March 3, 2021

16 Min Read

assassins creed

Why Three Egyptologists Are Teaching History Through Assassin’s Creed Origins

Assassin’s Creed Origins’ rendition of Ptolemaic Egypt is one of the most accurate interactive representations of the period, so much so that Egyptologist Dr. Chris Naunton referred to it as “the best visualization of ancient Egypt.” Naunton’s remark came during the first episode of “Playing in the Past” a six-part series dedicated to looking at Egyptian history through the lens of Assassin’s Creed Origins. The series is broadcast on Twitch, where Naunton was joined by a PhD student at Southampton University, Gemma Renshaw, and associate professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Dr. Kate Sheppard.

Together, the three Egyptologists took viewers through a tour of Thebes. Naunton began by comparing photos from his travels to vistas in the game before taking up the reins himself and moving throughout the world on his own. The next episode of “Playing in the Past” takes place tomorrow, March 4 at 9AM PT and will feature a different focus and a different guest speaker, as you can see in the full schedule below:

  • February 4 – “A Visit to Ptolemaic Thebes” with Dr. Chris Naunton, Kate Sheppard, and Gemma Renshaw (Completed)
  • March 4 – 9AM PT – “How to Live Forever: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” with Dr. Carrie Arbuckle-MacLeod, Kate Sheppard, and Gemma Renshaw
  • April 8 – 7AM PT – "From Potter’s Wheel to Baker’s Oven: Ancient Craft and Technology” with Dr. Sarah K. Doherty, Chris Naunton, and Gemma Renshaw
  • May 13 – "Who lived in Ptolemaic Egypt?" with Dr. Heba Abd el Gawad, Chris Naunton, and Gemma Renshaw
  • June 10 – “Visions of Ancient Egypt in the 19th Century” with Dr. Kate Sheppard, Ziad Morsy, and Gemma Renshaw
  • July 15 – “Visualizing a Living and Immersive Ancient World” panel discussion featuring live gameplay with Professor Stephanie Moser, Gemma Renshaw, Chris Naunton, Kate Sheppard, and special guest.

The world of Assassin’s Creed Origins was already the focus of the post-launch Discovery Tour by Assassin’s Creed – Ancient Egypt, which turns Ptolemaic Egypt into a living museum complete with guided tours. To find out what experts in the field think about Origins’ depiction of Egypt and why they decided to livestream their lectures, we spoke with Renshaw, Sheppard, and Naunton.

[UN] [News] Why Three Egyptologists Are Teaching History Through Assassin’s Creed Origins - PITP1 8

Where did the idea for “Playing in the Past” come from? What made you want to stream it to the public?

Chris Naunton: Last summer, I was writing a book for children about Cleopatra, which is going to be called “Cleopatra Tells All,” and I was at the stage where I needed to give the illustrator ideas for what I specifically wanted Alexandria to look like. I wanted to be able to send him stuff saying, “Look, this is what it looked like.”

So I was Googling for images of visualizations of Alexandria, and I knew that there was a guy called Jean-Claude Golvin, a French artist who had painted a load of reconstruction drawings of various places in the ancient world, including in Egypt and Alexandria, but I wasn't finding them. What I was finding were all these things from this videogame called Assassin's Creed Origins.

I kept asking, “What’s this?” “How can I get this?” So eventually I just posted something on Twitter saying, “Look, can somebody tell me how I can get this game?”, because at this point I've discovered there's such a thing as a Discovery Tour, so I don't even have to be able to play the game, I can just walk around.

I can tell it looks amazing, and eventually Gemma just responds – we know each other from Twitter and various other things over the years – and she says, “I've got it, I could show you around if you like.”

At the same time, Kate and I were doing our own podcast together, which was a kind of virtual trip up the Nile from the perspective of historic travelers, Europeans mostly. So when Gemma had offered to show me around, Kate wanted to join in too.

Kate Sheppard: When Gemma responded, I just sort of virtually elbowed my way in, and we all sort of met, and Chris and I were just asking her to show us around all of these places.

Gemma Renshaw: I put it on my Twitch channel. I had never streamed before, but thankfully, I had some assistance from a kind friend of mine. I got it working on Twitch, and then I just streamed it for a bit so that they could see it, and then we could go and look at stuff together, and we sort of talked about things on Twitter. At that point, other people started to show interest.

At first, I just wanted to let Chris look at what he wanted to look at for his book. But there was enough interest from people that I thought, “Why don't we just do another one and invite everyone?” So we did it in September last year, and it wasn't quite the same format that we're doing “Playing in the Past” now.

