Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Emperors of Byzantium, Part 3: Augustus II & Justinian III

Constantinople

This is part 3 of a series. Part 1 (769-819 AD). Part 2 (819-856 AD).

At this point in time, Rome is no longer on the ropes. Many of the empire's provinces have been reclaimed, including three that house the major churches - Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Abbasids to the east are still a threat, and Catholic Francia to the northwest is spreading, slowly but surely. The schism in the Catholic church threatens to put the two Christian empires at odds. The new Emperor will have to seize the ancient city of Rome in order to mend the great schism and establish a force to be reckoned with throughout the Mediterranean.

Augustus II (856-874)

In 856 Augustus Isauros succeeded to the Byzantine throne as Basileus Augustus II. He was 30 years old and already honored as Caesar. His mother had left him a powerfully revived empire, an emboldened Senate, and a plan to restore the Roman Empire to glory based on Justinian I's work to do the same.

Immediately upon succession, the Abbassids, led by Caliph Zia "the Monster," attacked the empire's holdings in Antioch. For them, it was a short and unsuccessful war. The Caliph was captured early on in battle, and brought before the emperor. Augustus had the Caliph's eyes gouged out then sent him home, where he succumbed to his wounds mere days later. This act would have reverberations throughout the Muslim world.

Augustus then turned his attention to the eternal city. Rome had been held by the Pope ever since the donation of Pepin of the Franks, who had wrested it from the Lombards in 756. In order to follow through on his mother's plan to restore the Pentarchy, the city would have have to be reclaimed. The bishop of Rome would be put in his place.

After capturing the city, Augustus made it the empire's capital once again, establishing a firm presence on the empire's western frontier as they had done with Constantinople in the east in the fourth century. The emperor's plans to reunite the church were frustrated, however, as the Pope went into hiding, continuing to offer communion within the city walls. Outraged by the gall of Augustus to depose the bishop of Rome, western Catholics - most importantly, bishops in Francia and Brittania - still saw the Pope as the head of the church. An Orthodox bishop of Rome was appointed while the emperor considered how to handle the schism in the church caused by his great-great-grandfather.

861

Soon after the reclamation of Rome, the emperor's wife Li Zhichong gave birth to his first and only son, who he named Justinian. Zhichong was a princess of the Tang Dynasty, and her marriage to Augustus was arranged by the Empress Eudokia as a way to curb the Abbasid power growing between Byzantium and China. Seven years after the birth of Justinian, Zhichong was assassinated by the Exarchessa of Corsica for unknown reasons. The Emperor remarried soon after. He again sought an imperial marriage from China, only this time from the now-ruling Wei Dynasty of the Khitan Tiande family. He married Pusuwan Tiande, who bore him a daughter.

Unbeknownst to Augustus, the middle east had been in political turmoil ever since the return and death of the Abbasid Caliph Zia. A crisis in leadership resulted in the return of the Umayyad dynasty to power, and the new Caliph Muhammad II was eager to score a victory against the Christian empire to the northwest. The Umayyads attempted to invade Armenia, but were finally repelled after several decisive defeats in and around Vaspurakan.

The emperor died not long after these victories, suffering a heart attack in 874 during an intimate moment with his wife. His son Justinian was just 13 years old.

The Emperor's death in 874

Justinian III (874 - 928)

By all measures, Justinian should not have been as successful as he was. From an early age he was shown to be dull, frail, and syphilitic (an ailment that would eventually claim his life). He was plagued with health problems throughout his life, and had a cowardly nature. For most of his reign he didn't have a male heir until one of his daughters bore a son, named Alexander. Two things saved him from ruin: a fanatic belief in a vision of a restored Rome (fostered by his father and grandmother) and a deep and abiding faith in God.

Rome, from Netflix's Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Justinian III healed the schism in the Catholic church by calling the Second Council of Rome in 908, which firmly established the organization of the church in the Pentarchy. This council effectively settled the question of Papal primacy versus Caesaropapism in favor of the Emperor. It was resolved that the church in Rome would have primacy only after Constantinople. Rome would again have two capitals: an imperial capital in the ancient city, and a spiritual capital in Constantinople. This decision was the culmination of a centuries-long trend of incrementally giving more honor to the church in Constantinople in relation to Rome. It was also decided that the Ecumenical Patriarch would not have supremacy over the church, but would be "primus inter pares" among other autocephalous Patriarchs in the church - including the bishop of Rome.  For reuniting the church, Justinian would become known as a Saint.

Jurisdictions of the autocephalous churches in 908

Justinian took advantage of the instability caused by the Shia uprising in Syria, using the insurgent Blancid Caliphate as a buffer between Antioch and Umayyad Persia. The new Caliph Abdulluh did attempt to take Armenia, as the Umayyads and Abbasids had tried before, but was repelled. Justinian then pushed the Shia Caliphate back away from Antioch, drawing new borders around the holy city.

Justinian III would attempt to carry out his grandmother's plans for reestablishing Justinian I's borders. His generals landed in southern Spain, taking Seville and Cordoba from the Tavirids in Andalusia. He also waged war in Lombard Italy, reestablishing a presence in Ravenna in the north, as well as completely recapturing Latium from the remaining Viking rulers (for a brief time there had been a petty kingdom of Norse Tuscany). These Italian campaigns would continue throughout his rule.

Justinian titled himself Augustus, partially in honor of his father. With the backing of newly-landed generals, he greatly curbed the power of the Senate, which had asserted itself during his grandmother's time. He became known as "Justinian the Glorious".

In 917, while the Umayyads were in the midst of a civil war, Justinian launched a great conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Already owning the holy land itself, the Emperor fully established his foothold in the Levant with a new Exarchate of Judea, and drove the Caliphate further eastward. 

927

His chronic health problems finally caught up to him, and syphilis drove him to madness over the years. He finally died on the 19th of February, 928, after taking Italy from the remaining Lombards and reestablishing the Exarchate of Ravenna. The Empire was left in the hands of his estranged grandson, Alexander.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Empress of Byzantium: Eudokia

Empress Irene of Athens
Welcome back to this series of summaries of the lives of Byzantine Emperors in my latest Crusader Kings 2 campaign. Part 1 is here. It had more of an audience than I thought it would, and I was going to do these anyway, so I'm happy to keep doing them. I've been informed that these posts fall into the genre of "After Action Report," or AAR. So welcome to my CK2 AAR.

