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25 May 2021

One of my favourite video game publishers has just announced a long-awaited revision to one of its “world simulation” games – one that covers the period from 1836 to 1936 – and the way it chose to announce and describe the game made me a little concerned. Watch the trailer (the voice-over text is in the caption)…

“Never before have the lives of so many changed so much, so quickly. As when the engines came to life for the very first time, with a roar that echoed over continents. In the soot and ash covering the streets, the people planted seeds of revolution. Visionaries of commerce and diplomacy electrified the world and sparks of inspiration flew towards the sky. Up. Up over the smokestacks rose a promise of a grand tomorrow.”

The whole game description except for a fraction-of-a-second glimpse of a rebellious African is focused on how that century played out in Europe and the US. There’s no sense given of how colonial success was built (to a large extent at least) on exploiting the colonized. Early in the official description of the game Martin “Wiz” Anward, the Game Director of Victoria 3 said, “Victoria 3 is not a wargame or a game about map painting” – but surely that is only true if you don’t consider what happened in the colonies. And the whole world is going to be modelled…

The way the previous game, released in 2010, handles colonization is revealing. It’s clear from this how-to-play text that players are encouraged to colonize and it explains dispassionately how best to accomplish this goal.

Colonization is the process of turning states not owned by any state into colonies. It offers several important benefits for any nation that desires to be a Great power:

Colonies are one of the most effective ways to earn prestige in the game
They provide a nation with rare trade goods and increase the abundance of other goods.
They provide fairly large populations of Soldier POPs

… Later on the same page (emphasis mine)

Generally, if the player is the first to get Colonial Negotiations, and thus able to colonize, the rest of the major powers will quickly (if not immediately) follow suit due to the neighbor bonus. This causes a rush of colonization in the 1870s, especially in Africa where most empty provinces have life rating 10 or 15. (Historically, the Scramble for Africa began in 1881.) Any country who hasn’t researched Breech-Loaded Rifles by 1880 will probably miss the boat and find all of Africa already colonized.

From the Victoria 2 wiki hosted on the publisher’s site (though editable by anyone)

And as I note below, in Victoria 2 most of the un-colonised countries were labelled “primitive” and “uncivilized” in the game itself (though those labels were subsequently modified). The push-back by some fans when I raised these issues made me a little concerned, too.

Me: There’s a huge difference between saying “we model” slavery and economic exploitation and “we make sure you recognize that your empire is built on the misery of others”

Fan 1: Every empire in history has been built on the misery of others. By that logic we can’t play any strategy game without a 30 minute introduction cinematic about modern ethics whenever we start a game… What should they know, that they don’t already? The strongest/most advanced nations engaged in large scale colonialism and some in slavery, growing in power at the cost of the countries they colonialized, as it was for thousands of years before that, just on a bigger scale. Everybody knows this. As long as Paradox follows a balanced approach in implementing it, we don’t need moral proselytizing.

Fan 2: if you don’t deal with pops living in horrible conditions then they rebel

Me: 1) “everybody” doesn’t really know about the cost of colonialism. 2) My concern is about where the focus of the game is. Saying Victoria is “just a sandbox” is an abdication of responsibility. All games draw users’ attention to some aspects of what they simulate while minimising others for the sake of game play. I’d just like to make sure the designers think about the consequences of how they design this one…

It worries me that while the game may (or may not) accurately show the negative consequences of colonization on those who were colonized, much depends on whether or how the game chooses to highlight those consequences. The earlier game treats population unhappiness as problem to be solved in order to ensure your nation/empire can continue to grow politically and/or economically, rather than setting it up as something to worry about in itself (though you can choose to focus on it if you wish).

Maybe I am sensitive to this because at 55 I am old enough that even though (because?) I went to elite schools in Canada and the UK I recall being taught essentially that the British Empire was a force for good and that Canada managed to avoid the historical moral stains of our neighbours to the south. I worry that games like Victoria 3 might perpetuate that narrative.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. One fan told me, “So far a lot of the PDXCon talk panels [where staff talk about their design decisions] have been going into the darker and brutal areas of the period, and saying that they want to portray it for how it was. So i’m not too worried about them gamifying that, or covering it up”. I haven’t been able to find those discussions though in order to hear how it’s all framed.

