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Fun Movies

Legend of Galactic Heroes

After staying clear from anime for a few years. I got into Legend of Galactic heroes last year as recommended by the Waypont (now Vice Games) podcast. As a fan of both the political themes of earlier seasons Game of Thrones and political themes in science fiction, I was fascinated by their description of a show that has both strategic space battles and a sober observation of both a liberal democracy in crisis and a feudal culture transitioning to “enlightened” despotism.

Legend of Galactic Heroes follows two protagonists and a large cast of secondary characters in a galactic war taking place centuries in the future. Two human factions, the liberal democratic Free Planets Alliance, inspired by the United States, and the authoritarian Galactic Empire, inspired by Prussia, have fought for 150 years before the show starts.

A minor faction that schemes behind the curtain is the autonomous state of Fezzan. The small state occupying one planet that trades between the Alliance and empire through one of two space corridors. This nation most likely refers to mercantile city-states such as Venice, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

The protagonists are Yang Wenli, a reluctant historian and cynical commander for the Alliance and Reinhard von Lohengram, an ambitious petty noble who seeks to rule the empire by deposing the existing imperial dynasty and feudal system.

 
 
 
 
 
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Yang Wenli (@sriz6), TriceraCop (@alfaruque), Kung Fury (Robert King) cosplaying at #awesomecon.

A post shared by Ferdous Al-Faruque (@alfaruque) on

In April of this year, I cosplayed as Yang Wenli alongside my friends cosplaying as characters from the 80’s parody meme short film Kung Fury at Awesome. My costume was a combination of online purchases, using my 3D printer and paint to make badges and clips, and getting reacquainted with sewing machines to sow the neckerchief in the alliance uniform. I ran into only two people in the convention who recognized me in uniform, and one admitted he was more a fan of the Empire over the Alliance.

The History

The history of Legend of Galactic heroes is shown through isolated episodes that feature Julian Mintz, supporting character and protege of Yang, watching a series of documentaries about human history as he travels through space.

The Galactic Empire was founded by a military leader who took power from a space-faring republic. His rule favored German heritage and his cabinet instigated genocides against those considered “impure” 

Because of this. The characters in the Empire are all of Germanic culture and European appearance. The name of the palace “Neue Sanssouci” is a reference to the Sanssouci, the palace of Frederick the Great of Prussia in Potsdam.

The origins of the republic that the Empire overthrew began as a struggle for independence from a united Earth. In this setting, Earth is marginal politically, but a religion that has formed around it, and terrorist acts by the Earth religion, plays a role in the plot.

The Free Planets are more diverse, since the original settlers were political prisoners and refugees from the empire. In the Free Planets Alliance, The names of planets and systems originate from Arabic (Ba’alat, Masjid), and Sanskrit(Urvashi, Amritsar, Gandharva), and many characters have African, South Asian, East Asian, and European heritage.

The Politics

Legend of Galactic Heroes is often praised for its political themes. The show goes into detail about several traits and flaws in both liberal democracies and feudal empires. The war includes phases such as occupation, guerilla warfare, and large scale space battles evoking 18th-century naval line battles.

As a progressive liberal, My lot falls with the Free Planets Alliance. The show often criticizes jingoism and political corruption in a democracy. One of the antagonistic groups in Alliance the is a patriotic militia who often target dissenters and those not considered “patriotic enough”, echoing the rise of the far right American “Patriot” groups such as the Three Percenters and Oathkeepers.

(It should be mentioned that while the show has enough content to make allusions to current day politics, the show doesn’t intend to predict events, but to comment on the cyclic nature of history. The intro in the second season shows text that reads “In every Age, In every Place, The Deeds of Men Remain the Same” )

Some of the politics in the show has been criticized by Rob Hutton on Medium. The author argues that Legend of Galactic Heroes justifies “enlightened” authoritarianism, military rule and conservatism.

The show also tends to idealize Reinhard’s noble ambitions. Scenes that occur during his rise to power also uncomfortably evoke the rise of fascism, including cries of “Heil”.

The show falls mostly in the liberal-centrist political camp. Viewers who expect a Marxist analysis of history and economics will be disappointed. Little is said about the means of production or analysis of economic class in the Alliance, or Fezzan. The analysis of class in the Empire mostly focuses on challenging the feudalist class structure from the top down.

The dilemma of flawed democracy or an enlightened dictatorship is given more balance than Hutton gives the show credit for. In Episode 31, Yang undergoes an inquiry by Alliance politicians about statements he made against nation-states, suggesting that Yang has anarchist sentiments. Yang also leads a faction opposing a military coup-de-etat of the Alliance instigated by Reinhard and Fezzan. During the El Facil Revolutionary Government arc later in the series, also Yang insists on the necessity of civilian rule in the new breakaway state that offers him executive power.

Since the original light novel author Yoshiki Tanaka is from Japan, a country that has experienced liberal democracy, feudal states, and authoritarian dictatorships, the show reflects a more holistic political view.

Although critics of the authoritarian traits in Legend of Galactic Heroes may dismiss the show’s politics because it doesn’t broadly condemn the Galactic Empire, I have a more nuanced view. I have friends and family members who have lived in both liberal democracies and authoritarian states. These people willingly left a democracy for states that restrict media, freedom of speech, the press, public assembly, dietary choices, intimate relationships, and religious beliefs for economic opportunity.

I once brought up why they would willingly accept the rule of or vote for a group that doesn’t share their views. They mentioned a time that a politician of one party had rerouted relief supplies that helped their parents overcome a natural disaster. They followed this anecdote by saying “Politics is not always about who agrees with you, but who takes care of you”. Along with voting for a politician who took care of them, they moved to and worked in an authoritarian state that took care of them.  They set aside their political views to land a job that supports their family.

Episode 14 of the original series shows an example of this is when starving serfs of the Empire ask for food from the Alliance occupation force before they enjoy freedom and equality the Alliance promises.

In conversations I’ve had with both natives and expats in authoritarian countries, they can at least say that their state’s goal of power is at least candid and unpretentious. They can justify themselves by saying that liberal democracies rarely hold up the ideals of equality and freedom they claim to follow. Unlike the benign origins of the Alliance, refugees from the empire who founded and settled uninhabited planets, liberal democracies in our world were built on the original sins of colonialism and chattel slavery.

Like Reinhard and his followers. People who are raised in these authoritarian states can point at dysfunctional events and periods in democratic countries to defend their way of life.

Any country can point to flaws in other countries to make themselves look better. It’s easier to criticize a free society when a free press and people can criticize their government while those in authorization countries cannot.

The status of women follows traditional gender norms. Most of the prominent women in the series, such as Frederica Greenhill, Hildegard von Mariendorf, Katerose von Kreutzer, Annerose von Grünewald and Jessica Edwards are mostly defined by their relationships to men, as daughters, sisters, wives, and widows. Their growth as powerful characters in their own right originates from those relationships. 

Did I mention I enjoy politics in my science fiction?

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The videogame that dares to tackle African politics

This article originally appeared in the publication Kill Screen on June 2nd 2016. Because Kill Screen is no longer active, and the site is offline. I have saved the article as it was published. The original link was https://killscreen.com/articles/videogame-dares-tackle-african-politics/

The lion of Egyptian revolution

Videogames have a problem with how they portray Africa — the continent often appears as nothing more than a stereotypical warzone. The most egregious example is 2009’s Resident Evil 5, which included an unnamed African locale with a conspicuously incensed mob united under an unconvincing explanation of undeadness as an excuse for white protagonist Chris Redfield to shoot every local he sees. A more recent slight was the Call of Duty: Black Ops II (2012) mission” Pyrrhic Victory”, where combatants of the Angolan Civil War are portrayed as machete-wielding maniacs charging at each other in a dusty battlefield. The portrayal was so skewed that in February, the family of Jonas Savimbi, the inspiration for the supporting character featured in the level, sued Activision Blizzard for allegedly portraying the real-life rebel leader in a false light.

Fortunately, there are more recent efforts, such as Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, a crowdfunded game out of Cameroon, that seek to change the landscape and portray African culture on its own terms. However, two days after its release back in April, Democracy 3: Africa, an expandalone game for the Democracy series, also arrived. Notably, it is not made by an African studio as is the case with Aurion, it is made by a British one, called Positech Games. That makes it worth scrutinizing.

Videogames have a problem with how they portray Africa

Democracy 3: Africa places the player as a democratically-elected leader of various African countries including Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, and Botswana. The main play screen shows a grid of voting demographics surrounded by a web of circular nodes that represent policies and issues. These nodes relate to each other with flowing arrows that denote pull and push forces. Event triggers influence the effectiveness of these nodes, like a local author winning a book award or a plane crash.

The game diverts from the original Democracy 3 by including factors and challenges that developing countries face, such as desertification, food insecurity, gender discrimination, and female genital mutilation, alongside democratic policy factors common to the Democracy series. In interviews with IGN Africa and Kotaku, creators Cliff Harris and Jeff Davis have shown a keen awareness of the pitfalls of outsiders portraying Africa in a medium that struggles to portray African locales with respect and accuracy. Democracy 3: Africa’s potential role as an education tool (Positech offers educational licenses for Democracy 3) calls for further obligation to portray African countries credibly.

The overarching goal of the Democracy series is to govern by making policy decisions from a presidential office. The player must seek popular approval and votes for reelection by making decisions by turn, which represents a quarter year. Demographics that are deeply angry may form armed groups and try to assassinate the player, ending the game. Since Democracy 3: Africa measures women as dissatisfied due to endemic discrimination and conservative traditions such as female genital mutilation, the player is often opposed to by the militant women’s group Matriarchs of Justice. This is probably an unintended consequence of low starting approval for women and corresponding issues that negatively affect their opinion than an inspired statement about feminism.

With its focus on the executive branch of government, the Democracy series implies that liberal democratic institutions are the primary source of power in society. As someone that lives in the United States, I can barely argue with the practicality and grasp of constitutional power over society — as Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” However, in less developed, illiberal democratic states, other sources of power are more visible and real. Three factors greatly influence governance in the region: the influence of foreign aid on policy, the arrow of the military in the political sphere, and the ethnic identity of voters. A credible game about African governance should include these factors. And so I played Democracy 3: Africa and made radical decisions in an effort to get these factors to play out. I turned off assassinations so as not to be thwarted by radical groups, including the dreaded Matriarchs, or The Moral Crusade.

A credible game about African governance should include factors other than liberal democratic institutions

Since foreign aid is well documented, Democracy 3: Africa can credibly simulate the influence of foreign aid on African governance. A common form of aid during the late 80s and early 90s was a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), a loan which required countries to adopt a policy, such as budget cuts, to continue receiving aid. These were offered to developing countries by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Critics of SAPs say that the lenders often advocate for cuts that hinder a country’s development and are often broad brush measures that don’t account for differences in economies. Supporters say SAPs help develop a country’s private sector, balance state budgets, and reduce government corruption. The term has fallen out of favor, but austerity measures enacted across Europe this decade follow the same logic.

Democracy 3: Africa represents this in the node Foreign Aid Received. It is influenced by the nodes Human Development, GDP, and revenue administration. The new policy called foreign aid petitioning also influences aid received. I didn’t see any indications of budget stipulations as a condition of continuing foreign aid. The game represents this as a “softer” push and pull force instead of overt mandates and conditions that the SAPs represented. The game seems to portray foreign lenders as another stakeholder in governance instead of top-down creditors.

The military is a pernicious influence on democratic politics in places like Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. 67 attempted or successful coups occurred among 54 countries in Africa between 1990 and 2012. Egypt is a recent example of military intervention on democratic governance. Since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952, Egypt has been overseen by a faction of senior military officers — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Six of the nine presidents of Egypt came from the Egyptian military’s officer corps.

Egyptian Free Officers, the precursor to the SCAF, in 1953 via Wikimedia Commons

The 2011 Egyptian revolution sought the overthrow of military-appointed pres
ident Hosni Mubarak who had ruled since 1981. When Mubarak resigned, the SCAF took over and oversaw the 2012 presidential election. Voters chose Mohammad Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, affiliated with the historic Islamist party Muslim Brotherhood. Instability and violence during Morsi’s presidency compelled the SCAF to depose and arrest Morsi in 2013. With the sanction of the SCAF, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took the presidency in 2013. Al-Sisi went on to win the 2014 Egyptian presidential election.

Military intervention appears as a factor in Democracy 3: Africa web, influenced by stability and military spending, and pushes against democracy factor as well. When playing Egypt, I tried to decrease stability and raise military spending to elicit a military response to my presidency. With assassination turned off in the options screen, I was insulated from the blowback of decreased public approval. After a few tries, I looked at the code and found that Military State was an achievement, but didn’t elicit a coup. The game seems to think a president is more likely to be assassinated by a militant feminist group than deposed by a military junta. The former is extremely unlikely, while the latter happens frequently.

Kenya is an exception to the perception of violence and military influence on politics in the continent. However, the country has another prominent issue affecting democratic governance. The borders of various African countries had been drawn haphazardly by European powers. During colonialism, some groups were given favorable treatment by the colonizers, while others were treated harshly. This lead to divided ethnic homelands, and different groups competing for wealth and political power in the independent countries that emerged after the colonizers left. In parliamentary governments, political parties may often demarcate along religious sects, ethnic groups, tribes, and prominent land-owning families. Examples include the Hutu/Tutsi conflict that ignited into the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The Darfur crisis and Second Sudanese Civil war culminating in the independence of South Sudan, and tensions in Nigeria between groups in the North and South — a wedge that terrorist group Boko Haram exploited in its early period.

The disputed Kenyan election in 2007 highlights ethnic conflict influencing elections. The disagreement between the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga’s resulted in violence between Odinga’s group, the Luo (a group President Obama’s father also belonged to) and Kibaki’s group, the Kikuyu. 1300 people died in the violence and hundreds of thousands left their homes in fear. Despite being only 22 percent of Kenya’s population, the Kikuyu have dominated Kenyan politics and the economy since independence.

After a power sharing agreement was signed in 2008, feuding between the different factions slowed down. Kenya’s parliament passed the National Cohesion and Integration Act, which established a commission to address ethnic tension. The 2013 Kenyan general election was more peaceful and the NCI commission acted against perceived incitement based on ethnicity. The commission warns that more violence is possible in Kenya’s 2017 general election. Alongside native groups, Kenya had accepted 600,000 refugees from Somalia and Uganda, and South Sudan before the Kenyan government announced a plan to shut down its refugee camps in May.

Kenyan general elections in 2013 via Commonwealth Secretariat on Flickr through CC

To push different groups into conflict in Democracy 3: Africa, I tried to foster unemployment and poverty. This influences racial tension, as one group blames another for their misfortunes, and groups compete for scarce opportunities and resources. The game triggers race riots if there is enough racial tension. It also simulates the opposition party contesting elections, as Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement did in 2007, but without the ethnic element that motivated the violence in 2007. We also see the limits of Democracy 3: Africa’s web model. The demographic of “ethnic minorities” seems to only apply to immigrants and their children, as opposed to ethnic minorities who may be native rivals to a region, or an alienated majority, such as Hutu in Rwanda.

While the game’s nodal network expresses the complex stakes that a democratic ruler faces, those stakeholders and issues are not as comprehensive or influential in developing countries such as those Democracy 3: Africa portrays. The underlying assumption of the game is that the player must govern pragmatically towards the popular center instead of towards ideals, or the mandate of a tribe, army, or multinational corporation. The factors reviewed expressed themselves as “soft” cause and effect forces instead of overt power shows that may occur in African politics. The reliability of the game’s simulation is limited by its focus on democratic institutions. And if I’m honest, my focus on coups and ethnic riots is just as clouded by a Western vantage point as the people over at Positech. Despite the limitation, even this narrow view of Africa as a series of challenges to tackle and demographics to pander to is more promising than a perpetually dangerous continent with an interchangeable mob of targets for the cookie-cutter protagonist.

Header via Zeinab Mohamed on Flickr

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Fun Games

My experience with retro gaming through Raspberry Pi 3

A month ago, I took a plunge and got a Raspberry Pi 3, a credit-card sized single board computer running versions of Linux. I intend to do a few projects with single board computers.

The first on my list is a retro gaming station of some sort (Either a countertop arcade cabinet or a gaming station connected to a TV).
Retropie offers a suite of emulators of classic video game consoles and computer systems like the NES, SNES, Playstation, Sega Genesis, MS-DOS and Atari 2600.

Although ROM files are easy to get online, their legality is questionable. If the user doesn’t own an original licensed copy, downloading and installing ROMs is piracy. The law swings occasionally over whether users can legally install ROMs if they have a licensed copy of the original work. For its part, Nintendo condemns using ROMs that are not available through their own channels such as the Virtual Console service, the Switch Classic Game Collection or one of their rare Classic Edition consoles, even if the individual has a licensed copy.

Many older PC games fall under a legal limbo called abandonware. Technically downloading and installing all copyrighted software is piracy, but the creators of abandonware are either no longer in business, or have stopped supporting and selling the work and won’t likely litigate against pirates.

I was able to find legal avenues for various PC games. Retropie carries the widespread DOXBox emulator, the same used for licensed games sold by GOG.com. In theory, these legal copies should work on a system running Retropie as well.
In practice, the games I have been able to run on DOSBOX so far are

  1. Master of Orion 2
  2. Master of Magic
  3. Syndicate Plus
  4. Syndicate Wars

I was also able to get a GOG copy of the classic RPG Planescape: Torment to work through Gemrb, a Linux adaptation of the game’s Infinity Engine.The retro gamer’s nostalgia plateau

Ars Technica recently published analytics on Xbox One user data measuring time spent on the system. One of their findings was that the sample of Xbox One users play games from the previous Xbox 360 system less than 2% of the time they’re online.

I talked about it briefly on The GWW’s Press Any Key Podcast as a guest.
This data and a similar anecdote by Sony Head of Global Marketing and Sales Jim Ryan reveals an underlying problem with backward compatibility, the nostalgic demographic and demand for retro gaming.
We nostalgic older gamers by and large like the idea of having access to games that evoke fond memories, but when the time comes to play them, we don’t play as much. I have two possible explanations. Either older gamers now notice the limitations those systems had compared to today, or game producers today has a better sense of what attracts and motivates gamers based on market research and cumulative experience.
Although backward compatibility and access to older games serve an important cultural and educational purpose, the financial demand for it isn’t as significant.

As long as publishers make money at the point of sale, they may continue to serve up older games for short-term profits. However, publishers also seek to make microtransactions in newer full-price games a long-term source of income. Just like how printer companies can rely on ink cartridges sales to shore up profits rather than the printers themselves.

Nintendo is mulling over different prices for their upcoming Nintendo Switch Online subscription service. If successful, consistent subscription income seems like a potential for making retro gaming a viable commercially despite time played.

In the meantime, if companies find it inconvenient to save memories of gaming’s past, it may come down to enthusiasts to find workarounds using tools like Retropie on a Raspberry Pi.

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podcast

ALTbrown Finale: the last episode

After three years of both serious and fun conversations highlighting alternate perspectives in diaspora communities. Sharky and Pady have decided to hang our hats. Thanks to everyone who gave feedback and supported us through our run. You can keep up with ALTbrown and the podcast family on Facebook and Twitter. ALTbrown was a collaboration between Shahryar Rizvi and Padmini Naidu.

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D’Loco Kid – Sri Lankan Tamil trans performer & entertainer

D’Loco Kid is a writer, performance artist, comedian and actor of Sri Lankan Tamil descent based in L.A.

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Flat Tire Productions Returns with Love Bites play Kickstarter

Members of the indo-Caribbean entertainment group Flat Tire Productions returns with  new crew and a Kickstarter for their five one-act play series “Love Bites”

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Sundari The Indian Goddess

Zaman M. Amin a.k.a Sundari The Indian Goddess is a Guyanese-American dancer trained in Kathak, Orissi, Bollywood, Bhangra and Chutney styles.

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Omar Majeed

Omar is a Montreal-based filmmaker and director of the 2009 documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

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Jes Tom and Chewy May

Jes and Chewy are Asian-American comediennes from New York who recently made a short video about the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy.

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The OA

Sharky and Pady nerd out to the Netflix mystery/drama series The OA.

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