Diverging from History: 769 - 819

Just for fun, I want to review the time period my last post covered, but in actual history. There are some important differences that are going to make for some long-term consequences. At this point in my game we're past the point where real historical characters are around, so this "diverging from history" section probably won't appear in later posts.
  • In history, Constantine V died in 775, at the age of 57. In my game he lasted a full additional twenty years, getting to actually follow through on his plans for Bulgaria, then dying at the ripe old age of 77.
  • Leo IV took the imperial throne in 775 and was a fervent iconoclast until he died during a Bulgarian campaign of fever in 780. In my game he also died of fever, in 779, but not as emperor, as Constantine hadn't died yet.
  • Constantine VI, son of Leo IV and Irene of Athens, took the throne in 780 at age 9 and reigned for 17 years (he didn't even exist in my game). Initially, his mother Irene acted as Empress regent, but tried to become the de jure Empress. This plan backfired and Constantine became official Emperor in 790. During this time he convened the second council of Nicaea, which sought to put an end to the Iconoclast controversy. He was a poor ruler, and a conspiracy to put his mother in power was hatched.

Mosaic depiction of Irene of Athens in the Hagia Sophia
  • In 797, Irene of Athens, wife of Leo IV, became Empress Regnant after the faction supporting her captured Constantine VI. She had her son's eyes gouged out and he died quickly soon after. During her time as Empress, she finally ended Iconoclasm, but didn't get the support of the Pope, who crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans. Irene would be the last of the Empire's historical Isaurian Dynasty. In my game, Irene never had the opportunity to become empress, as her husband Leo died before he could become emperor, and Constantine V married her. There are some interesting parallels between her and the subject of this post, Eudokia. 
  • In 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III after taking Italy from the Lombards in 774. In my game he never invaded Italy, though he did establish the Empire of Francia, then died of food poisoning in 788. His nephew Pepin inherited the throne, but was defeated in an uprising by house Baugulfson, who have held it ever since. This is a major point of departure from history - the Carolingian dynasty in France was hugely important for the formation of Western Europe as we know it today. It's going to be interesting to see what the long-term consequences are for Charlemagne's early death.

Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

In history, Pope Leo III's motivations for crowning Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans came from disgust over the current state of the Empire. At that time, it was in the midst of the Iconoclast controversy, and was ruled by Irene, the first Empress (read: woman) with real power. But in my timeline, Iconoclasm ended early, with Emperor Nikephoros, and it was he who was on the throne instead of Irene. With Charlemagne failing to take Italy from the Lombards, the Pope must not have had more faith in either one of the Catholic empires than the other, negating the need to grant a spiteful title. Now, one can only think that the Pope is biding his time, waiting to see which way the balance of power tips in Europe...

Eudokia (819 - 856)

Empress Eudokia of the Isaurian dynasty inherited the throne of Emperor Nikephoros and thus became the first Empress Regnant in Roman history. Some accounts say that she was indeed the first female ruler in all of Western history.

Nevertheless, the fact of her gender immediately mired her rule, with various generals declaring their support for her son from her first marriage, Frederi de Perigord. Frederi was already Doux of Armeniacon, a title inherited from his father the Exarch of Serbia (who had been assassinated by the late Emperor Nikephoros). The Empire was plunged into civil war when the new Empress tried to remove her eight year old son from power.

819

Though the Empire was rich, the civil war drained the coffers of Constantinople as it dragged on. Eudokia employed the Varangian guard as well as mercenary bands to put down the rebellion waged in her son's name. Eventually the war was won and the various conspirators were thrown in prison. Frederi suffered a more unique fate, being castrated and thus made ineligible to inherit any titles. Her rule secure, the Empress divided administration of her Empire among loyal generals.

Eudokia then turned to an acute problem: she needed to give birth to an heir. Frederi was her only child up to that point, and at 35 years old, she knew her time was limited. Her second husband, Guitard Capet, hadn't managed yet to get her pregnant. In desperation, she started a series of adulterous affairs with various generals throughout the empire. Eventually she did get pregnant, and had a son in 826, who she named Augustus. The Empress would then go on to have more children, most of illicit parentage, though this was unknown to Guitard at the time. (Years later, Guitard learned of these affairs and planned to assassinate the empress, enraged that his children were not actually his own. The Empress discovered this plan though, and quickly had the Ecumenical Patriarch annul her marriage. She then showed mercy to Guitard - instead of having him executed for treason, she ordered him to take the vows and become a monk, living the rest of his years in seclusion. Eudokia went on to re-marry twice.)

With the support of her generals and the question of succession out of the way, Eudokia put in motion her long-term plan to restore the Empire to its former glory. This plan was based on the work of Justinian's "renovatio imperii," which saw the empire regain much of its lost territory in the post-Germanic, pre-Muslim world.

Justinian's borders

Eudokia sought first to reunite Justinian's organization of the Catholic churches, the Pentarchy. Doing so would eliminate any question about the Empire's legitimacy as steward of the universal church, as well as heal the rift between Rome and Constantinople caused by the Iconoclast controversy. Her work was cut out for her - the eastern churches were in the lands of the Abbasid caliphate, and the Church of Rome held its own land in the Empire's former Exarchate of Ravenna. The Empress would have many campaigns ahead of her.

She was blessed when an opportunity arose in the form of a revolt within the Abbasid Caliphate. The Caliphate had been subjugated by the Western Protectorate of the Tang Dynasty in China, who had extended its influence over Tibet and was encroaching westward. They briefly held the Abbasids as a tributary state until various parts of it rebelled. The Empress Eudokia took advantage of the situation to stage an invasion of Jerusalem, conquering and holding the city within the Abbasid lands.

In addition to her religious campaigns, the empress also sent her legions to secure the eastern frontier, grabbing the Bolghar territory that used to be within the Exarchate of Georgia. Due to her quick successive military campaigns, the Empress became known as "Eudokia the Bold".

