Stereotyping in Assassin’s Creed III 6

National iden­ti­ty is an odd beast. It’s hard to define, hard­er still to quan­ti­fy, and the source of many dis­agree­ments; for a sim­ple test, visit any forum with a religion/politics sec­tion and ask whether the United States is a Christian coun­try.  This argu­ment will be so well rehearsed that phras­es such as “one nation under God” and “Treaty of Tripoli” will be post­ed fast enough to make your head spin, accom­pa­nied by copi­ous links to sites which argue one side or the other. We all have our own ideas about what being English, American, Russian or Narnian actu­al­ly means beyond the mere phys­i­cal fac­tors of bor­ders and birth­place — of which char­ac­ter­is­tics are inher­ent to our col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty. For some it’s a shared set of beliefs (as in the Christian coun­try debate), while for oth­ers it’s the eth­nic make­up of a fam­i­ly tree. To oth­ers it’s sim­ply a set of atti­tudes, like the good old stiff upper lip or an adher­ence to what Superman would call The American Way. (Truth and Justice option­al.)

An out­sider will obvi­ous­ly have a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, gen­er­al­ly based around crude stereo­types that don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly align with the self-image a nation likes to indulge. Stereotypes have a ten­den­cy to skew towards the neg­a­tive (the Irish are stu­pid, the Americans are fat, the Russians are drunks, etc), while nation­al iden­ti­ty will like­ly place empha­sis on the things cit­i­zens of said coun­try think best about them­selves. Not all stereo­types are neg­a­tive, though they can still be both wrong-headed and harm­ful – boy, Asians sure are good at maths! – but the col­lect­ed stereo­types of a cul­ture as viewed by other cul­tures will paint a much less hero­ic pic­ture than that which a cul­ture would paint of itself.  This can be quite healthy at times, as a coun­try over­dosed on fanat­i­cal patri­o­tism and self-reverence might need the out­sider view­point to be remind­ed that every­one is flawed, but on the other hand being exposed to the less-than-reverential opin­ions of oth­ers can often cement a belief that those oth­ers are jeal­ous or “hate” the coun­try in ques­tion. During a recent playthrough of Assassin’s Creed III, I was given cause to won­der what my nation­al­i­ty tells oth­ers about me (or rather, what oth­ers sup­pose about me) and whether I liked what it might be say­ing.

Assassin’s Creed III is full of cul­tur­al stereo­typ­ing. On his jour­ney through the New World, our hero Connor will some­times take a break from per­fect­ing his impres­sion of a wax­work stat­ue to work with some incred­i­bly rude and arro­gant Frenchmen. He picks up a pair of drunk­en Scots who’re hap­pi­est when beat­ing one anoth­er up and who view casu­al vio­lence as a per­fect­ly ordi­nary way to say hello. He encoun­ters a polite, friend­ly Canadian who just can’t under­stand why any­one would want to pick a fight with him, eh. There’s a sur­feit of Native Americans who not only live in har­mo­ny with the land – unlike those damned white dev­ils! – but also com­mune with “spir­its” who con­sid­er them a spe­cial peo­ple. The English are the game’s des­ig­nat­ed vil­lains and there­fore, being much more at the fore­front of the nar­ra­tive, escape this pigeon­hol­ing in the main. The English stereo­types with­in the Animus are muted, the empha­sis being less on show­ing cul­tur­al quirks – per­ceived or oth­er­wise — and more on show­ing the English char­ac­ters as unre­pen­tant dicks.  To the casu­al observ­er, it might seem they have avoid­ed being tarred with the same brush as vir­tu­al­ly every other eth­nic or cul­tur­al group who appear.

