History, Gaming, and Churchill’s “Promise”, by Abbie Tibbott

Tucked away in a time-shift segment of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a short conversation between the playable character, Lydia Frye, and Winston Churchill. Whilst playing the game, this short exchange dragged me from the game’s immersive world and landed me with a bump back into reality. In this post, I’ll be considering the repercussions of casual assumptions made about history, and what impact this can have on a younger generation who use historical game franchises to inspire them to take an interest in history.

For those unfamiliar, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is broadly set in Victorian London, with the player assisting the Brotherhood against the power-hungry Templars through a mixture of assassination, stealth and problem solving. These games are immersive and have inspired many of us to learn more about the historical eras that form the settings for these 70+ hour gameplay narratives.

In a section of this game however, we are transported to London in 1916. Air raid sirens sound, military blockades are up, and the main bulk of the gameplay segment is centred around Tower Bridge. Lydia Frye meets Winston Churchill, apparently back from the trenches of Europe, who asks her to take the lead on several reconnaissance missions to get some vital intelligence for the war effort. The mission itself is engaging and fun to play, but a comment made by Churchill as part of his dialogue clearly displays the limitations of Ubisoft’s Quebec-based team when writing about British history.

Churchill explains to Lydia that if she completes these missions, he will enfranchise women, giving them the vote. To think that 1916 Churchill would even consider this statement is laughable, as 1926 Churchill would be horrified at the thought of being a supporter for increasing the electorate.

This comment, although seemingly harmless, is in itself inherently damaging to those who research and write about the enfranchisement of women. For a high-profile game to suggest Churchill was a supporter of women’s voting rights damages the work done by those who wish to remind us that historical figures are multi-faceted.

Nancy Astor, MP for Plymouth Sutton, pestered Churchill and other members of the 1924 Conservative Cabinet for ten years, for when women would be granted equal voting rights to men. She worked alongside various women’s organisations and even ordered a deputation, where Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks was forced to hear the testimony of many influential women in society in support of expanding the electorate. As Churchill served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1924 government, if he had honestly wanted women to have the vote, Astor would have probably had a considerably easier time in Parliament!

There is of course irony in the statement that Churchill promised Lydia that women would get the vote, as the Representation of the People Act 1918 would not have enfranchised her, as a working class woman under the age of 30 (she is canonically in her twenties at this point of the game) and although she is married, there is no evidence she has any property. Of course, her character is entirely fictional, and I have no issue with that, more with the fact that Ubisoft decided to write an extremely prominent politician into a game, and then saddle him with dialogue that is not representative of his views towards women.

So, what of the damage? Yes, it is just a game, but it is important to remember that young people draw inspiration from films and games and may use this piece of dialogue to come to the conclusion that Churchill supported women’s voting rights. This is a disservice to all historians working on women’s history in the interwar period, and I am certainly disheartened that for a game based on historical events, this was not fact-checked by anyone at Ubisoft.

Historical fiction is a genre enjoyed by so many, but it is so important that crucial events, decisions – and in this case, conviction politics, are portrayed as accurately as possible. Churchill was vehemently opposed to expanding the electorate in the 1920s, as he wanted the Cabinet to safeguard the Conservative Party’s electoral majority for the next election. Even when the tide was turning and the Cabinet were drawing up their own franchise bill to present to the Commons, Churchill presented his fellow politicians with a memorandum on the franchise, where he listed fifteen separate arguments as to why the franchise should not be extended.

When I was an undergraduate student, it was a transition to learn about historiography and how our recording of history is all down to perspective. In this game, Churchill is presented as a leader, but also as someone who not only had the power to enfranchise women seemingly single-handedly (he was not Prime Minister at this point in his career), but that actually thought that all women’s highest priority was being enfranchised. To generalise women in Britain this way was probably not deliberate but offering women’s enfranchisement as a ‘prize’ that was the most desirable thing that Churchill could offer Lydia Frye is a misrepresentation of the work and sacrifices made by women during the war effort, whether they were part of the Suffrage movement or not. It is important to be precise about these things, as titles in the Assassin’s Creed franchise cover major historical events, even if the player’s character is fictionalised.

Overall, this incident serves as another reminder that historical fiction deserves to be written in a way that is representative of the people and issues featured. Ubisoft is not the enemy here, but rather a specific example of how influential figures in history must not be presented as 2D characters in a plot device and should be instead used to educate us about their triumphs, their politics, and their convictions.

https://www.pcgamer.com/great-moments-in-pc-gaming-world-war-i-in-assassins-creed-syndicate/
https://assassinscreed.fandom.com/it/wiki/Winston_Churchill
https://www.kotaku.com.au/2016/01/what-we-liked-and-didnt-like-about-assassins-creed-syndicate/

Abbie Tibbott is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in conservatism, citizenship and democracy in 1920s Britain, with a focus on women and unemployment.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

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