Heartache by the number

This week I’ve been having a think about numbers. The particular numbers I’ve been thinking about are population figures. I have beef with the sheer number of people I see in games and films set in historical and fantasy – or, hell, even post-apocalyptic – settings. The tragedy of the antiquarian is that they will notice factual errors in someone else’s storytelling, even though stories are what they love most. I’ll go into more detail about that theory at a later date, but for now I want to go back to my conundrum.

The following chart has been hurriedly cobbled together from half a dozen Wikipedia pages. In no way does it constitute serious academic figures. I did look for studies reflecting population growth Vs technological innovation, but oddly academics don’t really go in for meta-history like that.

Year McEvedy & Jones population estimate Developments Setbacks
−10,000 4,000,000 Mesolithic
−8000 5,000,000* Agriculture
−5000 5,000,000 Neolithic
−4000 7,000,000
−3000 14,000,000 Bronze Age Writing
−2000 27,000,000
−1000 50,000,000 Iron Age
−500 100,000,000
−200 150,000,000
0 170,000,000
200 190,000,000
400 190,000,000
500 190,000,000
600 200,000,000 Middle Ages
700 210,000,000
800 220,000,000
900 240,000,000
1000 265,000,000
1100 320,000,000
1200 360,000,000
1300 360,000,000 Black Death
1400 350,000,000 Printing press developed
1500 425,000,000 Industrial revolution
1600 545,000,000 Modern History
1650 545,000,000 Innoculation adopted
1700 610,000,000
1750 720,000,000
1800 900,000,000
1850 1,200,000,000
1875 1,325,000,000
1900 1,625,000,000 Spanish Flu
1925 2,000,000,000 Penicillin invented
1950 2,500,000,000 Nuclear Cold War
1975 3,900,000,000 Growth in computing
2000 5,750,000,000

* McEvedy & Jones don’t provide an estimate. This comes from the Population Reference Bureau

I’ll be honest, I was hoping to show that technological advancements were responsible for major population growth around the world, and if your game is set in the iron age, it should be reflected in the population figures. This is probably the appropriate place to give a nod to Jeff Mummert’s ‘Modding Skyrim’ piece on Play the Past which provided at least the starting point for the chain of ideas which led to this particular post.

For those who are wondering, I haven’t included your favorite war/catastrophe/disease because it didn’t actually do that much damage. At most, the entries in my ‘setbacks’ column amount to single digit percentage eradication of the human race. For real threats to human existence you have to go back 70,000 years to the Toba event. But we don’t have time for that.

I’m not sure I really achieved my aim of demonstrating a causal link between technological innovation and population growth. I tried to construct a population density column, but couldn’t get it to produce numbers which looked even vaguely realistic (15 people per square meter?). If a decent example does exist, I heartily recommend games and film studios make use of it. I’d certainly like to hear about it in the comments.

The bottom line is this; your fictional world has to be able to support your fictional population. Don’t give me any of that ‘the food is produced elsewhere and shipped in’ crap. If it’s practical to live off your surroundings, that’s what a population will do. Human beings don’t just sit around in taverns waiting for adventurers to come along so that they can dish out quests. Film and game studios have a tendency to ramp up scales for the sake of drama, but just once it would be nice to experience a game where the character is truly alone.

And replacing people with aliens and zombies doesn’t count.

Edit 03/02/2014 over the weekend my partner pointed out that there does seem to be a pretty significant population drop following the Black Death (10 million people less than the previous century). It is worth pointing out that this was also the time when then mongols were on the rampage. It was not a happy century.

A Quiet Word With: Epic Rap Battles of History’s Nice Peter

For History Mine’s first ever interview, I thought it was important to send a message about the kind of interactions between history and modern culture that we want to see more of. To that end I had a word with Nice Peter, part of the team behind the massively successful YouTube series Epic Rap Battles of History.

History Mine: History, rap and YouTube are an inspired combination, but not an obvious one. How did the channel come about?

Nice Peter: Lloyd Ahlquist came to my apartment, and told me about a hip hop improv show he was performing in. There was a game in that show, where he and Zach Sherwin (later to play Einstein among others) took suggestions of famous people from the audience and did an improvised rap battle. I was at a point in my career where I saw everything through the lens of a YouTube video, and this idea was no exception. It struck me as a great concept, and after Lloyd and I recorded a quick demo example, I got very excited and started flushing out the idea in my head. I reached out to my small but attentive audience on YouTube, and asked them for suggestions.

One that stood out immediately was John Lennon vs Bill O’Rielly. It had a special, quirky mix of characters that really set the tone for the series. I started putting together the full concept, a rap battle that takes place in a surreal, trans-dimensional space, with an other worldly announcer who is bringing together two characters from any time and place to settle their ideological differences in a funny exchange of insults set to music. The idea was clear to me, but pulling it off was not something I could do myself.

