Africa in Sid Meier’s Civilization Series

Cross-posted from Medium.com

I have played Sid Meier’s Civilization series since the third game came out back in 2001. Most recently I got the sixth iteration on opening day last October, and so far it’s been every bit as engrossing as its predecessors (even if I’m a bit impatient for the modding tools to come out already). As much as they’ve deserved the showers of praise they’ve received over the years, there is one recurring trend in the games that I find rather bizarre and maybe even a bit troublesome. I am talking specifically about how they’ve tended to represent Africa and its indigenous cultures.

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The kingdom of Kongo and its leader Mvemba a Nzinga, as represented in Civilization VI

 

No, I’m not submitting a clickbait-style accusation that Sid Meier and his development team are all racist against Africans or other non-Europeans. For the most part they’ve always done an alright job of incorporating cultures from across the world into their series. Europe has tended to be disproportionately represented among the playable civilizations, but perhaps that’s to be expected given the creators’ Euro-American cultural roots. Otherwise almost every game in the series has included several nations from regions as different as the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, and Africa. In fact, discounting those civilizations which might be added in the expansion packs, each base Civilization game tends to feature precisely two African civilizations.

That wouldn’t be so problematic, except the first African civilization is almost always ancient Egypt, and the games (like most other media) typically misrepresent this as a “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern” civilization of stereotypically Arab-looking people. Often Cleopatra VII, a queen from the originally Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty, is chosen as the Egyptian leader, as seen in the most recent Civilization VI.

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Cleopatra VII as the leader of Egypt in Civilization VI. This is what the other 50% of African civilizations in each Civilization base game tend to look like.

This leaves us with only one civilization from Africa per base game that is portrayed as dark-skinned, or what some might call “Black African”. Exactly which civilization fills this slot varies across the series. In Civilization III, it was the Zulu from South Africa. In IV, it was Mali. V’s introduction was the Songhai, another West African empire that rose after Mali, and most recently in VI it’s the kingdom of Kongo in Central Africa. But the basic trend has remained the same throughout the series’s history: on opening day, you get one black civilization and one whitewashed (or should that be tan-washed?) ancient Egypt. Two slots for Africa, and only one of them is portrayed as genuinely African at all.

It’s uncannily equivalent to the old “Token Black Guy” trope.

To be fair, the expansion packs that have been a staple of the series sometimes add more black nations. Civilization IV’s expansions added Ethiopia and the Zulu to join Mali, and this same pairing reappeared in the expansions for V. Only time will tell what the inevitable expansion for VI will include (although I’m confident the Zulu will pop up again at some point). Clearly the developers are aware of multiple civilizations in Africa other than Egypt. But that’s the thing, if Sid Meier and his team have that knowledge, why do they insist on starting out with only one slot for Black Africa every time they begin a new iteration of the series? Why delay the addition of others to the expansion packs? It’s a truly strange policy for a series that is otherwise above-average in its representation of the non-European world.

Thankfully the newest addition, Civilization VI, corrects one other trend in representing Africa that the other games have gotten wrong. Between Civilization III and V, African nations tended to be portrayed as having the same“Middle Eastern” look to their cities and human units as the Babylonians, Persians, Arabs, etc., with only their unique units (e.g. the Zulu Impi or Malian Skirmisher) having dark instead of tan skin. Even their background music sounded more Arabic than African, especially in the case of the fifth game. But at least Kongo in the new game has distinctly African architecture and dark-skinned units distinct from the rest.

We can only hope that, when Civilization VII launches in a half-decade or so, they stop limiting their civilization roster to one token black civilization. The very least they could do is give their Egyptians a bit more melanin next time, as they should.

Until then, I guess I’ll have to wait until VI’s modding tools come around to rectify this.

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Science reporting fails on roaring dinosaurs

If you follow the news on things paleontological, you may have seen reports like this coming out in the press within the past few days:

Dinosaurs Probably Didn’t Roar, But Some Definitely Quacked

And I’m going to tell you why this is most probably bullshit.