832

Expansion had consequences, however. Managing the various officials and administrators that managed her realm became difficult as their number increased. Among these officials rose talk about restoring power to the Senate, a governmental body that had been politically irrelevant since the reign of Emperor Diocletian half a millennium ago. (More recently, Justinian had further consolidated the power of the Emperor, putting him at odds with the nobility, resulting in the Nika riots and subsequent massacre.) Many of the Empire's generals were still uneasy with the idea of a female ruler, so they backed the effort to restore the senate.

A proud ruler with something to prove, Eudokia refused to meet the demands of the Senatorial faction. Soon, the empire was plunged into another costly civil war. The chaos of the civil war presented problems for supply lines. Though she had plenty of money and man-power, moving it all to the front lines proved a costly endeavor. A battle fought early in the war at Koloneia gave the Empress a phyrric victory. The Empire's coffers would not recover after the battle, nor would it be easy to recruit fresh soldiers. Eudokia began to settle in for a long, drawn-out conflict, when the Abbasid caliphate attacked from the south.

The second Byzantine Senate building, the Magnaura

The Empresses's army was fighting in Jerusalem, where the Varangian Guard, having joined the Senatorial faction, had quickly taken over the land-locked city. Upon receiving news of the Abbasid invasion, the Empress quickly called for a truce with the Senatorial faction. Preferring to lose to fellow Romans than the Muslim invaders, she agreed to give the senate some measure of formal power, then marched north and defeated the Abassids.

Eudokia came close to her goal of reuniting the five churches of the Pentarchy, retaking Alexandria from the Muslims in Africa. Her last target was perhaps the most important: Rome. However, Eudokia died in the midst of drawing up these plans, at the age of 68. The task of reclaiming Rome and reuniting the western and eastern halves of Christianity would fall upon her newly-crowned son: Emperor Augustus II.

Emperors of Byzantium


I've started playing a new (my third) Crusader Kings 2 campaign, and this time it's the big one: Rome. Technically I'm playing as the Byzantine Empire, the remaining part of the severely diminished Imperium Romanum. The rules of this game are set to be historical - no supernatural events, no defensive pacts, pagan religions can't reform, and Seljuk and Mongol invaders appear when they're supposed to.

I'm going to start chronicling the lives of the Emperors of Byzantium as they occur in this game. There's enough drama within the empire that it may be interesting, at least to somebody who takes an interest in Roman history and game simulation stuff.

Introduction


769

In 769 AD, Byzantine Rome is on the ropes. Over the preceding centuries the Roman Empire had been picked apart by Germanic invaders, Italy and Gaul now belonging to the Lombards and Franks respectively. More recently, Egypt and the Levant were swept under the Islamic invasions from the Arab peninsula. Now Byzantium faces invaders on two frontiers - steppe nomads encroach from the north, and the Abbasid Caliphate rules the east. To add to the instability, the empire is in the grips of the Iconoclast heresy, a version of Catholicism that rejects veneration of images and iconography. The Catholic Church in Rome has distanced itself from the Empire partially due to this heresy, leaving the churches of Western Europe under the jurisdiction of the Pope. Konstantinos V of the Isaurian dynasty is the Iconoclast ruler of this weakened empire. Can he secure his borders and put an end to the religious conflict that threatens the stability of Catholic Europe?

Konstantinos V (769 - 795)

Konstantinos V, also known as Constantine V, technically began his rule in 741, but the game begins in 769. The Wikipedia page provides a good account of his rule up until 769, but I'll summarize it here.

Constantine, son of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, the founder of the Isaurian dynasty, received the throne at age 23 upon his father's death. Leo had been a contentious Emperor, issuing religious edicts against the veneration of images and then subsequently being excommunicated by the Pope and losing the Exarchate of Ravenna, one of the Empire's last links to Rome.

Quickly after taking the throne, Constantine was thrust into a civil war as his brother-in-law Artabasdos attempted to become Emperor. Artabasdos was an Iconophile, and upon defeating him Constantine became an even more fervent Iconoclast. Constantine organized a council of the church to push through Iconoclastic reforms, which were resisted. The Emperor relied on his general Michael Lachanodrakon to persecute the uncooperative monks and other Iconophiles.

Constantine had successful military campaigns in the east, striking victories against the Umayyad and then Abbasid Caliphates. These victories allowed the Emperor to start pushing westward, against the Bulgarians to the northwest. Starting in 755, Constantine began a series of successful campaigns against the Bulgarian Empire. In 775, Prince Krum of Karvuna marched on Constantinople, but was defeated and his lands were conquered.

775

In 779, Leon, the heir to the imperial throne, died of slow fever. The legitimate heir to the throne was then Constantine's third son, Nikephoros. A year later, the Empress Eudokia died a natural death. Seeking a wife, at age 61 Konstantinos V then made the unorthodox decision of marrying the widow of his dead son, Eirene Sarantapechos. Eirene was not Iconoclastic, and managed to change the long-held position of the Emperor. Konstantinos renounced Iconoclasm in secret.

In his campaigns against Bulgaria, Konstantinos V managed to conquer the lands south of the Danube before finally dying of camp fever in 795. Though he practiced Orthodoxy in secret, he never publicly renounced the Iconoclast heresy. That responsibility would fall upon his son...

Nikephoros (795 - 819)

Upon succession, Nikephoros immediately renounced the Iconoclast heresy and most of the Empire followed. He then set to secure his position as protector of the faith by reclaiming Antioch, which he did in 796.

801

Nikephoros then embarked on a series of wars to the west, pushing the Steppe nomads back above the Danube. He parceled out the conquered lands to his generals and created districts for them to administer.

Nikephoros was a known plotter and murderer. During the reign of Konstantinos, the Strategos (administrator of a duchy) of Trebizond had conquered lands to the east and declared himself a king. Not wanting to start a civil war by threatening to revoke the Kingdom, Nikephoros simply had the King of Trebizond murdered, as well as all of his children. By doing this, he developed a reputation as dishonorable, and this reputation hindered him throughout his rule.

During the course of a mysterious illness in 801, Nikephoros was administered treatment that rendered him infertile. This wouldn't be a problem until 813, when the Emperor's heir and only son Konstantinos died of a fever. The Emperor's daughter Eudokia was next in line to the throne, but was already married to the Exarch of Serbia and had a child with him. 