How familiar were you with videogames before all of this?

CN: I had a Sega Master System II in the early ‘90s, but that was pretty much the last time I played a videogame, and I just thought this was not for me. I bought an Xbox in the middle of all of this because I was so taken with this whole idea, and I wasn't even sure if I would be able to work the controller, but I still thought, “I want to be able to explore this myself.” Once I'd run around a little bit, I just thought, “this is amazing.”

[UN] [News] Why Three Egyptologists Are Teaching History Through Assassin’s Creed Origins - PITP1 4

At what point did you decide to make this a formal series?

GR: After we did the September run, we decided that we would apply to Southampton University to see if they would give us any funding. And they did! That’s when we called it “Playing in the Past” and really ironed out the idea. Funding means that we can pay other experts to come and be a part of it.

In archaeology, we try to get people to imagine what monuments were like when they don’t exist anymore, but a lot of people can’t do that. Same for things that exist only as ideas or beliefs. Having the opportunity to do things like go into the underworld and show people an interpretation is really useful.

On one of my streams, I had a long conversation with someone in chat, and one of the things they said was, “I had no idea that academics liked games.” And I said, “Some of them might not, but some do, and there’s no reason why we can’t connect the two things.” We’ve proven that it can work, and work well.

CN: I’m freelance, so I’m used to there not being much money involved, but I hadn't realized how pleased I was going to be and how cool it would be to be able to say, “This is now a university-funded project.” It’s not just three people who like archaeology and games; people have to recognize now that this is a real thing.

I'm really proud of it, and being able to visit these places which are so well depicted – I just thought, if I like it, I'm sure there's going to be a lot of people out there that will want to do this too. I think that's been borne out in the numbers we've been getting, and the enthusiasm we've been getting for this, too.

KS: Chris and Gemma are much more public-facing than I am with my students, who are generally 18 to 22 years old. Here at my university, we have a nationally ranked esports team, so many of my students are very into videogames. They love them, and so when we're doing history of science, I was talking about eugenics, and I had loads of students asking if I had ever played Bioshock.

That’s when I started thinking I really need to get into some of these videogames, because they keep telling me about them, and this is a way I can connect with them. If we get into that mode of “here's how we can connect to people,” then maybe we can at least bring in new people who might be interested. If we as scholars aren't talking to the general public, and we're just talking to this tiny little bubble of people, what's even the point?

Gemma, you’re a fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Did it help you get interested in history at all?

GR: Yeah! I think I relate quite well to the people who are going to watch the stream, because they can ask me questions about Egypt and history, or they can be about the game, and I might know the answer to that too.

I loved not only the stories, but the database entries that were included going way back to Assassin’s Creed II. I really appreciated how they tried to include history and weave the story around the history in a way that was believable. I think it certainly made me want to find out more about the actual history that was behind it. I have to confess that I didn't really know anything about the Medici family until I played Assassin's Creed II, and then I wanted to learn about them.

When Assassin's Creed Origins first came out, I didn't play it immediately, but I bought it for myself for Christmas one year, and then played it so much for about two weeks that I didn’t even speak to my roommate.

[UN] [News] Why Three Egyptologists Are Teaching History Through Assassin’s Creed Origins - PITP1 3

How does it feel to virtually explore a real-life location that you know so well?

KS: I think the only bad thing is that it really makes me want to be there. The thing that makes me emotional about it and love it so much are the little details. You look down at the ground, and the stones look the same as they do in real life, and you can imagine yourself being there.

You can almost feel the sun on you, and you can sort of smell it. You just kind of breathe it in, and it's just like, “Ah, OK, I'm back, I'm here” and you can almost get that when you're playing the game, and that's what I love about it.

CN: I think something we worry about is the level of representation, because there are so many movies that are so inaccurate and misleading. People always assume I love those kinds of movies, but I can barely watch them. Going into Origins, I had already seen enough photos to know that it was going to be great.

I had gamer friends who would say “There's this new game coming out. It's called Assassin's Creed Origins. You'd love it,” and I was like, “Yeah, sure, I don’t really do games.” I think that’s probably how most academics would think about it initially, but now I’m committed. It’s made me a gamer in a way; when I’m not in Ancient Egypt, I'm on the forest moon of Endor!

The real jaw-dropping moment for me was running up to the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, which is the same, minus any of the modern clutter that's there today. They took out the ticket office and the tarmac, but it’s all the same. It does make you want to be there, but I almost want to say it’s a little bit better.