The finding they reference (paper here) is a fossilized syrinx (avian vocal organ) found in a late Cretaceous bird. Since this structure apparently can fossilize yet hasn’t been found in non-avian dinosaurs yet, the researchers conclude that non-avian dinosaurs didn’t have a syrinx like modern birds do. Fair enough, it might go to show that dinosaurs couldn’t make sounds exactly like those of birds.

However, what the reporters concluding from this that “dinosaurs couldn’t roar” don’t know enough to tell you is that syrinxes aren’t the only way animals make noise. In fact, most other tetrapods vocalize through a different organ called a larynx. That’s what we use, and that’s what crocodilians (the dinosaurs’ second-closest living relatives) use too. And presumably it’s also what every animal that can actually roar uses too. So as long as dinosaurs vocalized using a larynx rather than the avian syrinx, then yes, roaring would well remain within possibility for them. We may not know whether they did, since I don’t think a larynx is tissue that would fossilize easily, but since the larynx is found in all other reptiles excluding birds, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose dinosaurs had that feature too.

So don’t worry, the new finding doesn’t say non-avian dinosaurs couldn’t roar. It only means they couldn’t tweet like birds.

On urban/contemporary fantasy

In the vast majority of stories that fall into the urban/contemporary fantasy genre—I’m talking Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight or any other paranormal romance, and for that matter most stories about the so-called paranormal—the existence of supernatural or fanciful elements is always presented as this kind of incredible surprise to the main characters. They grow up thinking that stuff doesn’t really exist, they don’t know whether they believe it when they first see it, and the people they talk to about it are always skeptical or incredulous. Often it’s meant to be kept secret or hidden from the ignorant masses, and sometimes there’s a message thrown in there about how “not everything can be rationally/scientifically explained”.

I know this isn’t the genre to quibble about realism, but I for one question why, if the supernatural were in fact real, its very existence would need to be hidden or suppressed like that. You’d think it would be out in the open and everyone would take it for granted the way we do seasons or tides. Maybe we wouldn’t have an accurate explanation for the phenomena, but at least the majority of us would acknowledge its empirical existence and take it for granted. Right now, I feel the treatment of the supernatural in urban and contemporary fantasy as something that has to be uncovered has led to so many regurgitations of a certain setup formula that it’s getting trite. Having the supernatural become a widely accepted facet of daily life in an urban/fantasy setting would erase the need for that formula and provide writers in the genre with the opportunity to choose other setups.

Enough with the “hidden magical world” dead horse.

The Good Dinosaur

I saw this the day after Thanksgiving, and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t care that much more for it. Although I found the plot threadbare and derivative like other critics, what bugged me the most were the design and world-building elements.

The backdrops were indeed gorgeously rendered, which made the dinosaur characters’ lazy and cartoonish designs appear all the more jarring. But the subarctic choice of environment made its ripping influences off Ice Age even more obvious and didn’t really fit the particular dinosaur species they chose. It’s true that there were dinosaurs living in temperate climates near the poles during the Mesozoic, but all the stock species shown in the film were better adapted to tropical or subtropical conditions that were much more widespread back then. If you’re going to drop Apatosaurus or Tyrannosaurus rex in the modern New World, somewhere in Central or South America, or maybe the southeastern United States (e.g. Florida or Louisiana) would suit them better than chilly Wyoming or Montana.

I did like the idea of tyrannosaurs herding livestock; they were one of the few elements in the movie I enjoyed. On the other hand, considering all the evergreen foliage surrounding them, I thought the sauropods growing maize for the winter was superfluous (and what use would herbivores have for chickens anyway)? As for Spot, not only was he awfully European-looking for a story set in ancient North America (despite his Native American flute leitmotif), but the whole “non-verbal Cro-Magnon” trope (as well as the “something that isn’t a dog acts like a dog” joke) is getting kinda old.

It’s not the worst animated movie I’ve ever seen, but it was underwhelming. The opening short with the Hindu superheroes showed more imagination.