814

Realizing that the imperial throne would fall out of the hands of his dynasty, Nikephoros acted quickly. With the support of his newly-landed governors, he conspired to assassinate the Exarch of Serbia. The assassination was done quickly, and the Princess returned to court in Constantinople. A matrilineal marriage was then arranged between Princess Eudokia and a member of the Capetian dynasty in France, with the intention that any children of their union would be of the Isaurian dynasty.

Nikephoros's final campaign was for the lost lands of Armenia, then held by the Bolghar tribe, steppe nomads that had converted to Sunni Islam. He led his armies to victory, but not without sustaining wounds which became infected and later killed him. He died at the age of 62 and left the princess Eudokia with a reinvigorated empire, united in faith and with strong borders. However, as a woman with no valid heir, the question then was whether the new Empress Regnant could survive the intrigue of the imperial palace...

Monday, June 19, 2017

Countdown To Tears


Over the last 18 days, and more specifically this last weekend, I worked on making a small game with some friends for the Idle Thumbs game jam, Wizard Jam 5. The jam ran from the 1st of this month to yesterday, though we weren't working nearly every day on it, this being a pretty low-commitment group project.

You can play our game, Countdown to Tears, in a desktop browser. I also made an itch.io collection of my favorite games from this Wizard Jam, since I'm playing all of them, which I encourage you to check out. There are some really cool ones in there.

The rules of the jam are simple: make a game based on an episode name for an Idle Thumbs network podcast. My team of four (eventually five) met with lists of our favorite episode names, brainstormed how they might be turned into games, fleshed out a few concepts, then settled on "Countdown to Tears." Our game is about babysitting a friend who inevitably breaks down in any scenario, and mitigating the disaster that that person becomes.


We had a lot of fun brainstorming our ideas and seeing them come to life. I forgot how productive, educational, and generally inspiring game jams are. I haven't participated in one since about 2010, so I figured that Wizard Jam would be a good way to break my game development dry spell. It's so much more motivating to work on a project when there are other people believing in it and working on it as well. It's been said before, but making a game is a lot of work, always more than you hope, but working on one with a good team makes you work all the harder. With two programmers, one writer, two artists, and everybody making design decisions, this game took on a life and character that it wouldn't have if I had done this jam alone. I'm immensely grateful that Colin, Brian, Rhea, and eventually Max agreed to join in this game jam with me and work on something fun together.


I learned a lot in this game jam, both in the practical nitty-gritty of game making, but also in organizing a team to conceive and work on a creative technical project like this. It was important to me that we designed the game as a team and all had input, and also that everybody's individual talents were used in a constructive way. My favorite part of our game actually had the least to do with me: the hilarious opening dialogue was written by our man Colin, animated by Rhea, and programmed by my roommate Brian at literally the last minute, because he's a champ and a pro. Despite having a LOT of things left with it we didn't get to do, I'm happy that we managed to craft a complete game, with everybody's fingerprints on it.

Honestly the whole process has me energized to do more. I have a better idea of how a group development team works, having relearned the importance of proper team planning and regular communication. I want to go through the whole process again, from hanging out with friends and brainstorming, to prototyping, to planning, to development with all its research, to closing the loop and tying everything together, to playtesting and iteration, and compiling and scrambling to get it all uploaded. I want to try making different types of games with different engines, and practice my design, programming, writing, and teamwork skills. I want to see my itch.io page get bigger. It's time to make more games! If you want to jump on the next jam, hit me up! I'll be perusing them and picking another one soon.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Breath of the Wild: Nintendo's Renaissance

I believe the challenge and promise of computer game design is that our most important tools are the ones that involve and empower players to make their own decisions. That is something that allows each player to explore him or herself, which is something our medium is uniquely equipped to do. - Doug Church, Formal Abstract Design Tools

The new Zelda game is really good. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is fresh and challenging in a way that Zelda games - hell, Nintendo games - haven't been in years. This sea-change seems to come from a break with tradition, favoring a systems-based open world design over the story-driven experience offered in the two previous Zelda games. However, while there are indeed many new systems, mechanics, and design decisions not previously seen in the series, the design philosophy that employed those new systems is classic Nintendo.

RETURN TO FORM

Breath of the Wild offers a huge open world with few gates - from the beginning, you can go anywhere you want, though at your own risk. It seems natural to compare the vast, mountain-enclosed plains to those of Skyrim (2011), and many have done so. Like in Skyrim, if you can see it, you can travel to it, even if it takes an hour and you die a few times on the way.

However, Breath of the Wild isn't the first, or even second Zelda game to offer an open world for exploration. When first playing, I was immediately reminded of Wind Waker (2003), which also offers an open world to explore, though it has to be traversed by boat and there isn't as much stuff in it. However, Breath of the Wild intentionally references The Legend of Zelda (1986) in its open-world design. In that game, too, you could go anywhere you wanted from the starting area, and in exploring you would die a lot.

That tough-love, learn-by-dying approach is popular in game design today, particular in indie roguelikes and in the Dark Souls (2011) series. What's interesting is that the difficulty of those games is a kind of throwback itself, a reaction to the tendency for modern games to coddle the player with tutorials and easy difficulty curves. Dark Souls and indie roguelikes are influenced directly by games like the original Zelda, which would explain nothing to the player and have them figure things out by trial and error. For a Nintendo game, it's bold for Breath of the Wild to do so little hand-holding, though it certainly fits into the gaming zeitgeist.

In a different way, Breath of the Wild has a lot in common with Super Mario 64 (1997) (bear with me). In the 90s, former Looking Glass game designer Doug Church wrote an article about game design called Formal Abstract Design Tools, which was seminal for discussion and thinking about design itself. It called for a new vocabulary for describing how games actually work, from design to experience. As an example, Church picked apart Mario 64, and came up with a couple of terms: "intention" and "perceivable consequence." They aren't the best-defined terms, and there are more refined ones now ("player agency" and "feedback" come to mind), but they were important for describing principles of design that allow for exploration and play. Those underlying principles are absolutely at work in the new Zelda game. For instance, the following quotes could easily describe either game:
Simple, consistent controls, coupled with the very predictable physics, allow players to make good guesses about what will happen should they try something. ...This makes game situations very discernable — it's easy for the players to plan for action. If players see a high ledge, a monster across the way, or a chest under water, they can start thinking about how they want to approach it. 
...The key is that players know what to expect from the world and thus are made to feel in control of the situation. Goals and control can be provided and created at multiple scales, from quick, low-level goals such as "get over the bridge in front of you" to long-term, higher-level goals such as "get all the red coins in the world." Often players work on several goals, at different levels, and on different time scales. - Doug Church

Church here focuses on mechanical consistency and player agency because those are aspects of game design he focuses on in his own games. After all, he was a designer at Looking Glass, who had a specific design philosophy: "immersive gameplay emerges from an object-rich world governed by high-quality, self-consistent simulation systems."

