of the Victorian press, without asking players to become voyeurs ourselves. It is difficult, and its something that the museum of London in its crime exhibition has been wrestling with too, says Harris. Can you actually engage with a social construction of crime which was intensely eroticised and fetishised in the Victorian period and actually move beyond that, to do something critical with it, to enable an analysis that doesnt enter into that same problematic process of fetishising crime, and gendered violence?
Commerce and diversity
One element Harris found missing from Syndicates depiction of London was its lack of diversity. Although aesthetically impressive, the docks and East End are lacking in the communities that made London so cosmopolitan and fuelled its commercial growth. Characters like Henry Green, Duleep Singh in The Last Maharajah downloadable content, and the Scottish train driver Agnes MacBean allude to London being a major site of immigration for both those around the empire and within Britain, but there are few examples within London itself.
It is not unusual for Victorian London to be portrayed as a predominantly white, predominantly English city. According to Harris, historians have only just started to really explore the various immigrant communities of the time. The more recent waves of historiographers would point out that this is the heart of the empire and echoes the diversity of the empire in a bustling metropolis, she says.
Official documents from the era only tell part of the story. For example, the primarily South Asian Lascar sailors were meant to stay on their ships when they arrived in London and would leave very quickly. However, through non-official documents we know that this was not the case: many Lascar sailors settled in London. There are cases of mixed race families and communities on the docks, and we have evidence of a festival that saw around 20,000 Lascar sailors celebrate together.
Although generating art assets for a vast multicultural community may have proved prohibitively time consuming, there are ways Syndicate could have used its intricate architecture to hint at diversity. One interesting example would be the Strangers Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders in Limehouse. Although it was run by Christian missionaries in an attempt to convert those who stayed, it also provided a home and a space to worship for thousands of sailors and migrants. In areas associated with specific migrant communities, such as the French in Soho or German communities in Aldgate and Oxford Street, relevant shops and restaurants would have informed players. Particularly in Whitechapel, thered be all kinds of opportunities in the streetscape to hint at that diversity, says Harris.
Architecture and experience
The Victorian London we encounter in the game, much like the other historical cities we find in the series, is more of an adventure playground than a simulation which, perhaps, is the point.
In a way the emphasis is on a special understanding of London, a mapping of London, says Harris. 1868 is a very appropriate setting for this; the modern London we know has been constructed at this point, this is the year we have the Holborn Viaduct, we have Paddington Station, we have a whole raft of famous landmarks and sites that you can connect with. I guess thats probably been constructed with a mind to the international appeal of the game too, a way of connecting to London a historical tourism.
Assassins Creed as learning tool?
So could this game be used as a historical teaching aid? Harris is unconvinced. Assassins Creed: Syndicate is a fantastic visual representation of Victorian London. The amount of detail, the aesthetic, the meticulous attention to the roofscapes and chimney stacks, I think its beautiful, she says. In many ways theres a lot to it if you have a sufficient grounding to be able to decipher, unpack, augment and supplement whats here, but it works on a fairly superficial level of engagement.
Syndicate is a fascinating example, then, of what we value in history and the issues of our own society reflected in our interpretations of the past. A few may sigh and drag out the old mantra of its just a game when we consider Syndicate in such depth, but in a lot of ways that disrespects the medium; were classing games lower than historical literature or film by refusing to examine them through the same lens. Games are the narrative medium of the digital age they deserve to be taken seriously when they depict our world and heritage.
History is not confined to academic papers and the occasional documentary, it is a vital part of creative work. Theres a historical memory and the reprocessing and repackaging of it is ever present. We need to be mindful of that.