I felt as though there was not as much game philosophy on this site as a I would like. In the effort to jump-start the topic in my mind, I’ve been watching Extra Credits and became a member of Escapist (the Escapist? Escapist magazine? Not sure how to reference that). I’m watching from the most current backwards, and about 14 weeks ago they did one on Tangential Learning in games.
I thought they might have mentioned Assassin’s Creed 2 and/or Brotherhood since the story is set in a rather accurate renaissance Italy. However, I may know why they didn’t.
Tangential learning can be understood as factual references. If a game references something without completely explaining it, players may be led to find out more about it themselves. As the video explains, that’s great! They note that not being clear or systematic in the way a game incorporates these elements can make it impossible for anyone to take the bait on tangential learning. The tricky part about this, which you see in Assassin’s Creed and things like the DaVinci Code are that you mix some very solid facts with wild conjecture and fiction. Though the buildings and some of the individuals you are interacting with are historically accurate, the overall story is not, and many of the characters are not. Players and readers can be left a bit confused on what actually happened.
The danger in tangential learning is assumption. If a few true things exist in a work of fiction, finding exactly what those are becomes important. Otherwise, a new story is created and accepted as fact. I’m going to veer into the far lanes of this topic for a minute to mention Sarah Palin, who fueled a little unintentional tangential learning. Here’s a Colbert Recap. It did fuel tangential learning, because people looked it up and realized she was wrong. However, Palin and some of her followers insisted that it was true (going as far as to change Wikipedia to defend her).
Even worse, some could use the idea of tangential learning to color their opinion as fact, which seems somewhat like propaganda. If you remember some of the strange things that were in Assassins Creed Brotherhood, you may get where I’m going with all this. Stephen Totillo wrote a fantastic article for Kotaku about the writer of AC:B. His name is Jeffrey Yohalem. He added historical-like things to create the story he wanted to tell, thus creating an alternate telling of history. Intentionally, he sort of Palin-ed the story, if you will. Most of the bolder assertions were tucked deep in the games puzzles, but they still guided the overall plot (which he also wrote). Even if we ignore the overarching story, the biographies of fictional Ezio still appear alongside historic Leonardo.
Maybe Extra Credit did not mention Assassins Creed because of this related dilemma. Maybe it is better to just take tangential learning for its merits, and celebrate the people who are subsequently educated. Maybe we should not judge or caution tangential learning just because some people will not be responsible with it, either in application or interpretation.