Sabrina Mittermeier: Time Travelling to the American Revolution—Why Immersive Media Need American Studies
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Using a case study of the depiction of the American Revolution in the video game Assassins Creed 3 (2012), as well as Disney’s treatment of the era in their Magic Kingdom and Epcot theme parks, this paper has two simple arguments to make: first, that video games and theme parks are similar forms of media and that these similarities warrant more attention from scholars, and second, that American studies is a discipline uniquely suited to address this need. While there is a clear overlap in theory between the academic study of video games and theme parks (particularly concerning ideas of immersion or authenticity), nobody so far seems to have bothered to draw direct comparisons. This is a missed opportunity, I argue, since this would likely lead to fruitful collaborations between the small but burgeoning field of theme park studies and the gradually more established field of video game studies. Elsewhere, I have defined the theme park as “a participatory medium that relies on strategies of theming to entertain an audience within a transnational consumer culture” (Mittermeier, Middle Class 6). This definition could easily also be applied to digital games. Games are even more participatory in nature than theme parks, and their transnationality is integral to their success, particularly that of the mass-marketed triple-A titles. At the same time, ‘theming’ is not a term that immediately seems to lend itself well to describe how games tell their stories, but if we expand on its meaning, the similarities become quite apparent. Imagineer (the term Disney uses for their theme park designers) Joe Rohde has called the practice of theming “narrative placemaking,” or “the building of ideas into physical objects.” While digital games do not let us grasp physical objects, they still let us enter three-dimensional worlds, and thus Rohde’s assessment of such “narrative space” as “theatrical space” equally applies here: “Guests make choices as to how to travel through the space or where to look (…) [so,] linear storytelling doesn’t read. If the space is designed to allow free, self-directed flow, then the designer cannot know what linear sequence each person may follow.” Not all digital games allow for the same freedom, but particularly those with a first-person point of view do, and as virtual or augmented reality experiences become more and more feasible in digital gaming, this strategy should gain even more relevance for game designers. Most importantly, both good theme park and game design involve their respective audience, “they are given roles within the narrative” (Rohde), whether the gameplay or theme park design is more active or passive—hence the discussed participatory nature of both media. When narrative placemaking is successful, the audience suspends their disbelief and thus becomes immersed. Media scholar Erkki Huhtamo has argued that immersion implies “a transition, a ‘passage’ from one realm to another, from the immediate physical reality of tangible objects and direct sensory data to somewhere else” (159, original emphasis). Both a well-designed theme park and a game can ‘suck’ you into their story and make you feel like you are a part of it, like you are actually in another place or time.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This immersion of theme parks and video games, however, has been seen less as a potential but rather as a threat when the stories being told this way are grounded in historical fact, and- since this is such a rich and controversial topic, I want to use video games and theme parks with an historical setting as an example here to explore their similarities. Immersive media give us the possibility of “time travel,” as archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf has called it, the opportunity to “experience the presence of another period” (31). Yet such an experience is never straightforward, and it is highly contested within the larger context of a discussion on history and its representation. One of the most notable moments in this ongoing debate occurred in the early 1990s, when the first Culture Wars were waged in the US. Disney had famously tried to open a historical theme park called Disney’s America near Manassas Battlefield Park (a Civil War historic site) in Virginia in 1993 and had to cancel the project not even a year later. They had sparked a massive discussion in the media and among professional historians that opposed the project across political divides. Their criticism thus did not just aim at the fear of a disneyfied, whitewashed history from more liberal pundits, as conservatives meanwhile suspected Disney would try to present a history they deemed as too “politically correct”—a weaponized term even then (Mittermeier, “Windows” 134). While the project fell victim to a larger conflict that also included controversies over an exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the National Air & Space Museum, and a project to revise the National History Standards for school education, it also opened a discussion about the role of popular culture in teaching history to the public (Mittermeier, “Windows” 135). Historical film has been a staple genre ever since the invention of the medium, and while occasional discussions have been had about the authenticity of its depiction, academic interest, particularly from historians themselves, was pioneered by Robert Rosenstone only in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Besides his and other scholars’ convincing arguments that historians and other disciplines should equally take interest, there seems to be the persistent idea in some academic circles that the study of film (or other pop-cultural media) should be the sole work of literary disciplines. Yet while historical film unarguably plays an important role in the public’s engagement with and understanding of history, digital games and theme parks’ immersive nature have raised additional concern as they expand the framework of said debate.