But as play­ers explore the world of Assassin’s Creed III, they are treat­ed to a steady flow of infor­ma­tion in the form of the Animus Database, an in-game ency­clo­pe­dia con­tain­ing his­tor­i­cal facts and sto­ries about the loca­tions and indi­vid­u­als encoun­tered. Rather than being the dry and straight­for­ward info­dumps found in other games the entries are infused with per­son­al­i­ty, being writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of Shaun Hastings, a his­to­ri­an and mem­ber of the modern-day Assassins who remains out­side the Animus as wit­ness to Desmond’s adven­tures. In pre­vi­ous games, the char­ac­ter gained quite a fol­low­ing for his dark and sar­cas­tic wit, and with the third install­ment the writ­ers have acknowl­edged this pop­u­lar­i­ty by great­ly increas­ing the ratio of per­son­al obser­va­tions to his­tor­i­cal facts. The major­i­ty of Database entries are stuffed with lit­tle jokes and Shaun’s notes on the sub­ject at hand.

It is here that the English stereo­typ­ing emerges. As the world opens up and the Database begins to fill with entries it becomes clear that Shaun is what some writ­ers appar­ent­ly con­sid­er to be very, very English. He’s pos­i­tive­ly vit­ri­olic toward the French, snob­bish towards the Americans, and seems inca­pable of men­tion­ing tea in a tone less than wor­ship­ful. It’s akin to read­ing a his­to­ry book by Al Murray’s stand-up char­ac­ter, the Pub Landlord, unable to resist insin­u­a­tions of English cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty at every turn. He never wastes a chance to mock or belit­tle, or to slyly hint that the mod­ern United States would be a bet­ter place had England won the Revolutionary War. When forced by the story to acknowl­edge mil­i­tary vic­to­ries by French or American forces, he does so with extreme bad grace, usu­al­ly act­ing as if such an acknowl­edge­ment gen­uine­ly pains him to write and offer­ing excus­es for the English army.

This changes the tone of the Animus Database sig­nif­i­cant­ly from pre­vi­ous games, with the newest incar­na­tion bounc­ing schiz­o­phreni­cal­ly between harm­less jokes and spite­ful, need­less insults where pre­vi­ous ver­sions were large­ly con­tent to relay inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion.  Adding to the dis­so­nance is the nature of Shaun’s voice actor, Danny Wallace. A come­di­an, radio pre­sen­ter and author, Wallace is best known for such flights of fancy as attempt­ing to start his own coun­try, resolv­ing to say ‘yes’ more (the story of which was later dra­ma­tized as Yes Man, a for­get­table Jim Carrey movie), attempt­ing to find 52 peo­ple who shared his flatmate’s name and start­ing a cult – by acci­dent. Speaking as a fan of the man’s work, I can assert that he comes across as an incred­i­bly nice bloke, one who is seem­ing­ly inca­pable of mali­cious behav­ior or even thought, com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from the char­ac­ter he voic­es. That coun­try he found­ed? The Kingdom Of Lovely. The cult he began? He used his new-found pow­ers as a pos­si­ble Messiah to order his fol­low­ers to per­form “ran­dom acts of kind­ness” for com­plete strangers. He’s about as far from the aggres­sive and angry Shaun as it’s pos­si­ble to be, and that fac­tor alone is jar­ring, a con­tra­dic­tion between the English as pre­sent­ed in Assassins Creed III and Englishmen as we are in real­i­ty. Which is not to say that as a nation we’re all won­der­ful, friend­ly peo­ple (we aren’t) but the tor­rent of neg­a­tiv­i­ty pour­ing from Shaun is cer­tain­ly not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the nation as a whole.

The jabs flow steadi­ly, even from the most innocu­ous of Database entries. Everything from nam­ing con­ven­tions (mock­ing a lack of imag­i­na­tion in a con­gre­ga­tion mov­ing from the First Church to the Second Church upon the destruc­tion of the for­mer, for instance) to mod­ern ide­al­is­tic por­tray­als of the nation’s found­ing are occa­sion for a sly dig. Several times Shaun will men­tion an event or indi­vid­ual before offhand­ed­ly sug­gest­ing that if the American edu­ca­tion sys­tem weren’t so poor Desmond wouldn’t need to be told these facts ‑seem­ing­ly for­get­ting that Desmond was raised and essen­tial­ly indoc­tri­nat­ed in a com­mune, and has never expe­ri­enced the pub­lic school sys­tem — because to any­one who isn’t a stu­pid American, they’re com­mon knowl­edge. The snark is so relent­less that even­tu­al­ly the play­er has cause to won­der whether Shaun is tak­ing the American Revolution as a per­son­al insult.

