What I’m Playing: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

FullSizeRenderYes, I feel deeply ashamed that my first What I’m Playing post isn’t about some art game or complicated card-game. It’s about something stupid. Assassin’s Creed is undoubtedly one of the stupidest game series going…

So I’ve played every numbered sequel since the first one came out. There’s something about it that’s comforting, especially when you’re very busy and just want to settle into a mindless game. It’s like putting on a particularly comfortable pair of slippers. Ultraviolent slippers with a stupid plot and too many collectibles.

However just because it’s mindless doesn’t mean I can’t overthink it! I play AC games as a tourist, getting to explore cities from every angle and immerse myself in the impressive living worlds that Ubisoft creates. Have you see the River Thames in this game? It’s incredible, all alive and moving and busy! And I never tire of this ‘man falling off a boat’ animation even though I’ve probably triggered it about a hundred times:


I’m pretty familiar with Paris and Rome (from 5 and 2.5 respectively), but these were set far-enough back in the past that there were noticeable changes from our own time. Syndicate differs because I’m very familiar with central London, and the layout hasn’t changed a huge amount since the mid-1800s. I’m trying to navigate without the map, using only my local knowledge. But they moved St Pancras station about mile to the south-west and suddenly I’m all disorientated. I’ve started to read the map with a critical eye, and understand why the designers might have cut out Tottenham Court Road in order to turn their London into a greatest hits package.

(This isn’t to disparage Tottenham Court Road, obviously. But they wouldn’t have had the massive branch of Habitat to explore in 1868).

I recently played around with some VR tours of a building I was getting to know, and the connection between exploring the building in the headset and in real life really helped me to learn the layout of the place far quicker than I might have done in real life alone. The game of making the connection between the two gave me the motivation to explore, and climb multiple staircases! I’d be fascinated to see how a Syndicate player might navigate the real London having never been there before, and whether virtual simulations might help with this kind of learning activity.

Manchester next please, Ubisoft. I still haven’t really got my bearings after 10 years.


The Grasshopper


As I embark on this journey I’m well aware that, despite the fact that I’ve been playing games for far longer than I’ve been working in education, my formal, non-folky understanding of games is much less developed than my understanding of education. So one of my big aims for the summer before my PhD is to catch up on some of the ‘classics’ in academic games literature.

I’ve just finished reading The Grasshopper, which inspired the name of this blog. It’s a philosophical work by Bernard Suits in which characters engage in a Platonic dialogue around a definition of play and what it is to play a game (as opposed to playing a saxophone etc.). Suits ends up defining the playing of games as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles“. Blog named!

It certainly reads like Plato in its use of ingenious analogies delivered by pedantic (and vaguely annoying) characters. In fact Suits admits late in the book that the whole device might be just him playing a game with himself as he sets his own unnecessary obstacles to  writing.

Suits and his Grasshopper’s utopian vision of a society in which everyone plays games echoes Plato and his Socrates’ own utopia as outlined in The Republic. For Plato, the utopia is (partly) a metaphor for the ideal person’s moral life, driven by reason and contemplation. Suits doesn’t quite make the connection to a full-blown moral framework around games, but his vision is an interesting one and the implications for how one should live, with a sense of play, has given me a new sense of how to proceed working with games.

I’m particularly intrigued by his brief mention of games as “clues to the future”. So much of education is about preparing our students for a world that we don’t yet know. If games can provide a framework for practicing competencies that might be useful in the future even if they’re not directly applicable right now, then they could be life-changing. In fact games might be the best way of engaging with such things for the time being in the absence of any ‘real world’ connections.

Some Initial Thoughts

“HEY JOHN! Why’s this blog called ‘Unnecessary Obstacles’?”

Well I’ll tell you…

In his book The Grasshopper Bernard Suits described playing a game as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

This definition is inspired largely as a response to Wittgenstein’s refusal to define games (I’ll need to get onto my bromance with ol’ Ludwig in a later post), but as someone who’s about to start a PhD in play-based learning, I also see it as a prompt to consider the necessary/unecessary division in education too.

Having worked in education for most of the past decade, I’ve certainly got some preconceptions about how education works best. And as a lifelong player of games I’ve a ton of preconceptions about how they work too. Whilst I’m willing and (hopefully) prepared for these to be destroyed totally over the next few years, I thought it would be worth putting them out there now.

On games:

  • Games are essentially a force for good. Despite the bad press they get and the awful reputation of discussions around games, they have a positive impact on the world.
  • Games are far more inclusive than they’re given credit for. Far from being solitary activities, games build bridges between people, even when it’s a matter of two solo-players comparing their experiences.
  • You can learn things from games. Not just how to play the game and how to discuss the game world, but real transferable things that are useful in the world outside the game.
  • Most importantly, playing games is not a mindless activity. The level and diversity of critical thought that goes into playing games is hugely powerful, and can be channeled into education.

On education:

  • Education is also a force for good. This is more of a given, but I’m coming at it from less of a defensive angle as there aren’t too many people campaigning to limit access to education (at least in the UK). What I mean by pointing this out is that educators and their students can sometimes forget that what they’re engaged in is actually a brilliant, exciting process rather than just a thing that happens.
  • Deeper learning is preferable to broad learning. Deeper learning reflects the real world, ensures that students take ownership of what their doing rather than relying on instruction, and develops capacities in students including a desire for further learning.
  • Informal education experiences are valuable even in formal contexts, and students can learn a lot through applying their ‘formal’ education to different parts of the world outside of the classroom, library or lecture theatre.
  • Fundamentally, there is too much of a focus on the ‘necessary’ in education and not enough focus on what is perceived as ‘unnecessary’. Educators and students go through the motions, get through the content and the exams and often leave the process without ever doing something that wasn’t in a syllabus somewhere. But the ‘unnecessary’ stuff, that isn’t on the curriculum but comes across through deeper learning and exploration by individuals in informal contexts, that isn’t easily weighed and measured; this is the stuff that often has the most incredible impact on both educators and their students.

These points will act partially as a bit of a manifesto for the work I’m doing; my driving principles. They will also remind me of where my thinking is right now, and show me how it changes over time. Maybe I’ll revisit these in a year’s time…