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|
|1400||350,000,000||Printing press developed|
|1950||2,500,000,000||Nuclear Cold War|
|1975||3,900,000,000||Growth in computing|
* 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.