SYSTEMS-BASED DESIGN

What's new about this Zelda game is that Nintendo has chosen to express its design principles with the use of dynamic systems that promote emergent gameplay. The physics engine, "chemistry engine" (a state-based system that determines the effects of elements such as fire, wind, and electricity on objects), weather system, enemy AI, stealth system, and Link's weapon degradation and crafting systems all work together to create a multi-layered experience with a high degree of unpredictability and self-creating drama. Because these are "simulated" systems, they are consistent in how they behave, which gives the player enough feedback to understand them without a tutorial. In this way, Nintendo utilizes dynamic systems to give the player feedback and agency - or in Doug Church's words, "perceivable consequence" and "intention."

As in the Looking Glass design philosophy, having consistent, simulated systems allow the player to come up with and execute creative plans of approach to problems. For example, there are many enemy outposts throughout the game, and there are almost always more ways to approach them than simply rushing in head-on. You can sneakily climb to a vantage point and shoot arrows at them. Or, you could shoot a fire arrow into the grass upwind and let the fire creep into their base, triggering exploding barrels and finishing them that way. Or, you can choose to leave the monsters alone and just play around with the mechanics and see what happens. Because the entire world has so few gates (obstacles or tasks preventing you from exploring or progressing), Hyrule is practically a giant sandbox for the player to experiment in at their leisure.


However, while interacting systems can afford the player more agency, they can also introduce unexpected, uncontrollable elements into the game world. Here, I want to introduce (if nobody has already done so) another Formal Abstract Design Tool: chaos. Chaos is present in a game when there are enough dynamically-interacting systems to create unpredictable events that may be harmful to the player and/or NPCs. A classic example of this is the "grenade rolling down the hill," an aphorism coined by the Idle Thumbs podcast that originally described the chaos that emerges from the systems in Far Cry 2 (2008). In that game, chaos emerges often as a result of interaction between its physics system, fire system, weapon degradation, AI, and malaria attacks. Firefights with enemies can unfold any number of ways, literally depending on which way the wind is blowing. Dishonored (2012) and its sequel also utilize simulated systems to promote emergent gameplay, and even have a morality-based "chaos" system that creates more instances of certain enemies if one's play is violent enough. In all cases, these dynamic challenges force the player to think on their feet.

There's so much more to Breath of the Wild than new dynamic systems applied to Nintendo's design philosophy. There's the art, the charm, the classic Zelda mechanics, the non-linear story, the hundreds of surprises scattered throughout Hyrule, and plenty of stuff I'm forgetting or haven't seen yet. These things are also important parts of game design, and shouldn't be ignored. At the bottom of this post I'm linking to a talk given this year at GDC by the makers of Zelda, on the discussions and thought process that ended up making this game. I highly recommend it (as well as the game, if you hadn't gathered already). It's not every day that a new classic comes out.

 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Zen Stoicism: The Buddha and the Sage

In my first post comparing Zen to Stoicism, I outlined a few specific things that they had in common. I want to take a closer look at those things now, focusing on these three:
  • Thoughts are insubstantial and not representative of reality itself 
  • Suffering arises from passions resulting from attachment or "false judgement" 
  • The ideal mental state is one of equanimity, free from strong likes and dislikes
My aim is not syncretization, but rather to point out where these two schools of thought are basically saying the same thing, and for what reasons, with respect to their differences.

THE INSUBSTANTIALITY OF THOUGHTS

So many of our thoughts take us away from the reality in front of us. We're endlessly thinking about the future and the past, preoccupied by some anxiety or grievance, unable to engage the present moment. The pressures of civilization, like work, money, and health, pull us in different directions, to say nothing of our families or dreams. In addition, the technology of the twenty-first century (or sixty-first) provides a constant distraction from even these crucial thoughts, adding a layer of anxious entertainment over our already-distracted lives. This environment crowds our inner worlds, leaving little room for reflection on our thoughts and emotions, which results in a kind of short-mindedness. We react to things that aren't there in front of us as if they are. Having lost a greater perspective, we identify with our feelings immediately, and are compelled to react before something else sways us a different way.

Zen and Stoicism aim to alleviate the cacophony of these thoughts in order to experience reality more objectively, and to live a calmer, more sane life. To do this, each school has a different, though similar, way of thinking about thought itself. For example, the Stoics saw the mind as constantly beset by phantasiai, meaning "impressions," or "presentations." These impressions were broken down into different types, including those brought up by the outside world, those brought up by rational thought, those brought up by imagination, and others brought up by memory. What all of these impressions have in common is that they exist only in the mind.

The Stoics sought to inject reason into the space between impressions and reactions. Disturbing impressions, such as those that can bring about anxiety, depression, and shame, could be dealt with by understanding first that they are in fact impressions, then by subjecting them to the test of the Stoic, as we can see in the following Epictetus quote.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, 'You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.' And then examine it by the rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you. - Epictetus, The Enchiridion
Approaching it from a wider angle, Zen's Buddhism's understanding of thought is the same as Buddhism's take on everything: it's transient. Everything lives and dies, including thoughts. However, Buddha's basic lesson is that our lives are shaped by our minds; good thoughts lead to goodness, bad thoughts to badness, etc. Buddha urges the practitioner to refine one's willpower and self-awareness by studying precepts and meditating. Zazen, specifically, is a method that involves simply sitting and watching how one's mind works, which reveals the transitory nature of our drives and fears.
Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. - Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Zen practitioners learn to separate thoughts from their selves, understanding that thoughts inevitably arise on their own, and when not grasped also recede on their own. To practice zazen is to practice simply being present, without letting the mind wander into the past, the future, or elsewhere. This objective viewpoint presents itself more readily while sitting zazen than while engaging with the world, where the practitioner necessarily has to react to events that concern them. However, regular practice allows the Zen practitioner to bring this objectivity into real-world situations, and over time they become more "present" in any given moment.

