Touring the Osler library of the history of medicine on a cold Montreal morning, I couldn’t help but think about one of my favorite game series, Assassin’s Creed. As a scientist and history enthusiast, I find it fascinating to take a look back at the previous millennium and see how different our views were on science in general, and medicine in particular. As for thinking about video games, that’s just an unfortunate side effect of spending too much time playing them/watching my partner play them.
So then, why single out AC? Perhaps because it’s one of the few games that had the ability to stay true to the historical zeitgeist in all aspects: architecture, attire, culture, science, etc. Indeed, that one characteristic is the main appeal of this game. However, I couldn’t help thinking about the medical experts in the AC series, and fantasizing about giving them bigger NPC roles to make the gaming experience even deeper and more engaging.
While the characters of “El Tabib“, “El Dottore”, and the “Hekim” are based on medieval, renaissance, and ottoman era doctors, respectively; the realism ends there. The justification for that may be quite simple; it’s not a game about medicine! Doctors serve to function as healing agents and suppliers of poison, both of which are important roles that need to be fulfilled in most video games. Even the quest that involves doctors directly (AC: Brotherhood) is a very minor part of the game and the payoff is minimal (i.e: acquiring faster-acting poison).
Now, back to the Osler library where books spanning the last 2.5 millennia surround me. From Susruta’s treatments of cataracts using curved needles (~600BC) to medieval science in Islamic and western cultures, and to the renaissance era and beyond. It’s striking how far we’ve come in the last few decades compared to the last few centuries. Despite the lack of knowledge concerning basic biological mechanisms, medieval scientists had to deal with complex diseases, and they even managed to cure a few of them. In contrast, the AC populous, throughout the series, seems to be exceptionally healthy (although we do see some lepers constantly harassing Al-Tair), with no recurrent instances of the common illnesses at the time (not even the plague!).
It is my personal opinion that disease and death will never cease to fascinate humans in general, and the gaming audience in particular. After all, what could be more stimulating than concocting poisons and potions, and being engaged in various experimental healing and killing procedures? Who amongst us AC fans wouldn’t have enjoyed seeing the assassins involved in a body-snatching scheme to help Leonardo da Vinci with his anatomy studies? And what about Saliceto’s work on brain injury and localization of brain function? Or Vaselius’s experiments on the cadavers of executed prisoners (we see a fair share of executions throughout the series)? It would have been easy enough to incorporate a mission where the assassins assist/hinder some of these scientists or doctors to carry out their work. After all, the assassins as a powerful social faction were involved in most aspects of politics, economy, art, technology, warfare, etc. So why not medicine?
Death is a central theme in AC, the exact reason why health should be deeper explored. That’s when we’ll learn to appreciate that our ancestral medics had more up their sleeves than leeches and bloodletting.