Deleted Comment to “Go Make Me a Sandwich” Blog

So I decided to pay the “Go Make Me a Sandwich” blog on feminism in gaming a visit and left the following comment on a recent post about the Dungeons and Dragons manuals. The blog owner removed my comment—not by actually erasing it from view as you can see, but by excising my text and then pasting a silly meme in its place. Since it is a privately owned blog, I suppose this is within her right, even  if I feel it is discouraging dialogue by censoring dissent. But for those of you visiting her blog and curious what my post said, let me provide it for you:

With regards to the entire trend of so-called “sexualization” of female characters in art, there is a simple explanation for that. Straight male artists, myself included, like drawing pictures of hot women. Always have, always will. This predates patriarchy as a social institution by thousands upon thousands of years. And it’s not an impulse exclusive to straight males either, as a casual glance at the romance section in most bookstores will show you. Nothing more to it than good ol’ emotions inspiring art.

And it’s not necessarily sexism either. There is a world of difference between sexual desire inspiring art and restricting one sex’s opportunities or denying their humanity. Even so-called “objectification” is more about LIMITING one sex to a certain role (namely tool of reproduction) than simply appreciating their sex appeal. The female characters you’re complaining about may have been designed with sex appeal in mind (although in many cultures around the world, showing more skin is a daily fact of life), but they’re hardly barefoot-and-pregnant types with no agency.

On the other hand, you do raise a valid point about double standards in how men and women in this kind of art are represented, but I would chalk that up to male artists predominating this genre. Part of that might have more to do with more men than women being interested in art of this genre, but I wouldn’t rule out gender discrimination in hiring artists either.

Humor is Hard

There is a stereotype that people diagnosed with autism don’t have a sense of humor. I can’t speak for everyone across the spectrum, but as one guy on the Asperger’s side, I can vouch that this stereotype doesn’t completely apply to me. Whether or not my sense of humor is on the same level as the typical non-autistic, I’m confident that I have at least some ability to tell and laugh at jokes. But on the other hand, I do believe that being funny can be a challenging skill to develop whether or not you’re on the spectrum.

For myself, the problem often isn’t thinking of jokes so much as it is picking ones my audience will appreciate. This is especially the case if my punchline requires familiarity with the subject at hand. For example, a joke about anthropology, history, or paleontology would go over most laypeople’s heads, because they’d have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. A lot of jokes work through linking separate pieces of knowledge or conventional wisdom that most wouldn’t associate together, so they’re bound to flop before an uninformed audience.

Maybe this explains the stereotype of the humorously challenged autistic. We could joke all day about our pet obsessions, but anticipating what everyone else knows about them is not our strong area.

The other big challenge is that, personally, I have a soft spot for jokes poking at society’s idea of polite decorum or good taste. Or in other words, so-called “dirty” or “vulgar” humor. I’m not talking about the pointless raunchiness of certain teen comedies, or the vicious bigotry that trolls post on blogs or message boards because they can’t think of a punchline. Vulgarity by itself is not funny, but it can be a delicious spice to a joke if you use it properly.

Like, I thought it was hilarious when Borat wrestled his producer naked in that hotel, and both of those hairy unattractive guys rolled out into that nice hotel lobby in front of all those people. And then there was that flashback from Superbad when Seth Rogen’s character admitted to drawing all those penises when he was a little kid. There’s a brazen, taboo-busting audacity to those scenes that I have a special admiration for.

Another example of “dirty” jokes that I like are the ones that prod at so-called “touchy” subjects, the ones usually considered “politically incorrect”. Stephen Colbert’s comparing the Washington Redskins to a hypothetical “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” from a couple of years back is one example, and I thought it was genius. It was clear to me that Colbert was mocking the team’s racist name by showing how similar it was to slurs most of us would recognize as offensive. It distressed me to see all those dumb kids on Twitter crying #CancelColbert, as if they thought Colbert was being serious (I can only presume they were starved for pseudo-radical brownie points).

Unfortunately it’s precisely those kinds of jokes which I’m sometimes afraid of telling even though I like them so much. I don’t want to alienate certain friends of mine who might take my humor the wrong way, or take offense to its punchline. One time I suggested, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that the dinosaurs might have died off because the Jews poisoned their water. I meant it as a mockery of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and scapegoating, but a few people took it the wrong way and accused me of anti-Jewish bigotry or Nazism. Others said it was just tasteless.

