While reading some articles related to media and history, I realized my generation, the millennials, know very little about major historical events. In fact, a 2012 British survey cited in a Daily Mail article suggests that “nearly two-thirds of young people were unable to say that the First World War ended in 1918,” and “54 per cent of the same age range, 16-24, also did not know the war began in 1914.” It is very disappointing that so few members of my generation know about general historical facts, let alone the actual events of the Great War. If this is true, it makes me wonder how much the young generation knows about other major historical events. There are so many historically rich stories out there that would be unfortunate to lose for many reasons, including the words of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
So why do younger people know so little about the Great War? How many other famous and influential historical events are they ignorant about? It may seem surprising, but I think that today’s youth can learn a lot about the events of yesterday from different forms of media.
Historical lessons can often be found through video games, films, TV shows, and books, even if you’re unaware of it until later on, after you ace your history test without studying (in the traditional sense). Video game series, such as Age of Empires and Assassin’s Creed, are great examples of this, as they reference historical events, civilizations, and influential people in the stories they tell. It’s evident that the creators of Age of Empires are huge history buffs themselves, as they have researched the history of each civilization enough that they have even put together a small book that outlines the history of each one! If you wanted to, you could learn a lot about world history from reading the texts provided in-game.
From the Assassin’s Creed series, lessons about influential people in history can be found. A man referenced in the series, Hassan-i Sabbah, was a real historical figure that established one of the first assassin groups during the first crusade (starting in the 1100s). However, history is not always portrayed accurately in video games, and aren’t a reliable source of the complete truth. For example, assassins chosen by the actual Sabbah would influence and sometimes kill enemy leaders, but they would mostly employ scare tactics so that killing wasn’t necessary. In Assassin’s Creed, however, assassins always seek to kill the enemy, meaning that some stories of manipulation and strategy aren’t told in the game.
Besides being prevalent in many video games, history is often found entwined in the plots of movies. Disney has released many movies based on historical figures and classic stories. Examples include Pocahontas, Mulan, The Lion King (Hamlet), and The Little Mermaid (based on the Hans Christian Anderson story). Similarly to historical video games, however, movies that are based on history should not be taken at face value. In the movie, Pocahontas, Pocahontas chose to stay with her people when John Smith left for England. Historically, she traveled to England and got married to him, but died soon after. An interesting fact about the story of Pocahontas is that, although she was actually the daughter of her tribe’s chief, she was not the rebellious heroine portrayed by Disney. In reality, she didn’t rebel against her father’s wish to kill John Smith, but she was actually given the responsibility to make the decision if he should live or die.
Similarly, the legendary figure from ancient China, Hua Mulan, was taken more seriously in real life than in the movie, Mulan. She was skilled in martial arts and sword fighting before she joined the army, so it was a logical choice that she took her aging father’s place. In other words, there was no drama about whether or not she would get killed for being a woman in the army, and her decision did not dishonour her family. However, the Disney adaptation made a point that women weren’t taken as seriously in the time period portrayed, favouring drama over historical accuracy.
Video games and movies are great for inspiring an interest in history by exposing children and students to historical events. Video games may even have the added benefit of increased cognitive development and logical thinking ability. Despite the points made above, you probably won’t receive good grades in history class by only watching Disney movies and playing Age of Empires. Production companies and game developers are not obligated to differentiate fact from fiction in the media they produce, which can blur that line for those who rely too heavily on video games instead of non-fiction sources. However, with sufficient research and fact-checking, you may end up learning something new during your next gaming session.