Chat with Thomas Guindeuil (Ubisoft)

History is the name of the game for Thomas Guindeuil. He has worked as a historian and international research project coordinator in Ethiopia specialising in the medieval and early modern Horn of Africa. He now works as an “inspirational content advisor”, specialized in historical and cultural topics, within the Editorial Creative Services team at Ubisoft’s headquarters and managed historical research and documentation on the last installment of Assassin’s Creed (Assassin’s Creed Odyssey), set in ancient Greece. He chats with GIA ahead of Playtopia MGA.

GIA: As a historian working at Ubisoft, you’ve been able to inject a level of authenticity and heart to everything you work with. Apart from the exploration of ancient Greece, what other areas of the region would you like to see explored?

TG: I can’t speak on the behalf of Ubisoft on this matter, but I would dream of a good adventure or RPG game situated in a medieval or early modern African setting. Ethiopia would be great of course, as the Swahili coast and archipelagos, the Yoruba states, or the kingdom of Kongo. I think my favour would go to the Niger Valley, with the city of Timbuktu and the continental trade as a background. I think great and universal history lessons could be taught – about “connected” and global histories or about the relationship between humans and the environment.

GIA: What lessons and experiences from your time in Ethiopia have you been able to inject into your current role?

TG: I have been working intermittently as a researcher in Ethiopia for almost 9 years, but I especially spent 2 years coordinating international research programs there, that included organising exhibitions about history and prehistory. For this and other personal reasons, I am particularly receptive to the debate about the various forms of cultural appropriation. I am particularly aware that historical research on Africa has been, for years, massively produced in European and North American countries, and we’ve seen interesting changes recently, like he ongoing production of three new volumes of Unesco’s General History of Africa (a reference collection produced between 1964 and 1999 mainly by African historians and researchers). This re-activation of an old Pan African project is very encouraging. I truly believe that dialogue between peoples can be based on a common knowledge of each other’s history and memory – the past is a common ground. Anybody should know more about African history. That’s where entertainment can play a decisive role.

GIA: Why do you think large publishers such as Ubisoft appear averse to exploring stories steeped in Africa rich history?

TG: Again I can’t speak on the behalf of Ubisoft but I think there’s a reasonable fear of “doing wrong”, probably reinforced by the lack of knowledge about African history and the fact that no international publisher is currently rooted on the African continent. African history is still strikingly absent from the historical representations conveyed by the entertainment industry as a whole, as it is in collective representations in Europe, North America, and Asia (where most games are made). In those countries, the idea of “Africa” is mostly associated with nature and wilderness, hardly ever about ancient civilizations. Again, sharing knowledge is the key. I am particularly enthusiastic about what I read about the renewal of the Afrofuturism literary movement since it shows an interesting artistic take on African historical themes and may bring them to wider and unexpected audiences.

GIA: What are your expectations for your Playtopia experience?

TG: I am quite excited by this opportunity of learning about game development in Africa in general and, especially, about people making video games that would be rooted in African historical and cultural grounds.

GIA: Who are the African creators (if any), you look to for inspiration?

TG: I can’t say about video games for I came here to know more about what’s being made, but I must say I have been impressed by the daring nature of Rafiki (2018), from Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, or Inxeba/The Wound (2017), from South African director John Trengrove – both on LGBT and coming of age themes, widely undiscussed in African cinemas and literature. I am also a great admirer of Ethiopian composer Mulatu Ashtatke’s very diverse works – including his more recent creations that largely transcended borders. Music, just as history, is also a fantastic material for intercultural dialogue!

Playtopia MGA will take place at the Castle in Cape Town between December 5 to December 7. For further details as well as how to get your ticket, visit the Playtopia website.