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.

One thought on “Heartache by the number

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