There’s plenty of time for them to work through these issues as they design – the game is still under development and there’s no launch schedule. But looking at the way Vicky 2 seems to have been designed and listening to the way the team has described the product as it has been unveiled seems to me a little “tone deaf”. On the other hand a Victoria 3 game that allows you to play “from the bottom up” and really get a feeling for the struggle of the colonized could be a fantastic teaching tool. And a different perspective could actually make the game more interesting, too!

Update: Delighted to see that an academic historian has also weighed in on Victoria II and how it models reality – in much more detail than I was able to do here. Well worth a read and I look forward to more from Dr Devereaux as Victoria III approaches.

28 March 2013

Like many a tech-savvy parent I am trying to divert my kid’s gaming attention towards Minecraft – and with some success. There’s a ‘legacy’ iBook G4 he can use but getting the program to run at all was difficult and now that it is running, I have found it runs unusably slowly, even with all the graphical options I could find turned down (and with non-working sound). This to run a game that is deliberately designed to look ‘retro’ and which I imagine could have worked on a Mac LC c. 1990 if suitably coded! Since it’s a very popular game with a hyperactive development community I thought there was bound to be a way to make things work better. Alas, nothing I tried (Magic Launcher launching Optifine Light mainly) seemed to work and it took me several hours of forum reading, installation and tweaking to get this far.

It’s not a new observation but what makes older machines like my nine-year-old macbook obsolete does not actually seem to be the speed or capability of the underlying hardware but the steady ratcheting up of the assumptions that software makes. Somewhere (presumably in Java, which is Minecraft’s ‘environment’) I’m guessing there’s a whole load of un-necessary code that has been added in the last nine years which has dragged what should be a perfectly usable game down to a useless speed.

Just to drag this back to academic relevance for a moment, this is to my mind a good example of how the structure of the computer industry aggravates digital divides by gradually demanding users ‘upgrade’ their software to the point that their machines stop working, well before the end of their ‘natural’ lives.

PS If anyone has managed to get Minecraft working adequately on a Mac of similar vintage please share any tips…

12 January 2012

I remember this phenomenon from my computer journalism days. I had assumed this was long gone but it’s still around as captured by BBC News Online. Doubly depressing because the CEO of CES seemed to be defending the practice. And triply depressing because I suspect its place at the number one spot of the BBC’s video coverage on News Online at the moment is nothing to do with its critical stance and everything to do with the models being shown to illustrate the story.

Update: And even more depressing than the above – @aleksk tweets i received the worst & most graphic abuse i’ve ever had online when i applauded the ban of booth babes at E3 on Guardian Gamesblog in 2006.

All of which reminds me that on one press trip a major tech vendor took journalists for a ‘jolly’ to the Lido in Paris (like the Folies Bergeres) – you can imagine how the female journalists on the trip felt…

7 July 2009
Filed under:Arts Reviews,Computer Games at2:13 pm

My favorite meta-gaming webzine, The Escapist discusses the brief life and the Death of a Manifesto – Manifesto Games, which created by Greg Costikyan to get independent games into the market. The long and short of it is that several mainstream digital download game distributors have also taken to stocking indie games but Manifesto despite its visionary zeal has been unable to make a go of it.

An accompanying article asks “what does indie gaming mean anyway?” echoing arguments about mainstream vs indie art and music that have been discussed for centuries).

30 November 2008
Filed under:Computer Games,Software reviews at1:55 pm

I am familiar with having to wait until near Xmas to get new PC games but this year whether it’s because PC gaming (in my favourite genres) is in terminal decline, because the financial crisis is crushing game companies or just terminal incompetence by game makers, I’ve got practically nothing new to play before the new year.

I grow weary of playing Supreme Commander – good as it is – since it seems there’s little that can be done to beat low tech rushes but the modest expansion planned for it has been cancelled and while a version 2 has been announced there is no info about when it will ship. I really enjoyed Company of Heroes, but there’s only a very minor expansion for it coming – still no sign of an Eastern Front version. I was willing to give Battlefield Heroes a try – particularly as it will be free to play – but it’s been delayed until next year too.

The only minor gaming treat coming my way is a small (but badly needed) expansion for Sins of a Solar Empire – Entrenchment. It won’t ship until 2009 either but at least pre-orderers can join the beta when it’s available.

29 May 2008

Pat Miller explains how to surf the web, word process, email, do instant messaging and even make Internet phone calls all with a Nintendo DS.

Mind you, at least in the UK at £79 the DS is actually more expensive than an XO (the “one laptop per child“) would be (if we could buy one), and of course it lacks a keyboard. But doing all that on something that was designed to play simple games would certainly be good for one’s geek cred.

25 October 2006

Back when I used to write for MacUser (14 years ago!) I had a column called “Brake’s Bunch” where I used to write about various shareware utilities, games and other files which I had found. Then I left the Mac fold for a while… but now that I am back I have slid back into the habit of gathering bits and pieces and installing them. So here is a moderately frequently updated roundup of the freeware, shareware and open source stuff I have accumulated since I got my ibook in the hope it will help some of you (this post seems to be one of the most-read ones so I hope it works!). Unless otherwise noted these are available in PC and/or Linux versions as well – if I don’t provide a link it’s because you should be able to find them by Googling for them or using MacUpdate or Version Tracker to find the relevant files. If you think there’s another game/app/utility I should take a look at or there’s a different utility available that does the same things as one I mentioned but does them better please let me know!

Items added since last major update (March) are italicised.
Alphababy – Lets your baby have fun bashing the keyboard of your Mac – it pops up shapes and makes sounds whatever they press and makes sure other applications running aren’t affected by what is typed. Whether it is a good idea to encourage your baby to bash your keyboard is up to you to decide!
Army Operations 2.5 – The best (certainly the most advanced) free game available – a first person perspective shooter. Enjoy it while you can as last I heard the guy supporting it on the Mac is no longer going to keep it up to date with the (dominant) PC version.
FreeCiv – an open source, customisable offshoot of Civ II.
triplea – A WW II strategic level game being developed as open source. The AI is basic to non-existent but if they get that and other niggling bugs sorted out it looks promising
The Ur-Quan Masters – a multi-platform port of a classic “explore the galaxy in your ship and negotiate with/kill aliens” adventure/combat game. The best Mac variant is here.
Xconq-MacOSX – An excellent open source empire building game based on the original “Empire” game. Graphically unimpressive but offers loads of options for different modes of play.
Privateer Gold – An open source copy of Wing Commander Privateer (with some added features).
Audacity – Great open source audio editing and recording software
Chicken of the VNC – Lets me view the screen of a machine running VNC server and control it remotely (handy for using both my wife’s PC and my Mac at the same time).
Conversation – Free IRC client
Cyberduck – FTP client
Comic Life – An excellent little app that lets you take pictures from your own collection, add comic-book style speech balloons etc and create your own comic book. It’s not freeware but you can try it out for a month before it starts putting a watermark on anything you do.
Fire – Multi-platform instant message client. Similar to Proteus – which one you use is probably a matter of taste…
FreeMind – A Java-based mind mapping application
galerie – A (mac only) add-on for iPhoto that makes it easy to create photo galleries using your available web space. OK to use but I am using Flickr for this these days.
Grapher – Cool free graphing calculator
Nvu – Handy WYSIWYG web page editing software
Transana – Excellent open source software to aid transcription of video and audio files – in Alpha on the Mac but still worth checking out.

Active Timer – Tracks the amount of time you spend in each application on your Mac. A pretty basic feature set but it’s easy to use and it’s free.
AudioScrobbler – Tracks what you listen to in iTunes and automatically creates a profile for you on last.fm which should help you find music you like. Its support for Classical music is rubbish (it doesn’t handle the ‘composer’ tag) but otherwise well worth a look.
Aurora – An alarm clock for your Mac that ties in with iTunes – excellent!
BluePhoneMenu – Handy utility for controlling a bluetooth phone via your Mac. Since superceded by BluePhone Elite which offers more features but is shareware. Still downloadable, though.
Compost – Lets you control the way the Trash works so you can instantly delete big unwanted files without flushing all of the files in the trash unneccessarily.
Default Folder X – gives you much better control of which folder you open when you get the open/save dialogue on your Mac (as well as adding lots of other misc features). Reminds me of a very early Mac addon, ‘Boomerang’. (I still don’t know why this isn’t a part of the OS by now).
Delocalizer 1.1 – Gets rid of foreign language support files you are not using to free up hard disk space.
ION, the Open Media Network and DTV – Trying to make it easy to find and download internet video podcasts.
Greasemonkey – an add-on to Firefox that enables lots of useful enhancements to your web browsing – like Quicksilver (below) it’s something you have to try before you see what use it can be.
Eyehide – makes it easy to create an invisible, password-protected folder to hide files you don’t want everyone to have access to (so you can retain some privacy without password protecting your whole computer against everyone).
Mailtags – Must-have utility for organizing Apple Mail messages (see this post)
Memory Usage Getter – (also measures CPU usage) Figure out which of your applications is a memory or CPU hog and figure out if you need more RAM.
Quıcĸsilver – Swiss army knife keyboard shortcut application many rave about but I haven’t really delved into yet.
R-Name – Easy way to change several file names at the same time on your Mac.
Romeo – Excellent free Mac application to let you control your Mac (eg your iTunes or your Powerpoint presentation) using your Bluetooth phone
Screen Spanning Doctor – Use more than one screen or use a large screen at > 1024×768 with your iBook by installing this.
SimpleWget – Provides a basic non-control-line interface to Wget which automates copying web sites onto your hard disk for later browsing.
SMARTReporter – May be able to warn you in advance when your disk is in danger of failing.
Synk – easy-to-use file synchronisation and full disk backup app for the Mac – free to academic users, cheap for others.
Textpander – (Mac only but PC options are also available) – automatically substitutes text for other text in every application you type in – useful for common mis-spellings and can also insert the date when you type “ddate” etc.
Time Out – Warns you to take a break away from the keyboard (Mac only)
Tidy Up! – Find duplicate files
TinkerTool – gives you access to additional preference settings Apple has built into Mac OS X
VLC video player – Excellent player for many kinds of video content – more versatile than Quicktime for this and includes a full-screen mode (which Quicktime ‘basic’ does not).
WhatSize Disk Inventory X – Lets you see at a glance where the big files and folders are on your hard disk so you can free up space.
WireTap Pro – Shareware Mac utility that lets you record streamed audio into files for later listening.
Yasu 1.3.1 – Performs various low-level Mac (UNIX) “maintenance” operations. Use with caution. I have to say I only used it once so far because I am not clear what it does or why I would need it…

Update: Widgets!
How could I forget the widgets I have found (through Apple’s directory) and installed? In truth I don’t use them all that much but they are occasionally useful…

Countdown Plus – Tells you how long you have before something happens or is due.
iStat Nano – Shows memory, network and CPU use etc
CharacterPal – reminds you of the keypresses needed to produce special characters, accents etc. Also see Symbols which is not as intuitive but more powerful, including info on how to generate them in HTML as well as in Mac documents etc.
Decor – lets you stick a picture up on your dashboard
Air Traffic Control – Lets you see all of the wireless networks in your area and whether they are secure or not.
quikconvert – converts between lots of different units including currencies – just type in the number and the unit type and it will figure out what you are trying to convert to.

UK users in particular may want to check out these:
BBC Weather – lets you see the weather forecast in your area in the UK or around the world for the next 5 days. Much better (and prettier) than the US one included as standard.
Postage Calculator (Royal Mail)
Trains – see the train timetable of your choice

14 February 2006

According to this summary of a recent study at York University in Toronto,

A body of research suggests that playing video games provides benefits similar to bilingualism in exercising the mind. Just as people fluent in two languages learn to suppress one language while speaking the other, so too are gamers adept at shutting out distractions to swiftly switch attention between different tasks.

Je suis le champion mental du monde alors!

8 January 2006

Ad for CivAnon
(Yes there is a site you can visit if you click on the ad).

It’s a good thing I can only play Civilization IV on my wife’s computer – if it ran on my Mac, my productivity would be nil. It is fun though – dare I say more fun than Civ III? The new version requires a lot less micro-management than Civ III did.

P.S. I interviewed Civ’s creator, Sid Meier, back in 2002 when he was promoting Civ III (and I’ve got a picture to prove it).

25 October 2005
Filed under:Computer Games,Personal at1:53 pm

“Teh Newbian Institute for Madder Skillz” or to translate to non-gamer-speak “The Institute for Novice Game Players teaching Improved Skills”.

I love games but I am basically crap at playing them (I guess because I am 25 years away from my ‘peak’ gaming age)

Penny arcade cartoon

From Penny Arcade

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