Personally, I believe jokes are only as tasteless or offensive as their premises. It’s not the topic of the joke that matters, but what you say about that topic. That’s why genuinely racist (or sexist, or whatever) jokes aren’t my cup of tea; they require the acceptance of racist premises in order to work. Jokes that mock racism on the other hand can be very funny, because even if they prod a sensitive subject in an unorthodox way, in the end their premise is progressive. The best jokes are those with heart no matter their veneer.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Rotten Tomatoes may have it ranked at 98% fresh today, but after seeing the Mad Max reboot for myself, I have to say I came out disappointed.

I wouldn’t say it was an outright terrible movie. The explosive road chases would be a blast to watch if I knew what was going on and what the stakes were, but therein lay my big problem with it: the story was even more threadbare than many of the characters’ costumes. There were shreds of exposition and character development scattered here and there, but not enough to weave them together into something coherent that answered all the questions raised. I got that the protagonist Max is scarred by guilt for past failures to protect certain people, that for some reason he’s teaming up with this chick who’s escorting “breeders” in white dresses across the desert, and that the antagonist is a theocratic tyrant who controls the local water supply…but that’s all I could glean. There were seeds of a good story here, but without water for them to grow, the movie ended up a chaotic mess.

And while I could tell a lot of work went into designing the costumes and vehicles, the “post-apocalyptic” environment outside the bad guy’s “Citadel” was rather underwhelming. It’s almost all flat desert with only the odd canyon, mesa, or sand dunes to break up the scenery. Putting aside how dreary I think such environments can look and how overused they are for this kind of setting, I would have expected more signs of a fallen civilization lying around to get across the post-apocalyptic theme. Why not, say, some crumbling skyscrapers, fragmented highways, or even the dusty remains of a roadside diner? This kind of backdrop doesn’t look like anyone ever lived here even before the nebulous apocalypse that set this whole story off.

At least there’s still Jurassic World to look forward to in less than a month.

On Fan Art as a Strategy for Artistic Popularity

Cross-posted from my DeviantArt journal on April 18th, 2015, with some minor editing.

I prompted myself to type this post up after a brief conversation I had with certain Twitter friends, who share my involvement in the online art community, on the topic of amateur artists who specialize in fan art. The position we agreed on was that while there’s nothing wrong with drawing fan art by itself (since so many of us have done it ourselves from time to time), specializing in it is overrated as a strategy for amateur artists to reach a large audience. Unfortunately Twitter isn’t the most conducive medium to thoughtful in-depth discussions, so I’m expanding on this thesis here on my blog.

Truthfully I’m not even sold on the conventional wisdom that fan art is guaranteed attracts more attention from the online community is invariably true. It appears to hinge on the premise that people connect better to widely recognizable characters from popular culture than what individual artists create from their own imaginations. That has a kernel of accuracy insofar as some characters and stories receive more public exposure than others, but the problem is this doesn’t always mean people genuinely like those intellectual properties more than their less broadcasted brethren.

The sad truth of modern pop culture is that it’s far from ideally meritocratic. If anything, inducing public irritation or outrage reaps as much profit and cultural exposure as producing quality work; you’re just as likely to see infamously bad books and movies sell for mountains of money as you are books and movies that everyone likes. Notoriety has practically become the currency of the 21st century. What this means for the amateur art community is that the characters who attract the most attention won’t always be the solid, multidimensional ones that everyone would earnestly like, but simply the “trendy” ones supported by today’s most aggressive advertising campaign. Lots of quality characters from quality stories get shoved away from the spotlight, so even the most heartfelt fan art celebrating them is at a disadvantage compared to art featuring whatever gets promoted the most at the time.

In conclusion, drawing fan art as a specialty probably has less power to attract a broad online audience than many in the amateur art community claim. The strategy would only work if fan artists just drew what was currently the most visible (but not necessarily the most well-received) than what they truly enjoyed themselves, but what amateur artist really wants to do that?