There’s an unmis­tak­able tang of jeal­ousy to the com­men­tary, as if mock­ery of American his­to­ry and pol­i­tics is an attempt to claim supe­ri­or­i­ty over some aspect of America, a petty game of point-scoring. England is a for­mer super­pow­er, one whose glory days (if you can count ram­pant impe­ri­al­ism, insti­tu­tion­alised racism and an unwa­ver­ing adher­ence to the idea of one culture’s innate supe­ri­or­i­ty as glo­ri­ous) are long since faded. Shaun’s resent­ment seems to stem from an aware­ness of this fact, cou­pled with the obvi­ous real­i­ty of America as the dom­i­nant world power of the mod­ern day and reminders of the influ­ence England used to exert. His nation­al iden­ti­ty, as with many real life Englishmen (par­tic­u­lar­ly the sort who write let­ters to news­pa­pers), is tied in with the nation’s for­mer accom­plish­ments rather than cur­rent sta­tus and his mind rebels at being remind­ed of how much that sta­tus has dwin­dled. Our school cur­ricu­lum places extreme­ly heavy empha­sis on the study of the two World Wars, wars in which England can not only lay claim to hard-won vic­to­ry but also — at least with the sec­ond — some kind of moral supe­ri­or­i­ty. The sub­ject of the American Revolution is pret­ty much ignored, for per­haps under­stand­able rea­sons (nobody enjoys being remind­ed of a war they lost, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the vic­to­ri­ous nation went on to sur­pass the loser as a world power), with the focus instead being large­ly on what we would view as pos­i­tive aspects of English his­to­ry, though obvi­ous­ly peo­ple of dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal stripes dis­agree on which parts of our his­to­ry are pos­i­tive. When direct­ly con­front­ed with first-hand evi­dence of events which con­tra­dict his per­son­al sense of nation­al iden­ti­ty, Shaun goes onto the defen­sive and seeks to bol­ster his own sense of denial. Given that the events to which he is object­ing take place in the dis­tant past his only recourse is to vent his bile at Desmond, a cap­tive American over whom Shaun can exert his own influ­ence in the hope of spin­ning his­to­ry to fit his views of England as supe­ri­or, as if the suc­cess of the American Revolution was mere fluke.

Addressing anoth­er aspect of sup­posed English cul­ture, Shaun is given to mak­ing risqué (albeit ter­ri­ble) jokes on occa­sion, which are tonal­ly incom­pat­i­ble with the ency­clo­pe­dic nature of the Database as well as paint­ing a rather sad pic­ture of English humour. When the play­er, via Connor, accom­pa­nies Paul Revere on his Midnight Ride the Animus Database entry accom­pa­ny­ing the event will men­tion that ‘it sounds more like some­thing you’d do with a lady’. Ha. Ha. Ha. Because sex, get it? In fact, the very same joke is used on at least two other occa­sions, as when vis­it­ing loca­tions pre­fixed by the word Mount the Database will note that “mount” has some sex­u­al con­no­ta­tions and that these are, of course, the very height of wit. It isn’t the imma­tu­ri­ty that ran­kles (as any­one who’s read my pre­vi­ous arti­cles will be aware, I am cer­tain­ly not above a dick joke or two), it’s the sheer grub­bi­ness, the leer­ing nature of the “joke” implies that Assassin’s Creed III has mor­phed into Carry On Up The Colonies. This, says the game, is an encap­su­la­tion of English humour. Smutty, repet­i­tive and unfun­ny. After all, what is there to com­pare it to? Even the non-dirty jokes cracked by Shaun are rather pathet­ic, being limper than damp let­tuce and giv­ing the impres­sion of an unfun­ny man des­per­ate to arouse a smile from the audi­ence, how­ev­er forced. The whole expe­ri­ence gives rise to a wor­ry­ing thought – is this real­ly how the world sees my coun­try? Would a for­eign­er meet­ing an Englishman for the first time expect them to talk like a bit­ter, resent­ful cross between Enoch Powell and Sid James?