JUDGEMENT AND ATTACHMENT

Zen and Stoicism each have unique practices for understanding how we add to our own suffering. Stoicism favors rational self-examination, asking one's self whether one's desires and fears are based on things in one's control, and if they are virtuous or not. On the other hand, Zen is obviously very heavy on seated meditation, preferring to simply sit and watch the mind and how it forms attachments and builds delusion.

The language Zen teachers use to talk about this process is interesting. There's some difficulty in talking about Zen, as it is a practice that is not supposed to be goal-oriented at all. Zen teachers don't want to say that Zen is about anything other than Zen itself. However, they can give vague guidelines on what we can expect to happen during the process. A common way to talk about zazen is that it's a kind of brutal self-examination. While one sits on the cushion, back straight and mind focused on the breath, thoughts from the sub-conscious come up. The method of zazen is to "watch" these thoughts without attaching any extra emotions or anxieties to them, and the way to do that is to return to focusing on the breath when one realizes they're focusing on a thought that's come up. This process is called "opening the hand of thought," and if done correctly and with consistent practice, it helps the practitioner understand their relationship with themselves and the world on a much deeper level.
Half the time we feel we can’t help what emotions we’re experiencing. But if you sit on the cushion long enough and watch them, you realize, “Oh, this is a choice I’m making.” And after a while eventually you can calm down enough to see that moment where you have the choice to act like an asshole or to choose differently. 
Transcending emotions doesn’t mean you have no feelings. You have them. But you recognize them for what they are and respond appropriately without letting them develop into what we call emotions, which are really just feelings that have been blown way out of proportion. - Brad Warner, Sex, Sin, and Zen
To use broader Buddhist language, zazen is the process of examining one's attachments. Its goal is not to cease all attachment, but to make one conscious of it and how it arises. When one is aware of an attachment, it becomes easier to stop contributing to it, if it leads to suffering.

The Stoics had a similar idea about the role we play in how we feel. Like Zen teacher Brad Warner does in the quote above, they separated feeling from emotion, and knew the latter as the passions. In Stoic philosophy, the four primary passions were Lust, Fear, Delight, and Distress, with all of their attendant emotions such as anxiety, shame, rage, and greed. The Stoics saw all of the passions as excessive, irrational emotions created primarily by improper judgement.
According to Stoic ethics, only virtues are truly good, whereas externals such as wealth, honor, power, and pleasure are indifferent to our happiness [eudaimonia] since each can also harm us and each ultimately lies beyond our control. These externals then are said to be morally "indifferent". When we mistakenly value something indifferent as though it were a genuine good, we form a false judgement and experience passion. - The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
For example, a Stoic can feel pleasure, but wouldn't hold pleasure as a value, as it's considered an "external," to phrase Epictetus; "something that can be taken away." Likewise, the philosopher may occasionally slip into passion as they confuse a good feeling for the perception of goodness itself, or a bad feeling for evil, but this is seen as a "miscalculation" on the part of the rational faculty. The Stoics advocate examining one's judgements and assumptions in order to examine their reasoning, and if that reasoning is not motivated by virtue, or if it's mistaken about what's in our control, then to use reason to examine what is virtuous and in our control, and strive for that. A well-ordered, well-functioning mind is the only thing truly worthy to the Stoic.

The core similarity between the Zen Buddhist idea of attachment and the Stoic idea of the passions is the understanding that strong emotions (and therefore suffering) arise from identifying with some impression, whether good or bad. Neither school advocates this course of action, but instead outlines an ideal for behavior arising from a solid understanding of the truth.

The first images of the Buddha were actually created by Greeks

THE IDEAL STATE OF EQUANIMITY

In Stoicism, the ideal is the sage, or sapiens, meaning "wise man." The sage embodies apatheia, which Seneca describes as: "the man who refuses to allow anything that goes badly for him to affect him... a mind that is ‘invulnerable’ or ‘above all suffering.'" The wise man is always content because he knows that he has everything he needs - he understands that nothing that's truly valuable can be taken away. He places no value on things that are impermanent, and this very understanding of his relationship to the world is the source of his flourishing. The good things in his life - luxury, pleasure, good company - are "preferred indifferents," not sufficient for happiness but can be used towards virtuous ends (as can be "dispreferred indifferents"). This is not to say that the Stoic is free from the entire spectrum of feelings common to the human experience, but that the way they respond to those feelings is ultimately rational.

Remember that the only thing that is truly good in the Stoic worldview is the perfection of reason, identified with virtue. The opposite of virtue, of course, is vice, which causes one to stray from virtue by corrupting one's reason. To value things external to the maintaining of one's virtue is to make one's happiness dependent on something outside of one's control - the ultimate irrational act.

The Sage is extremely rare. There are no known instances of "confirmed" sages throughout history. Some older philosophers have been suggested as candidates, but titling them as sages posthumously is a kind of sainthood, motivated by reverence more than anything. The Stoics regarded sagehood so highly that it was considered an impossible ideal for which it was nevertheless worth striving. To the ancient Stoics, only the sage was truly happy and sane.

The sage is certainly a high ideal, though Buddhism probably has them beat. The ideal state in Buddhism is the awakened one, and the awakened individual is known as a Buddha. A Buddha has directly experienced the truth of reality - that everything is impermanent, and the self is insubstantial. A Buddha desires nothing and fears nothing, having entered nirvana upon the realization of emptiness. This state is also known as the end of the noble eight-fold path (or the fourth noble truth), and is commonly referred to as as "being enlightened."

Because there are many schools of Buddhism, there are many views on what a Buddha is and does, how a Buddha comes about, and just how many Buddhas there have been. Some of these schools see Buddhas as supernatural beings with powers of omniscience, who escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Others see the original Buddha as merely a human who discovered a truth about the world. What's consistent about these interpretations is that a Buddha is seen as somebody who has "gone beyond," and transcended the banal desires, fears, and ignorance that mark human life. In any given school, the specifics about the nature of Buddhahood are tied to their views on enlightenment, which also has a variety of interpretations.