I also want to say that the representation doesn't need to be that good. I'm just running around like a sort of maniac, just running up hills and things and looking down on temples, and there's so much detail in there, I can't believe how amazing it is. We went hours over our planned stream time for our first stream because I just kept wanting to wander.

Chris, you mentioned the Temple of Hatshepsut. Is there anything in particular that really impressed you with regard to the historical representation?

CN: For me, it’s the fact that it is very specifically this particular moment at the end of the Ptolemaic period, which is a very interesting time in terms of what Egypt would have looked like. You have the broken paving stones in Alexandria, and it would have just been easier to put in new paving stones, wouldn't it? That sort of level of detail is amazing.

Then you have the monuments, [some of] which are recognizable in a kind of half-state of decay, and others a bit better maintained. There are the brand-new sort of late-Ptolemaic Roman-influenced buildings coming up, and then the people who are clearly foreigners, as well as that mixture of a more traditional Egyptians. You also have a newer kind of Hellenistic Egypt, or even just purely foreign Greek influence. I mean, the ambition to do that is really super-impressive.

KS: In one of our later streams, we’re looking at ancient crafts. We’re having an expert, Dr. Sarah K. Doherty, come on for it, but we were just chatting with her, and she was talking about how usually, if you see a bread maker, there's going to be a beer maker right nearby because of the yeast. They use similar ingredients, and so they would share, and it would be easier for them both. Then we were in game and walking by a bakery, and, wouldn’t you know, right next to it is a brewery. That part, to me, really stuck out.

GR: One of the things I’m impressed with in all Assassin’s Creed games is the quality of the light. It's really clear that people at Ubisoft have visited all of these places and made an effort to make the places feel different and close to real life. The light in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is so different from the light in Origins, as it should be.

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Your first stream focused on Thebes, an area not available as part of Discovery Tour. Have you used Discovery Tour at all? What are your thoughts on it?

GR: We actually tried to do that in our stream back in September. We tried to take the Step Pyramid tour, but the problem with us doing it that way was that we kind of wanted to talk when the game was talking, so it ended up being a bit difficult. I did let all the people watching the stream know about it so they could do it on their own.

CN: I think Discovery Tour is great, but it was slightly tricky to do it live. To some extent, it's sort of duplicating the kinds of things we could offer in the livestream anyway. I would recommend it to people though, and I loved the pop-ups that would show the genuine real objects which are described in the tours that you can read more about. As if proof were needed that the game is based on good solid research, it's right there.

I was exploring the west bank in Thebes on our stream, and everything is where it should be. If you're familiar with that part of the world [like I am], you don't need to be told where things are, because they're where they should be.

When I watched the stream, I noticed that you almost never brought up the map for navigation purposes. Were you able to just find your way around because you knew were everything was?

CN: Well, I mean, to some extent, yeah. The landscape is as it should be. The roads and hills, and even the topography is more or less accurate. I didn't need a map to find where things were, because they’re all in the right place.

One last question for you all. Obviously, you're all Egyptologists, but since Assassin’s Creed has already been to Egypt, is there another setting you’d like to see it explore?

GR: I have a few. I'm going to say Kingdom of Mali around 13th-16th century AD, Silk Road Mongolia around 12th-13th century AD, or the Khmer Empire, ideally set in around 12th 13th century AD, when Angkor Wat was built. There are so many potential answers to this, and realistically I am likely to play whatever is chosen - but personally I would like to see exploration of some wider world history rather than Western-focused ones. I will, however, give a (dis)honorable mention to the time of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, up to around 1850. Maybe as a DLC to either Origins or Unity, as it's a time period that Chris, Kate, and I all know quite a bit about. I also think players would be fascinated to visit the places they have in Origins, but with a 19th-century make over.

CN: Mexico at the very end of the Aztec civilization at the time of the Spanish conquistadors. The idea of a monumental civilization being invaded by technologically and militarily superior Europeans echoes the story in Origins. And it would look AMAZING.

KS: I agree with Mexico, or the Inca in Peru. The Mississippian cultures like the Mound Builders and Cahokia, or the American Westward expansion during the gold rush too. It would be an interesting perspective on how terribly white people treated and exploited the peoples and the natural world on the way out.

Catch up on the first episode of “Playing in the Past” here, and tune into the next episode here. For everything Assassin’s Creed related, be sure to check out our previous coverage.

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