We can’t just put this down to the per­spec­tive of any sin­gle nation, either; as the series always takes pains to remind the play­er, Assassin’s Creed was devel­oped by a multi-faith team from a vari­ety of cul­tures, as if it was cre­at­ed with­in a United Colours of Benetton advert. English peo­ple, as pre­sent­ed in the meta-narrative of Assassin’s Creed III, are appar­ent­ly inca­pable of get­ting over the loss of our for­mer colonies and apt to make snide com­ments wher­ev­er pos­si­ble to com­fort our­selves. We obsess over tea, exhib­it xeno­pho­bia and mis­trust toward osten­si­bly friend­ly nations and we never fail to sneer at a cul­ture we con­sid­er infe­ri­or, which is all of them.

Do the writ­ers hon­est­ly believe that English peo­ple act this way? After all, every other stereo­type present is eas­i­ly rec­og­niz­able from depic­tions in other media, if not entire­ly true to real­i­ty. This char­ac­ter is arro­gant and pompous because he’s French. That char­ac­ter is hum­ble and wise because he’s Native American. They are short­cuts for the play­er, intend­ed to tap into our shared ideas of how cer­tain peo­ples think and act – the game never needs to explain why a minor char­ac­ter has cer­tain man­ner­isms, because the stereo­type bridges the gap; of course that guy is a drunk­en thug, he’s from Scotland! Were the game set a cou­ple of hun­dred years later he’d had a syringe full of hero­in in one hand and a Stanley knife in the other. If char­ac­ters fol­low cer­tain behav­ior pat­terns as a way to save the time required to prop­er­ly devel­op them, why should the play­er assume that Shaun is any dif­fer­ent? The only other English char­ac­ter to get the same amount of screen time is Haytham Kenway, the decoy pro­tag­o­nist, father of Connor and proud owner of the emo­tion­al range of a dec­o­ra­tive rug, but when we look at him we see sim­i­lar­ly dis­turb­ing stereo­types. He’s aris­to­crat­ic, cal­lous and he con­sid­ers “com­mon peo­ple” to be a rab­ble who need the rule of his elit­ist friends to keep them from mur­der­ing one anoth­er, essen­tial­ly a class-focused ver­sion of The White Man’s Burden. The recur­ring theme with both char­ac­ters is assumed supe­ri­or­i­ty, that their group is inher­ent­ly bet­ter or more civ­i­lized than oth­ers.  This seems to be the cen­tral con­ceit of the Templar order, that “the peo­ple” are weak and it is the duty of their bet­ters to con­trol them for their own good. At one point Shaun is ques­tioned as to whether he regrets join­ing the Assassins over the Templars, man­ag­ing to give only a semi-convincing refu­ta­tion.

Perhaps none of this is inten­tion­al on the part of the writ­ers. Perhaps they for­got that the two major English char­ac­ters are a stuffy, elit­ist aris­to­crat and a rant­i­ng, bit­ter his­to­ri­an with seri­ous infe­ri­or­i­ty issues. Maybe it com­plete­ly slipped their minds that other than these two men, the English char­ac­ters are almost uni­form­ly total bas­tards who exhib­it the same depth of char­ac­ter as the fur­ni­ture. Given the weight given to other cul­tur­al stereo­types though, I can’t help but doubt it. The play­er is pre­sent­ed with these two men as an encap­su­la­tion of what it means to be an Englishman, appar­ent­ly a nation of peo­ple whose cen­tral uni­fy­ing fac­tor is an unshak­able sense of fail­ure and bit­ter­ness. Maybe once this stereo­type held true, and in the wan­ing days of Empire such opin­ions were com­mon, but one would hope that such stereo­types would have died with the Empire that birthed them.

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.

6 thoughts on “Stereotyping in Assassin’s Creed III

  • Alex V

    I’m in the mid­dle of the game right now, and you are absolute­ly spot on with your gen­er­al point about the stereo­types. However I do feel like the Danny Wallace char­ac­ter IS a fair­ly accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of many English atti­tudes, and most of his opin­ions are voiced in search of a cheap laugh rather than being heart­felt (yes it does often miss the mark). I think his char­ac­ter is actu­al­ly more round­ed than most — we (the English) can make light of sit­u­a­tions with rib­ald humour, we can be cyn­i­cal, we can seem a bit heart­less etc.