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Bob Weis, an Imagineer who had been with the Disney company in 1993 and who today is the president of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), had promised that Disney’s America would show its visitors “the Civil War with all its racial conflict,” and Michael Eisner, then-CEO of the Walt Disney Company, even went so far as to suggest it would convey “what it was like to be a slave or (…) to escape through the underground railroad” (qtd. in Lukas, “A Politics” 276). While such tone-deaf remarks make the outrage from historians somewhat understandable, they also point toward the unique characteristics of the medium that distinguish it from the less participatory media of film or literature. Peter Rummell, then chairman of WDI, eventually submitted to a statement to an OAH (Organization of American Historians) Newsletter on the subject. He explained that Imagineering had intended to use the multiple tools of narrative placemaking and apply them to historical periods in order to “help visitors imagine what it must have been like at certain moments in our nation’s history” (Rummell 10). Similar claims are also made almost verbatim by many video game designers that try to bring historical events to life, even to this day. The most prominent example is the Assassins Creed franchise by Ubisoft that released its first installment in 2007, and which ties together several radically different historical periods and locations using a meta-narrative that lets the series’ protagonist re-live his ancestors’ memories via a device called the “Animus.” Most of the gameplay takes place in the past, then, and so the protagonist engages in literal, actual time travel, while the player does so only figuratively. This, however, seems to authenticate the player’s experience of the past, and is a narrative device that theme parks use frequently; Disneyland famously greets every guest entering with the sign “here you leave today, and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” To illustrate how such ‘time travel’ works within those games (and compare and contrast it with theme parks’ treatment of the past), I will focus on the third installment in the series, Assassins Creed 3 (2012), which is set during the American Revolutionary Era.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The developers apparently chose the theme because it fit with their overarching plotline of Templars vs. Assassins, “free will vs. (…) oppression,” as lead writer Cory May puts it (“IGN Presents”). Creative designer Alex Hutchinson adds that it was an “unexpected place to set a game, that it was somewhere a game hadn’t been set before” ( “IGN Presents”). It is true that the American Revolution is a historical period that is still rarely depicted in popular culture, especially in comparison to the other era instrumental for American civil religion, the American Civil War (cf. Hochgeschwender 432). Not until the success of the musical Hamilton (2015) had it found much representation across such divergent media as film, literature or theater. The makers of Assassins Creed III offer an unusual entry into the period by giving the protagonist a Native American background. They claim a certain amount of authenticity by hiring language coaches and an actor of Mohawk descent (“Episode One”), a claim which would deserve more critical scrutiny in its underlying assumptions about culture and race than the focus of this essay allows for. Besides the unconventional protagonist, though, the depiction of the past follows familiar strategies of narrative placemaking. Ubisoft produced an official making-of called “Inside Assassins Creed III” as promotional material that is still readily available on their official YouTube channel, in which the game’s creative team discuss several aspects of its design. Besides the designers, however, the series of videos also feature other ‘experts,’ such as reenactors, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, and a Navy SEAL. All of these add an air of authenticity to the designers’ claims of making it possible for the players to be “exploring that time,” allegedly even details that “you don’t really hear about in the history books” (Hutchinson in “Episode One”). Yet the main draw is clearly the iconography that is familiar to American audience: in order to ‘bring the past to life,’ the game offers detailed recreations of the cities of Boston and New York, using historical maps as source material (“Episode Four”), as well as those of battle weapons and uniforms, for which reenactors and historians were consulted (“Episode Two”). Such rather cosmetic uses of the past are a staple of pop-cultural historical depictions—one only needs to consider films like The Patriot (2000), also set during the Revolution, that essentially dresses up an action-revenge movie in colonial garb, with hardly any historical merit. Holtorf has described this practice as “pastness,” the “contemporary quality or condition of being past” (35). In addition to such stylized uses of the past, the player in Assassins Creed III gets to be in the proverbial room where it happens, “whether it’s the Boston Tea Party or the Boston Massacre, we have these big historic events we can situate our game around” (Hutchinson in “Episode Four”). As the protagonist Connor, the player gets to “assassinate key historical figures, at major battles, at major events during the Revolution” (Hutchinson, “Episode One”). This opens up the potential for telling an alternate history (technically, the mere insertion of a fictional character suffices to do that), which is explored in the DLC “The Tyranny of King Washington,” yet the main game still is firmly grounded in a patriotic, ‘accurate’ depiction of the Revolutionary era. The well-known ‘heroic figures’ of the American Revolution, as the game’s designers have called them (“Episode Three”), are glorified, and the player gets to become one of them. In the promotional making-of, Gary Bohannon, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, exclaims: “If George Washington would have had Connor on his team, he wouldn’t have needed many other people!” (“Episode One”). The marketing department for the game also released a live-action trailer entitled “Rise” that shows several civilians ‘rising up’ for the Revolution, and it similarly aligns Connor, and in turn the player, with them. The draw of the game, then, is the promise of time-traveling to the era of the American Revolution and to experience colonial America first-hand: exploring cities, fighting battles on land and sea, and meeting people like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. As studies of immersion in different media have shown, the key to its success is prior knowledge, and an interest in the story is vital for anyone to be immersed in a narrative (cf. Hofer and Wirth 167). It would be interesting to find out how this setting and particularly its visual iconography resonated with international audiences who are likely less familiar with it than Americans. The game sold well outside the US, but much of this can likely be attributed to the overall success of the very popular franchise. Yet what remains equally important as audience reception is the motivation of its creators, who clearly relied on recognition value to bring this era to life in the game, while at the same time framing this practice in terms of historical accuracy. Yet, and this seems to be the crux of this argument, if they had made an actually historically accurate game, what would it even look like? The result would likely be something that would not be a ‘good’ game, at least not one that tells a narratively coherent story, and it could even lead to a loss of immersion because it would potentially not conform to prevalent ideas of what the American Revolution should look like; it would simply not tick all the boxes of audience expectation.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Theme parks use exactly the same strategies as digital games to let their visitors ‘travel in time.’ This becomes abundantly clear when looking at themed spaces that depict the same time and place: colonial America, and specifically the events of the American Revolution. The Liberty Square area in Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park, as well as the American Adventure pavilion in Epcot, both part of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, are prominent examples. Liberty Square opened with the rest of the Magic Kingdom in 1971, as a direct reaction to the upcoming bicentennial celebrations in the US at the time (cf. Wright 66). It features detailed recreations of the Liberty Bell, colonial-style architecture, echoing Independence Hall in Philadelphia or the Virginia House of Burgesses, and nods to Paul Revere’s ride. Its sole attraction besides a shop and two restaurants is the Hall of Presidents, a show that tells a much compressed history of the American presidency, featuring audio-animatronic versions of all 45 men. The park’s employees, or in Disney-speak “cast members,” are dressed in colonial garb, adding to the immersion. As with every Disney theme park setting, it follows the four strategies of what Alan Bryman has called “Disneyization”: the use of theming, hybrid consumption, merchandising, performative labor, and control and surveillance.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The American Adventure pavilion in Epcot similarly tells American history through a patriotic lens. Housed in a massive colonial architecture building, its main attraction, another American history-themed show, features audio-animatronics of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. The food served at the pavilion includes such all-American standards such as funnel cake (a dish actually brought into the country by the Pennsylvania Dutch), and a Five and Drum corps contributes to musical entertainment. Both Liberty Square and the American Adventure pavilion, then, rely on similarly familiar key figures and events, as well as cosmetic, stylized uses of the past, “pastness,” in architecture and design to immerse their visitors-—to make ‘time travel’ possible. Laurie Meamber, a marketing scholar, has compared the American Adventure pavilion to other famous historic tourist sites in the US, including Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon. She has found that these attractions equally rely on patriotic, disneyfied storytelling, and that they also increasingly have turned to the tools of Disneyization in conveying their narratives: “As Disney has always utilized technology to immerse the visitor into the site, historical sites are also embracing immersion as a way to make history come alive” (Meamber 140). It seems, then, that the concerns that had brought the Disney’s America project to a halt are no longer preventing other attractions from using these tools—and they have never stopped digital games from doing so. Yet, digital games have also received much more vocal backlash from both academics and the media (if not on the scale of the Disney’s America controversy) when they have engaged with more harrowing periods of the past, such as Nazi Germany. As neither film nor literature are still the target of such large-scale discussions, especially those that prominently feature historians or politicians, it seems to be their inherent participatory or immersive nature that fuels these debates more than anything. Scott Lukas, one of the most prolific writers on theme parks, has explained this by the “more active role” (“Politics” 278) that visitors take in contrast to the more passive role that spectators of a movie or readers of a book (usually) fill, adding “that the technology of theming itself is often the inciter of controversy” (“Politics” 276). He further argues this is a question of “genre” or “form of the themed space” that dictates the “the type of topics that may be considered” (“Pushing” 53). And yet, immersive media conveying historical periods are hugely successful, and from what we can tell, their popularity will likely not wane anytime soon—the newest installment of the Assassins Creed series, Assassins Creed: Origins, even features a “Discovery Mode” that lets the player freely explore Ancient Egypt beyond the conventional gameplay, an experience that has been compared to a museum (Tamayo). So what do we make of these immersive media and their popularity as academics in general, and as cultural historians in particular?
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The central issue is that of authenticity, of whether such media can ever really offer us more than “pastness,” or worse, disneyfied, whitewashed versions of history. Is it really possible for digital games or theme parks to be true to history, give us an “accurate reflection” (Lukas, “Keeping” 90) of it, and thus be ‘authentic’? And how do these immersive media challenge and change our notion of what such authenticity means? Could they possibly even make historians question what is authentic and what is not, given that even historians have a similar penchant for telling and teaching history focused on key events and figures—maybe a more personalized, immersive approach could have an impact on this practice? And yet, just because Assassins Creed III recreates colonial Boston and New York to a certain extent or because it delves into the brutal details of battle, or even when it lets us have a conversation with Benjamin Franklin, it still does not tell us much about the personal concerns of people that supported or opposed the American Revolution. It does not tell us about politics, the intricacies of war, the reality of lived lives, their suffering and hardship. And yet, prematurely dismissing the potential of immersive media in letting us ‘time travel’ also seems like a missed educational opportunity, and like a failure to engage with potential new and different forms of how we conceive of historical authenticity. I firmly agree with Holtorf that while we should be diligent to not trivialize the past, we might have a “particular human duty to travel to unpleasant destinations as we may in that way take important lessons and indeed emotions back to present reality” (39). Immersive, participatory media potentially do offer us this chance, if done right. American historians James Oliver Horton and Eric Foner, who had agreed to consult Disney for Disney’s America before it was cancelled, seem to have understood these possibilities. Horton even saw it as a democratic effort, arguing that “‘we need to educate our people and we need to do that in a variety of places. We can’t count on the schools or the universities or even formal mainstream traditional museums to do the education (…) alone’” (qtd. in Zenzen 180). Academics can play an important role in this. Even while most of us will never be able to consult on a historical film, video game, or theme park (not that such consultation would automatically result in a more authentic product), we can write about them, and most importantly, we can teach about them. We can use them to instill and cultivate an interest in history both in our students and beyond the ivy-ranked walls of academia. And we can and must help them interpret these media from a variety of perspectives—we can teach them media literacy.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This is where American studies comes in. The interdisciplinary nature of the field is what makes it so useful for a critical analysis of immersive media, be it theme parks or digital games. It gives us tools from cultural studies, cultural history, literary studies, media studies, gender and race studies, and many other fields, and all of them are necessary to understand the multifaceted nature of digital games. While academic writing usually calls for putting focus on any one of these lenses, the training in this diverse field still equips its practitioners exceptionally well to decode these media from multiple angles. While the narratology vs. ludology debate within video games studies has become stale anyhow, an American studies approach easily does away with it, and it also moves analysis away from being too formalist or intrinsic to the text. American studies done right also always encompasses a cultural historic outlook that calls for consideration of context—not just that of historical decades depicted as in the case studies discussed here, but also, and even more importantly, the context of cultural production. Its toolbox is uniquely suited to understand digital games and other immersive media as the multi-faceted products they are. It is thus more than logical that the discipline embrace them, as it has done with other aspects of popular culture before.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Huhtamo, Erkki. “Encapsulated Bodies in Motion. Simulators and the Quest for Total Immersion.” Critical Issues in Electronic Media, edited by Simon Penny, State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 159-86.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Lukas, Scott A. “A Politics of Reverence and Irreverence: Social Discourse on Theming Controversies.” The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self, edited by Scott A. Lukas, Lexington Books, 2007, pp. 271-94.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Mittermeier, Sabrina. Middle Class Kingdoms—A Cultural History of Disneyland and Its Variations, 1955-2016. 2017. LMU Munich, Doctoral Dissertation. (publication forthcoming)
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 ———. “‘Windows to the Past’: Disney’s America, the Culture Wars, and the Question of Edutainment.” Polish Journal for American Studies, vol.10, 2016, pp. 127-46.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Tamayo, Paul. “Discovery Mode Turns Assassins Creed: Origins Into a Museum.” Kotaku, 20 Feb. 2018, kotaku.com/discovery-mode-turns-assassins-creed-origins-into-a-mu-1823166019. Accessed September 10, 2018.