However, Zen does not place much emphasis on enlightenment. In fact, Soto Zen, the school of Zen I practice (also the largest), is distinguished in part by its understanding that human beings are originally enlightened, and the practice of zazen is the "resuming of Buddha-nature."
In buddha-dharma [i.e. Buddhism], practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner's wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice. - Dogen, Bendōwa
In other words, to practice Zen is to embody enlightenment. This understanding places the ideal not in a state of being, but in a constant process of realization and acceptance. Zazen, seated meditation, is therefore the most important part of Zen practice, if not comprising the whole of it. However, any Zen teacher will tell you that a good practice is defined by consistency, and that after a while it becomes easier in normal life to realize the state achieved in zazen. To quote Dogen again, "There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life."

It's very difficult to become a Buddha or a Sage, the requirement being the perfection of wisdom in a person. Such wisdom requires self-awareness and constant discipline, and may in fact be impossible. However, these models are set before us so that we might have signposts in this life. Both the Buddha and the Sage represent the ideals of a well-trained mind. Embodying wisdom, unswayed by fortune or feeling, they have wills of iron and are morally beyond reproach. Death is nothing to them, while life is a careful art.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Chinese New Year and the Era of Civilization

On Saturday, the Chinese will celebrate the new year on their Lunisolar calendar. It will mark the year 4715.

What happened 4715 years ago? In Chinese myth and religion, apparently 2698 BC (on the Gregorian calendar) was the beginning of the reign of the Yellow Emperor, thought to be the "initiator of Chinese civilization" according to Wikipedia. That's not to say that the Chinese didn't exist before then, but his place at the beginning of their calendar at least signifies an important distinction between what came before and everything after. Of course, there are a LOT of historical reasons for the way the current Chinese calendar is formulated.

Placing Year One on a calendar at the beginning of civilization makes a lot of sense. Calendars are an invention of civilization. They don't just tell time, they tell a story about the culture it belongs to. For example, the current year on the Hebrew calendar is 5777, with Year One taking place a year before the creation of the world in the Jewish myth of Genesis.

The calendar used all over the world today, the Gregorian Calendar, is of course a Christian invention, placing Year One at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. This calendar frames the history of Western civilization, and indeed the entire world, as the story of a Christian world. But civilization as a whole is far older than that. Why should the world run on a calendar based around a religion followed only by a third of the people in it?

I think there's something very satisfying about placing Year One at the beginning of civilization, as it marks the beginning of humanity as we know it today. The distinction is important, as humanity was thought to have achieved "behavioral modernity" about 50,000 years ago, which means that the project of civilization itself is a a relatively new one in the history of our species. We are still sorting through the various ways the environment of civilization has forced us to evolve, be it physically, mentally, socially, or otherwise.

But when to put Year One on the calendar of civilization? Western civilization is thought to have its roots in ancient Mesopotamia (meaning "between rivers": the Tigris and Euphrates, located in current-day Iraq and Syria). The first civilization to be founded there is thought to be Sumer, from which we get the story of Gilgamesh.



There's no exact date on the founding of Sumerian civilization, as written records from that time didn't emerge until a good while after the Sumerians arrived on the scene. Additionally, there is some debate among historians about when to place such a date, with some saying around 4000 BC and some saying a good deal older. However, that ~4000 BC date seems to be what is conventionally accepted, as it is the beginning of the Uruk period, named after the city of Uruk, thought to be the oldest of the Sumerian cities. Additionally, the fourth millennium BC is the beginning of the Bronze age, marking a significant departure in human development.

So, if one wanted to create a calendar based on the story of civilization (or at least Western civilization, though the Chinese and Indians popped up separately and around the same time as the Mesopotamians), one might simply add 4000 to our current year, which would make this year 6017. That's 6,017 years of organized agriculture, social stratification, government, written history, taxes, population density, specialist occupations, and politics, things we all take for granted today. That's 6,017 years out of 50,000 years of behavioral modernity, a mere 12% of the existence of humanity.

I think this is a fascinating, and even useful, formulation of time. In today's world we are still dealing with the problems posed by civilization, be it social stratification, the concentration of power, the effect on the environment, and the roles that it forces us into in order to survive. And there's a rich history in those 4000 unacknowledged years, from which the basis of our culture today was formed. I think we are better off looking at the bigger picture.

Here are some important historical dates revised with 4000BC as Year One (subtract all BC years from 4001). I separated them by millennia. I know this is lacking quite a lot, and it's very U.S.-centric, but I'm not trying to give a history of the whole world here. Significant dates in the history of the Roman Empire are in bold because of the through-line it makes in Western history.

THE INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION

With a few other dates thrown in

FIRST MILLENNIUM - Early Bronze Age
  • 1: Sumerian Civilization in Mesopotamia (Uruk period)
  • 239: Beginning of Hebrew calendar
  • 801: Invention of writing in Egypt and Mesopotamia
  • 851: Unification of Egypt and founding of First Dynasty
SECOND MILLENNIUM - Bronze Age
  • 1111: Second Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1200~1500: Estimated date that Gilgamesh ruled Uruk
  • 1300: Minoan Greek Bronze Age
  • 1303: Beginning of the reign of the Yellow Emperor in China. Start of the Chinese calendar
  • 1461: Great Pyramid of Giza built during Fourth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1503: Fifth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1651: Akkad arises from Sumeria
  • 1871: Tenth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1900: Sumerian poems of the Epic of Gilgamesh dated to around this time
  • 1951: Assyria gains independence from Sumeria

THIRD MILLENNIUM - Middle-Late Bronze Age, Collapse, Iron Age
  • 2000: Canaanite city-states founded in the Levant
  • 2107: Babylon arises from Akkad
  • 2401: Mycenaean Greece
  • 2689 - 2729: Writing of the Torah
  • 2722: Ramesses II rules Egypt as part of Nineteenth Dynasty
  • 2807~2817: Estimated date of Trojan war
  • 2824: Bronze Age Collapse, affecting Egypt, Greece, and much of the Mediterranean. The Greeks lose the ability to write.
  • 2976: King Saul rules the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, followed by David and Solomon (estimated)

