Blending History With Entertainment to Spark Imagination

March 3, 2020

It’s a lot easier to convince someone to have dessert than eat their vegetables, just like it’s a lot easier to convince someone to play a video game than sit through a history class. There aren’t a lot of fusions of the two food groups, but sometimes, it’s possible to blend the latter. Maxime Durand, in fact, has made a career out of it.

Durand is the resident historian and content director at Ubisoft, where he works with developer teams to infuse games, particularly those in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, with a sense of historical accuracy.

Games, though, are entertainment vehicles, so accuracy can sometimes be sacrificed for story. But for the past five years, Durand has been revitalizing Assassin’s Creed into a project called Discovery Tour.

The project lets people walk the streets of Ancient Greece or Ancient Egypt, bypassing the conflict and narrative of the game. The result is a fun historical lesson that classrooms are embracing.

“Ever since the first [Assassin’s Creed] game was released, there were a lot of comments from historians about how video games allow us to show elements of the past that weren’t possible before,” says Durand. “Admittedly, there were only a few teachers that were using the game in their classrooms because it was rated mature and was action focused, but they mentioned how the immersion and the attraction of the game environment were super strong.”

That curiosity led to the creation of Discovery Tour. Ubisoft brought on historians and museum curators to help showcase elements of the ancient cultures and worked with teachers to make it more appealing to students, especially middle-schoolers.

It’s catching on fast, too. The first Discovery Tour, which is available as a free download to owners of Assassin’s Creed Origins, has been played by 2.5 million people. And it’s fast becoming a tool in schools. When it was released in 2017, it was used in-school by 400 students. By the end of 2018, over 4,000 were using it as part of their classroom work. And while it’s too early to conclusively say the game has resulted in higher grades for those students, preliminary research has been quite positive, says Durand.

“The first thing [teachers] say is everyone is more motivated to go into their history classroom,” he says. “They don’t even ask to go to the bathroom anymore. People arrive on time, have better classroom behavior and work better together in teams of two or three. They learn group participation and how to behave better in class. The students know this is something unique and they cherish it and want to protect it.”

While the focus is on history, Discovery Tour also gives the developer a chance to showcase other fields, such as archaeology and architecture. It’s a chance for an entertainment property to move beyond its initial purpose and act as a tool. And, colloquially at least, it’s having an impact on young people who experience it.

“Parents are happy to see their kid, when they come home, be proactive in wanting to share what they did in school,” says Durand. “And when they visit historical sites, the kids say ‘I know this!’ and begin telling their parents things about it.”