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Assassin's Creed Introduces Abbasid Baghdad to New Audiences!

Finally, it has happened! A game that blends action and adventure on a setting that draws directly on historical context for storylines and design, whilst placing Arabic learning at its heart - with the occasional assassination of course. Welcome to Assassin's Creed: Mirage, the world of Basim, an Anbari thief who is on a mission to bring down corruption and conspiracy in Abbasid Baghdad which is alive with the sights and sounds of a thriving centre of knowledge and learning that has influenced the development of global civilisations.

As soon as you jump into playing, the detail captures your eyes. The walls decorated with stucco reliefs that have clearly been based on surviving designs from Qasr Abbasi and Mustasiriyah today as well as musuems and private collections worldwide. The research that has gone into the finest details is diligent and impressive. For someone who has read extensively on the Abbasid period, it brings colour and life to dusty academic texts. Guy Le Strange's 1900 study on the urban landscape of Baghdad during this time has never been matched in scope and detail, and has clearly influenced the mapping of the game developpers. The academic style of reading can be tedious, but his explanations of the network of canals, building styles, and monumental buildings are brought to life digitally. The diverse non playable charcaters reflect the religious and thnic diversity of the city at that time, whilst the rich vegetation are a stark contrast to modern Baghdad. We do question where the sand dunes are exactly but we will overlook that in favour of the details.

Recent versions of the game have come under criticism for the massive world that the game encompasses, but for Mirage, the scale is much smaller (though we would love to see an expanded world heading up to Samarra too) and compact, focusing on the Round City, Abbasiyah, Harbiyah, and Karkh - Rusafah had not really been developed by this point. Legendary buildings such as the House of Wisdom play core roles in the storyline, with Basim having to discover who has been burning books, what do diagrams indicate, and who has corrupted the institution. Interestingly, the story starts in Anbar, or ancient Anah, which was the first capital of the Abbasid caliph, Al Saffah, highlighting the significant roles of other cities.

Now players can explore these regions in a whole new way. Yasir Al-Samarai, an avid gamer, told us "I grew up in Baghdad, and obviously heard a lot about these places, and this is a really great opportunity to explore our city in a whole new way. I am excited to recognise familiar places - I have had chance to visit Mustansiriyah, and my family come from Samarra so Abbasid history has always been present in my life. I'm just excited to play it."

Over recent years, Assassin's Creed has given a great deal of time to incorporte elements of learning into their game design. Players have been able to dive deeper into Ptolemaic Egypt, the Viking world, and Classical Greece - this time is no different. Throughout the game, players collect orbs that update a codex that provides a wealth of information about characters and the social life of Abbasid Baghdad. There is a striking focus on the science, architecture, and mathematics of the period with players being able to explore character dialogues and a database in the option menu.

Zaineb Qassim told us, " As an Arabic Iraqi person, I'm amazed at how the Arabic language influence, down to the spoken language everywhere, is so poetic! It matches the Abbasid period and brings the vibes of the ancient Baghdadi places - from the Shanasheel alleyways to the tales of the non playable characters, even the mesemerizing call for prayer! We studied the era of the Abbasid Caliphate at a very young age but without any visual aids, the game builds the details and important elements of the history. I had no idea about the role of Anbar in the early caliphate until I double checked what I was playing! It portrays an image of Baghdad that emphasises its culture and civilisation."

Arabic is everywhere. You can play exclusively in Arabic and for those playing in English, the subtitles translate the Arabic words that are used by the main characters. This is a celebration of the language, introducing common words to whole new audiences placing clear context to those terms and how they relate to daily routine. Whilst exploring old Baghdad and Anbar, the non playable characters speak amongst themselves almsot exclsuively in Arabic and to those who understand, will find that the citizens of Baghdad sepend a great deal of time talking about science, poetry, and the fact that monsters don't exist. To those who don't understand, such background activity only enhances the experiences, elevating its immersiveness. At Creative Iraq, admittedly we are not huge gamers, but we struggle to think of another game that has put the Arabic language at the heart of it - this is a testament to the diverse team that worked on it at Ubisoft and their passion to not only make gaming experiences as realistic as possible, but also to promote games as a platform for social engagement. For once, Arabic is not used in a threatening destructive language in a game, it is the exact opposite - it is the language of science, academia and development at a time when French and English speaking lands were focused on war, invasion, and conflict.

From a historical perspective, somethings are a little off. The short time period in which the main events brings together characters from the wider Abbasid period into the city at a single time but rather than criticise this as some academics might, we celebrate it. It enhances the richness of Abbasid culture, and highlights the duration of this 'Golden Age,' introducing it to new global audiences which in turn challenges the negative Iraqi narrative, one that has been most prevalent in the video game design community. Through a condensed time period, the tapestry of rich storytelling is enhanced to build a world that is truly representive. It becomes a world in which you want to learn more, discover who these characters were, and how they have all left an impact on our lives, and the spaces that they lived in. Sarah, living in Baghdad, told us, "I loved exploring the map and seeing the interactions of characters that bring you to Iraqi history. I recently saw the 'Beit Al Hikma (also known as Qasr Abbasi) near Mutunabbi St. but to see it shortly after in the game is incredible. I. amso happy to see our history being represented correctly for once!"

The cast is vast. The Banu Musa brothers play a crucial role in being able to upgrade your weapons, Al Jahiz will send you on a mission to collect more books for his collection, the famed poet and diva Arib arrogantly thanks you for knowing her poems, Al Farghani is studying the stars in the house of wisdom. These characters are not political leaders, generals, but people who contributed to the development of science and learning until today. This choice is commendable, ensuring that global communities can understand what we collectively owe to the scholars of Baghdad.

As a global export, Ubisoft have created a platform for learning about Abbasid Baghdad on a global level, where anybody can explore a largely ignored world. But equally, this can be used by Iraqi communities. There are still incredible monuments in Baghdad today that are testament to the legacy of Abbasid history on the city but they lack the learning component that this game provides. Mustansirriyah Madrassa, Qasr Abbasi, Bab Wastani, the mausoleum of Zumrud Khatun, the minaret and gateway of Khulafa Mosque have all survived the Mongolian seige of Baghdad, Persian and Turkish conquests, the British occupation, and the violence of recent decades - amidst poorly planned buildings, these monuments to the past are uncelebrated. Locked up, or opened only during limited public working hours, there is no site interpretation they helps to promote learning creating sterile spaces that are disconnected from present communities. There are so many opportunities here that will not only improve the understanding of these incredible buildings but also for economic development as well as academic research. After years of challenges due to budgets and identity politics at a legislative and executive level, we need to encourage parties to readdress their approaches to historical sites and how they can contribute to the social and economic development of communities.

Basim's adventures bring him into contact with characters seeking to break down corruption, and dispel external influences from Baghdad after a period of instability, which may have some resonance with players today. A hidden critique of modern Iraqi politics perhaps? But up front, it is an incredibly engaging adventure that offers a way forward for global audiences to challenge what they know about Iraq. We have one question though? When are we getting a Mesopotamian one?!

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