FOURTH MILLENNIUM - Late Iron Age, "Axial Age," Classical Antiquity
  • 3041: Solomon's temple in Jerusalem completed
  • 3200s: Greeks adopt alphabet from Phoenicians
  • 3240 - 3290s: The Iliad is written, followed soon by the Odyssey
  • 3248: Founding of Roman Kingdom
  • 3261: Assyria conquers Israel
  • 3396: Jewish Babylonian captivity
  • 3396 - 3439: Nebuchadnezzar II rules Babylon as king, during which the Hanging Gardens were said to have been built.
  • 3407: Athenian Greek Democracy
  • 3415: Destruction of Solomon's Temple by Babylon Empire
  • 3434: Birth of Buddha
  • 3451: Zoroaster, founding of Achaemenid empire
  • 3462: Fall of Babylon to Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great releases the captive Jews the next year
  • 3476: Fall of Egypt to Achaemenid Empire
  • 3485: Second Temple in Jerusalem constructed
  • 3492: Founding of Roman Republic
  • 3511: Battle of Marathon, between Greece and Achaemenid Empire
  • 3518: Death of Buddha
  • 3521: Battle of Thermopylae, second invasion of Greece by Achaemenid empire
  • 3523 - 3597: Golden Age of Athens
  • 3561: Herodotus' Histories published
  • 3669: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt, then Judea, the next year conquers Achaemenid Empire
  • 3678: Alexander dies, leaving behind a fractured empire
  • 3721 - 3871: Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) written
  • 3855: Roman rule of Greece
  • 3956: Julian Calendar adopted (709 AUC - 709 years since founding of Rome)
  • 3957: Death of Julius Caesar
  • 3971: Ptolemaic Egypt falls to Rome
  • 3972 - 3982: Virgil writes the Aeneid
  • 3974: Founding of Roman Empire
  • 3997: Jesus of Nazareth is born

FIFTH MILLENNIUM - Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages/"Dark Ages"
  • 4030: Jesus executed by Rome for the crime of sedition
  • 4070: Rome besieges Jerusalem and destroys the Second Temple. Books of the New Testament written in Greek.
  • 4284: Emperor Diocletian splits Rome in two, with the eastern capital in Byzantium, later called Constantinople
  • 4325: First Council of Nicaea, organized by Emperor Constantine
  • 4391: Library of Alexandria in Egypt destroyed by imperial decree against paganism
  • 4434 - 4453: Attila rules the Huns, invades Europe, dies
  • 4476: Fall of Western Rome during age of Germanic migration
  • 4571 - 4632: Life of Mohammed. He and his followers take over the Arabian Peninsula. Rashidun Caliphate established after death.
  • 4632 - 4661: Rashidun Caliphate takes the Levant and Egypt from Byzantine Empire and conquers the Sassanid Empire in Persia.
  • 4661 - 4750: Umayyad Caliphate established, conquers land from Iberian Peninsula and Northern Africa to the west, to the Indus Valley to the east, and Caucasus mountains to the north.
  • 4718: Reconquista begins on the Iberian Peninsula with the Battle of Covadonga
  • 4786: Islamic Golden Age begins with reign of Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid and the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, a major intellectual center in the middle ages
  • 4793: Viking age begins
  • 4800: Charlemagne, beginning of France and Holy Roman Empire

SIXTH MILLENNIUM - Late Middle Ages and the Modern Period
  • 5066: William the Conqueror invades and rules England
  • 5068: Seljuk Empire takes Anatolia from Byzantine Empire as part of its expansion from Persia
  • 5095 - 5192: First - Third Crusades
  • 5202 - 5204: Fourth Crusade, including sacking of Constantinople
  • 5215: Signing of the Magna Carta
  • 5232 - 5240: Mongol Empire invades Kievan Rus' in eastern Europe, destroying many cities
  • 5258: Islamic Golden Age ends with the Siege of Baghdad by the Mongols
  • 5270s: Codex Regius, the primary source for much of Viking poetry and lore, transcribed
  • 5299: Osman I founds and rules the Ottoman dynasty in Anatolia
  • ~5300 - ~5600: The Renaissance
  • 5337 - 5453: Hundred Years' War between England and France
  • 5346 - 5353: The Black Death
  • 5453: Fall of Byzantine Empire (Eastern Rome) to Mehmet the Conquerer, 7th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire
  • 5475: The Printing Press
  • 5492: Columbus discovers America. End of Reconquista in Spain.
  • 5517: Protestant Reformation
  • 5520: By the time of his death, Selim I, 9th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, conquers the Middle East, including the Levant, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula
  • 5541: Suleiman the Magnificent, 10th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, annexes most of Hungary
  • 5582: Gregorian Calendar adopted
  • 5618-5648: Thirty Years' War
  • 5650: Age of Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution
  • 5754 - 5763: Seven Years' War (French and Indian War in America)
  • 5760: Industrial Revolution
  • 5776: Declaration of Independence (United States)
  • 5789 - 5799: French Revolution
  • 5803: Louisiana Purchase (United States)
  • 5804: Napolean titled Emperor of France
  • 5806: Fall of Holy Roman Empire to Napolean
  • 5810 - 5821: Mexican war of Independence
  • 5821: Greece gains independence from Ottoman Empire
  • 5836: Texas revolution, gains independence from Mexico
  • 5845 - 5848: The United States annexes Texas and goes to war with Mexico, which results in the additions of land from Texas to the west coast.
  • 5861 - 5865: U.S. Civil War and end of slavery
  • 5870 - 5871: Franco-Prussian War, resulting in formation of French Republic and German Empire
  • 5876: Canadian Independence
  • 5914: World War I
  • 5920: Women granted right to vote (U.S.)
  • 5939: World War II
  • 5963: Civil Rights (U.S.)
  • 5990: Widespread use of the Internet

SEVENTH MILLENNIUM - Contemporary History
  • 6001: 9/11
  • 6017: Today

EDIT: A friend just sent me the following video, proposing a different scheme for setting the era. 


I personally prefer starting the calendar at the beginning of Sumerian civilization for my reason stated above, that the calendar itself is an invention of civilization, and civilization itself was a major turning point for humanity in that it permanently altered our environment. As the Indus Valley civilization and Chinese civilizations were getting started around the same time, it would be just as inclusive. Instead of HE: the Human Era, I'd propose HC: Human Civilization. All prehistoric achievements like the first temples would be marked as BHC.

Edit 2: This video rules: