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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.

15 February 2010
Filed under:Call for help,Software reviews at10:05 am

I would like to give my students a web-based way to book appointments to see me which would then sync with my calendar. Features needed:

  • They should be able to request a booking without registering and see my calendar with busy parts greyed out.
  • I should be able to approve, modify or deny appointment requests and have the approval or denial notification sent to them.

I have been struggling with Timebridge for a while now which does much of this but it doesn’t let me modify students’ appointment requests – it only lets me approve them (if I want to suggest another time I have to do so by hand). It also doesn’t seem to check to see whether I am actually available when people try to book times.

With Google Calendar I can display my availability but as far as I can tell I would need to have students all register with GCal to add appointments and I would have to make each of them my ‘friend’. Same with Yahoo (which seems to have invented a new category called “special friends” who can edit calendar entries!). Calgoo seems not to be working and Doodle seems to require users to register and to require me to suggest times instead of the student.

Any ideas? Surely this is not too unusual a requirement?

5 February 2010
Filed under:Call for help,Software reviews at10:49 am

I have been using tweetdeck for a while but have a few issues with it:

  • I can’t do a keyword search across my twitter feeds so if I want to find a tweet from several days ago I am out of luck.
  • If I clear the tweets I have read I can’t then see how to get them back (but conversely they seem to re-appear when I restart)
  • There are several people who I follow but who also show up in a twitter list I follow (@nancybaym/internetresearchers). I would like their posts to be set to “read” when I read them in another column.
  • I would like to be able to say “mark this and all previous tweets as read” so I don’t have to read all the way to the “top” of my tweets before I mark them all read.

Surely these are not un-feasable features? Does anyone know a decent twitter client which can deliver on some or all of these?

28 February 2009

I’ve been going through my thesis and checking all my chapter and sub-section references so they point to the right section after edits. A friend (thanks Bruce!)  just pointed out that there’s a feature in Word that – if I had known about it – would have saved me the trouble.

“If you did your section and chapter headings with a suitable heading style, and put in the references with insert cross-reference -> numbered item, it should indeed renumber them automatically.”

I can’t believe I have been using Word for over 20 years (!) and never discovered that feature.  I am also a little put out that nobody told me about it. So I hope this helps someone else (though I fear it may be a little late for me).

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.

23 November 2008

Evernote doesn’t work nearly as well offline as I had hoped – am sticking with it for the moment out of sheer cussedness but it’s less convenient than my old solution. The iPod Touch update that adds podcast downloading wirelessly which I was also looking forward to doesn’t let you automatically add new podcasts you are subscribed to – it only lets you subscribe to new ones or add podcasts manually (and then only if you already have at least one file downloaded for that podcast). The Touch doesn’t have a built in password protection option for files – how dumb is that? (I’m trying out SplashID Lite as a data store for starters). And the new S2 Skypephone which I am thinking of getting as a cheaper alternative to the Nokia 6220 is all very well but as far as I can tell there’s still no way to sync it with one’s address book using my Mac’s iSync (and my memory of the PC syncing software available with the original Skypephone is that it was dire).


15 November 2008

Evernote, which has had a lot of good press for its note taking/todo application, has finally added offline reading to its feature list for the iPhone and iPod Touch… kind of. It’s feature rich enough that I have switched to using it over the previous work-around I found (using the address book as a todo list) but I’m hoping they’ll upgrade the app more soon.

I was curious to try out Google’s new voice and video chat (though Skype works just fine for me). I was pleased to hear that they had both a Mac and a PC version but when I went to install on my iBook G4 I was told the application doesn’t support PPC Macs. That’s the first time I’ve come across an Intel-only Mac application, though I guess it probably isn’t the last! It’s probably not enough to persuade my wife I need to get a new Mac though…

27 January 2007
Filed under:Interesting facts,Software reviews at1:03 pm

Did you know that there’s a perfectly usable OCR package built into Microsoft Office for Windows? I managed to lose the install disk for the software that came with my scanner so imagine my relief when I found out about it. I gather the next version of Word in Office 2007 comes with a blog posting tool. Reminds me of the Flanders and Swann song about the rhino whose “bodger on his bonce” (odd thing on his nose) is good for opening tin cans, picking up litter and removing stones from horse’s hooves but alas rarely gets the chance to do any of those things.

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

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