The existential horror of reducing the Great Revolution to a video game…

According to the French leftist standard-bearer Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the act of turning the events of the 1790s into the backdrop for Assassins Creed Unity, the latest instalment in a successful first-person adventure game series, is “a dirty business of instilling more self-disgust and declinism in the French,” adding that it risks leaving the nation with nothing but religion and skin-colour to unite them – with evidently reactionary implications.

While one might be tempted to remark that historians of the French Revolution are now finding out how medievalists have felt all these years, there is no doubt that this game has occasioned lively debate – even before anyone had the chance to actually play it.

As this analysis discusses, the polemic began when a certain ‘Rob Zombie’ was commissioned to produce a promotional trailer for the game, in fact a wholly separate piece of animated art, in which, it is fair to say, most of the clichés of the ‘black legend’ of the Revolution appeared, and the revolting crowds were just that – appearing, indeed, almost as zombies. But as the same article goes on, anguished responses to this need also to be contextualised by evidence that present-day partisans of the Revolution, such as Eric Hazan, appear to have a vision of Robespierre’s role in events which is almost hallucinatory, and certainly bears no relation to serious historiography.

Hervé Leuwers, interviewed in Le Monde, remarked that neither the ‘Mélenchonite’ nor the ‘bloodthirsty’ vision of Robespierre matched up to known facts, but that both are “forms of memory” that have to be recognised as part of the contemporary field in which the Revolution is discussed – and has been, for many years.

it is interesting to put this alongside another Le Monde interview with the game’s producer, which while headlining plaintively that “It’s a video game for the public, not a history-lesson”, also noted that the choice of period was for reasons one can only call historical: “The period of the French Revolution rapidly imposed itself, as it’s a turning-point and has global repercussions. The game takes as its backdrop the chaos of this epoch.”

It’s certainly the case that the developers have been proud to publicise their work with Laurent Turcot of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières on the historical authenticity of the game’s Parisian setting, and that Prof Turcot and his collaborators have been keen to emphasise the depth and realism of that setting, even while distancing it from the political polemic that has erupted.

Jean-Clément Martin, former Chair of the History of the Revolution at the Sorbonne, and himself a consultant on the game, has wittily pointed out the absurdities of the polemic, through various posts on Facebook, and in summary here: a game based on the continuing story of hereditary war between ‘assassins’ and ‘templars’, and in which the main character can fly, is fantasy toying with the notion of contextual authenticity, and nothing more: “Let’s leave adolescents young and old to play; perhaps they will get the idea of reading a textbook or even a history book; everyone will have won. There are so many good quarrels that have to be engaged in, that it’s better to know how to avoid the bad ones.”

I am strongly tempted to agree, not least because the attachment of certain segments of the French left to their own fairy-story version of what they would like to have happened in the 1790s is in practice little more related to serious history than this game. But in the end, anything which bumps up against serious history leaves a mark which has to be taken seriously – if not necessarily denounced.

Just this morning the internet delivered me this long essay on Jacques Rancière’s work on the politics and aesthetics of violence, in a work unambiguously titled Figures of History. It reminds us that all aesthetic appropriations of the past have politics, and never more so than when deadly violence is in play. As is perhaps inevitable, in this particular case the discussion circles in to rest on the Holocaust and genocide. It has been said both that there can be no art after Auschwitz, and that only art can explain Auschwitz – not views I would subscribe to, but certainly markers of the essential connection between such realms in the culture of the West.

Video games stand at an interesting point in their own development as art, with polemics now under way as to exactly how far such a label can, should, or must be applied to them. Perhaps most disturbingly, attempts to conduct serious discussion of video games as a cultural form, and to critique the blatant sexism of many of their core tropes, have run into not just violent denunciations, but the remarkable parallel arguments that such games are both simple escapist entertainment (and thus not to be criticised seriously), and an autonomous art-form (and thus not to be criticised for their politics). One possible retort to that can be found at the bottom of this page.

More generally, I think we need to recognise that, at the heart of even the most apparently absurd polemic about public culture, there are real questions about the boundaries of public expression, about the co-optation of supposed (or invented) historical, political and cultural ‘facts’ in support of more-or-less overt or covert positions of power or critique, and about the notion of consequence.

As historians, we are accustomed to raiding the cultural storehouses of the past for our interpretations – cultural history as a concept could scarcely exist if we were not minded to find significance in the scraps of what come down to us from the everyday life of earlier times. Before we decide that anything in the present doesn’t matter, we would do well to ask ourselves how much of our own evidence-base would have been dismissed as something trivial, something that didn’t matter, by groups in the past we now don’t hesitate to see as blinded by their own prejudices.

None of which is to say that Jean-Luc Mélenchon is right to see the death of the republican project in a game based on flying assassins, but rather that the apparently absurdity of that response is a political artefact in its own right, a feature and a product of a historical consciousness that ought to be subject to serious critique. Just as should, frankly, everything about video games, as they become an increasingly prevalent cultural form, and a growing sector of the global cultural economy.

It would have been hard to imagine a serious critical industry forming around the novel two hundred years ago, or around cinema a century later – but nobody now doubts, outside the circles of unabashed philistinism, that these are things worth taking seriously, and where serious critique has to be expected. Video games are on that path: they are art, they are political, and when they touch on history, historians should do them the service of engaging with their political and aesthetic implications – which never can, nor should, be separated.

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