July 06, 2006

Learning from computer games

It's been dismissed by some as children's fluff, but I have to say the current version of Sid Meier's Pirates is a better historical Caribbean simulator than I would have thought.

I was initially turned off when I purchased this product, because two of the five campaigns were manifestly unrealistic (the game gives a choice of starting as a pirate in 1600, 1620, 1640, 1660, or 1680... the first two have a significant non-Spanish resident population in the Caribbean, but France, Britain and Holland didn't really establish permanent colonies there until the 1630s). It was very entertaining, but I didn't really think there was any learning value there.

Still, I gave it another try this week, and found I relearned something about the Caribbean (and sail-age naval strategy in general) I'd never really internalized until now: the tremendous power of prevailing wind patterns in this era to shape strategic-level events.

Obviously I knew wind advantage had tactical force, with the gaining of the "weather-gauge" a key part of all pre-battle maneuvering, but I don't think until now I'd appreciated the effect that the consistent southeasterly winds of the Caribbean had on privateering and colonization patterns.

You can't really excel at Sid Meier's Pirates until you grasp a simple fact... most of the time, you can't sail south-east. What this means in practice is that for a pirate, either the outbound or inbound leg of any given raid is consumed with laborious tacking maneuvers, as the crew grows ever more restless and food runs steadily out. Large parts of the game in these runs are spent intently watching the wind direction: when you're headed southeast, as soon as the wind shifts to the northeast, you have to immediately tack to the southeast to get the maximum advantage from that brief period where the wind is not blowing directly at you, before tacking back to the northeast the moment it shifts back again. Ultimately half the time you end up missing your destination to the north before turning around and being able to take advantage of the winds for the end run into port.

Navigation under these circumstances, even with a good map, would have been astonishingly difficult at times, obviously. Worst case is getting caught to the southwest of a large landmass like Haiti or Cuba or Florida; a few days of unfavourable winds and you're pinned up against the lee shore with weeks to go until you can get back into some sea room. This alone explains why the north side and east end of Cuba were the first to get permanent settlement, for instance.

Most trips in this period would have ended up being triangular, as travelling from a southeast to a northeast point directly is extremely inefficient on the return leg. The most efficient triangles have their longest side oriented roughly diagonally, northeast to southwest (or vice versa), as this leg can be traversed relatively rapidly in either direction (going perpendicular to the prevailing winds like this is not the fastest single leg, of course, which is still going due north or west, but going in the other direction is so extremely time-consuming that it's not viable (real life travel times in this era were roughly tripled when the direction was reversed). The game accurately reflects all this... you also start to appreciate why voyages, particularly those against the wind direction, could often end up making land at what seems like wildly divergent locations, or with completely unpredictable arrival times: even assuming your navigation is good, once you need to tack repeatedly, both become almost semi-random variables.

When you think about this for a minute, you begin to see why non-Spanish colonial settlement in the Caribbean fanned outwards to the north and west from Barbados (you can get anywhere fast from Barbados), and why the British seizure of Jamaica after 1655 would have been so devastating to Spanish interests in Central and South America (it basically opened up Panama-Porto Bello, and all the gold and silver being shipped through there from Peru and the Pacific, to permanent raiding and blockade, whenever the English desired it, thereafter).

So there you go: I learned (or at least re-learned) something from a computer game. I know I'll never look at another sail-era maritime problem without a prevailing wind map again, at any rate.

In other colonial history yabbering news, good thread at Jim's place.

Posted by BruceR at 12:29 PM