Maker Studios paired me up with Dave McCary, our director and editor. When I told him my strange hazy idea he understood it immediately, and guided us through making it a reality on screen. Lloyd and I wrote and recorded the song ourselves, and together with Dave and one camera operator, filmed it in front of a green piece of cloth. Dave created a logo to go with the announcer’s voice, and together we refined the edit until it was a fast, flashy and entertaining little burst of history and comedy. That first video was not a hit, but the reception was strong enough to get us to try again.

Our second battle was taken from the suggestions left on the first, and came out as Darth Vader vs Adolf Hitler. That video got featured on the front page of YouTube, front page of Reddit, got banned in Germany and Poland, and never stopped spreading. The iTunes sales from that song and some of my earlier YouTube songs enabled me to move out of my apartment and into a small recording studio. Although we had no shower and no kitchen, we could suddenly make noise 24/7, and a whole new world opened up to me. Over time, as the rap battles continued to grow, it became clear that I should focus more and more of my energy on it, and it also became clear that it was growing into something larger.

HM: How much research do you do into each person? Is there a balance between getting good dirt, and making sure your audience is aware of it?

NP: I do as much research as I possibly can in the time I have. Our earlier matchups were between characters I already knew and loved. As we went, we had to dive into new people and become true fans of their work and life. I think real jokes can only come out when you know the person inside and out. There is a balance; we want one third of our jokes to appeal to everyone, one third to only those who know a bit about the history of the characters, and one third to make real die hard fans say “oh snap… you did not just reference p-branes”.

HM: Do you think other people working at the cross-section of history and modern culture could learn something from your approach?

NP: I think we enable and inspire our audience to do their own learning. We write jokes that some kids don’t get when they hear them, but because they enjoy our videos and songs, they are motivated to dive in, to learn about why we chose those words. We get passionate about our subjects, and we express that passion in our own way. I don’t think anyone can learn from my approach because I learned my own methods from watching other independent content creators online. We all have a lot to learn from each other.

HM: How the hell did you convince Snoop to pretend to be Moses?

NP: Lol. I wrote him a spec rap in the voice of Moses, and sent it to his management. He thought it was funny, and agreed.

Thank you Nice Peter!

Staring down the beast

Earlier today I read an article where Leonardo DiCaprio claimed that his latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is “like a modern-day Caligula”. I have neither seen the film, nor met the two-thousand-and-two-year-old Roman emperor, so perhaps I’m not the best qualified person to examine this comparison. But if no-one else is going to do it, I’d like to have a crack, because there’s more to be gained from this than meets the eye.

First though, it’s worth having a think at the millions of different ways history interacts with the modern world – because it does, a lot. Films, music, books, television shows, games, websites; it is everywhere. The example above might seem like a one-off, but believe me it isn’t. I had the idea for this blog yesterday, and since then I have seen at come across at least half a dozen other examples that would have been equally decent ways to kick off this discussion. This was the week that Michael Gove picked a fight with Baldrick and when the BBC aired a programme about Britain’s national debut in full-contact battle re-enactment.

Maybe it’s to be expected. After all ‘history’ is a very loose, amorphous term for something which has been going on for a *long* time. I’m certainly not about to try and pin it down and duct-tape a definition to it. That kind of behaviour is counter-productive and way more effort than it’s worth. When viewed in comparison, ‘modern culture’ seems to be all hype. Bitcoin  might seem exciting now, but you have to remember that before that, the most exciting innovation on our horizon was just a mobile phone welded to a pair of glasses (which *still* hasn’t had a market debut yet).

And yet, ‘modern culture’ is happening to all of us, right now. Each of us keeps bumping into history in our daily lives, and we drag it into others’ as well. Part of the inspiration for this blog was from a tweet by an industry professional lamenting the fact that pages about Skyrim and beer had a higher PageRank for the term ‘standing stones’ than archaeological sites. Mark my words when I say this is No Bad Thing.

As for Leo; he’s right, but he’s wrong. Caligula was groomed for a high rank from an early age by his great uncle, and his entire family was killed off amid political intrigue that led to him being the natural successor to a throne he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed. By contrast, Jordan Belfort, the central character of The Wolf of Wall Street was born a relative nobody, chose his own path, and is still with us today. But, yes. Both men were young and had more power than they knew what to do with. DiCaprio used the word “like”, so we can’t get too critical.

The thing that I really want to draw attention to is the fact that a top-flight professional actor (an American who is constantly surrounded by fans and journalists and film types) felt that the best comparison he could make for a story that he helped tell, was with a long-dead dude from another continent. People like to claim that we learn about history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. That is demonstrably not true. Human beings have and will always make mistakes. We are infinitely fallible, and no amount of packing in the history knowledge will fix that. We learn about history because there is so much of it that it would be rude not to.