    I do think games can and maybe need to use stereo­types to give a quick broad intro­duc­tion to what can often seen like face­less videogame char­ac­ters. Perhaps what they need to do more often is intro­duce the stereo­type and then sur­prise us by expos­ing shal­low first impres­sions.

    • Tom Dawson

      My prob­lem with Shaun isn’t so much that his behav­iour is entire­ly for­eign but that it exag­ger­ates famil­iar behav­iours to such an extent that they appear to stand in as a place­hold­er for the absence of any actu­al char­ac­ter. Yeah, we’re a dark bunch of peo­ple, and as an Englishman I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly proud of our nation­al abil­i­ty to make light of gen­uine­ly awful sit­u­a­tions with grotesque humour — for instance, I heard my first joke about Maddie McCann *before I even knew who she was* — but this char­ac­ter seems to go beyond sim­ply being dark and cyn­i­cal and into the realms of bel­liger­ence.

      What makes this exam­ple in par­tic­u­lar stand out is that it’s actu­al­ly the oppo­site of what you sug­gest­ed; rather than posit­ing Shaun as the angry, resent­ful char­ac­ter we see in AC3 and then sur­pris­ing the play­er by “expos­ing shal­low first impres­sions” the series spent FOUR of the main AC titles (AC, AC2, AC:B, AC:R — I don’t know how heav­i­ly he was fea­tured in the hand­held titles as I’ve not played them) build­ing up a char­ac­ter and then in the lat­est install­ment flip­ping that char­ac­ter around from ordi­nary human being and into the realms of stereo­type. Perhaps it’s sim­ply the relo­ca­tion of the game into the USA — as you know, still a sore spot for some of us on this side of the pond — that brings out Shaun’s inner arse­hole, but that’s still ramp­ing up a stere­type to the max­i­mum set­ting.

  • G-rac Ushdugery

    I assumed it was just an exten­sion of that film thing, where char­ac­ters English accents are auto­mat­i­cal­ly recog­nised as the bad­dies, like in the adap­ta­tion of fan­tas­tic mis­ter fox, for some rea­son all the pro­tag­o­nists are played my Americans. It’s just a hall­mark of poor­ly writ­ten or realised fic­tion, a bor­ing Hollywood trope for a game that’s try­ing des­per­ate­ly to step away from the com­plex­i­ty of games toward “Cinematic Storytelling”.

    • Tom Dawson

      Shaun isn’t a bad guy, though. He’s an insuf­fer­able twat, cer­tain­ly, but he’s still on the side of the Assassins, who are the good guys by virtue of being the pro­tag­o­nists even if the actu­al story often makes it appear as if their way is hope­less­ly naive com­pared to the Templar view­point on human­i­ty and our needs. It’s a bit of a prob­lem real­ly — hav­ing start­ed from a “free­dom, yay!” posi­tion and writ­ten their char­ac­ters accord­ing­ly, the writ­ing team appar­ent­ly became stuck once they realised that they’d writ­ten more accu­rate beliefs for the des­ig­nat­ed bad guys and were so reduced to hav­ing them com­mit acts of point­less cru­el­ty or greed just to illus­trate that they actu­al­ly ARE the bad guys.

      Given how low the writ­ers are will­ing to sink to show Assassins = good, Templars = bad, I don’t think just hav­ing an English accent is enough to qual­i­fy Shaun as an actu­al bad guy. He’d have to start rap­ing pup­pies and eat­ing orphans before this series would allow him to be labelled a legit­i­mate vil­lain.

  • Fjonan

    Ha … man, please — can you write the same thing for Germans on those games where Germans are rep­re­sent­ed? I don’t know a sin­gle per­son who was ever offend­ed by the stereo­types in films and games. More like bored and annoyed, but not offend­ed.

    Oh and to com­fort you, I at least do not see the British that way. In the game I enjoyed it as “Shaun being Shaun”.

Comments are closed.