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What if We Replace Guns and Bullets with Bows and Arrows?

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Image: University of Chicago students practice archery. Image by Bardon, Emmet. University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.

Why did firearms and bullets replace bows and arrows? To many, this sounds like a stupid question with an obvious answer: the firearm succeeded the bow because it’s a superior weapon. Let’s investigate.

Strength and skills

Hand-held firearms are usually assessed or compared in terms of performance characteristics such as lethality, range, and rate of fire. However, if we apply the same criteria to bows, two difficulties quickly present themselves. First, the performance of the bow depends on the archer's strength. The bow is a human-powered weapon and thus only as powerful as the archer who draws it. That is not the case with the firearm, where the energy comes from explosives, and the shooter's strength is of little importance.

The force required to pull a specific bow is typically measured in pounds (lbs) and expressed as the bow’s “draw weight.” Nowadays, most recreational archers and bow hunters shoot bows with a draw weight of 30 to 70 lbs. The effort to draw such a bow corresponds to lifting a weight of 15 to 35 kg. 1 Similar draw weights seem to have been quite common throughout (pre)history, both for hunting and warfare. However, some archers used bows with higher draw weights. For example, during the heydays of the longbow in medieval England, the draw weight for war bows peaked between 100 and 140 pounds, with some archers shooting 200 pounds weapons. Composite bows had higher draw weights, too. 23456

The bow is a human-powered weapon and thus only as powerful as the archer who draws it

Second, how the bow performs depends to a large extent on the skills of the archer. 467 Both the bow and the firearm require the shooter to develop aiming skills. However, the archer first has to master “pulling the trigger.” Pulling the trigger of a firearm does not require any skill or practice. In contrast, the archer needs to perform a sequence of actions flawlessly to make an accurate shot even possible. A slight variation in body posture or a jerky string release is enough to make the arrow go off the mark. Aiming is more difficult with a bow than with a firearm as well. Unless the target is very close, the archer needs to compensate for gravity and shoot the arrow in an arc – hence the word archery. 8 Because bullets travel much faster than arrows, a gunner can aim in a straight line, which is easy.

Preindustrial bow vs. modern firearm

For reasons that will become clear, I compare the modern firearm to the preindustrial bow, not the modern bow. I include self-bows (made from a single stave of wood) and composite bows (which consist of layers of different materials, usually wood, horn, and sinew). Furthermore, I assume that a relatively strong and skillful archer draws the bow. We have a pretty accurate picture of what premodern archers and their weapons could accomplish, thanks to written resources, archeological evidence, and scientific experiments with replicas of preindustrial weapons.

1. Lethality

The lethality of a weapon is the capacity to cause death or harm. Every weapon can kill, but some are more likely to do so than others. The lethality of firearms is often defined by calculating momentum and kinetic energy of bullets. These concepts from physics indicate the ability of bullets to penetrate a target. Penetration increases with the projectile's speed and weight. Bullets travel faster than arrows, but arrows are heavier than bullets. 9

Nevertheless, if you calculate the momentum and kinetic energy of arrows, even the most potent bow seems much less lethal than a firearm. When shot from a 170 lbs war bow, an arrow's kinetic energy is only 96 foot-pounds, compared to 117 foot-pounds for a bullet fired from a small 0.22LR caliber pistol, 383 foot-pounds for a round fired from a 9 mm caliber pistol, and 1,300 to 2,800 foot-pounds for a projectile fired from a rifle. 10 The difference for momentum is smaller, but bullets clearly win in both cases.

Arrows are much more energy efficient than bullets. The shape of an arrow – unlike that of a bullet – favors penetration.

However, arrows are much more energy efficient than bullets. The shape of an arrow – unlike that of a bullet – favors penetration. Because of its elongated shape, an arrow's mass per cross-sectional area (the sectional density) is much higher than in the case of a bullet. 111213 Consequently, an arrow requires much less momentum and kinetic energy to penetrate tissue to the same depth as a bullet. There is no need for a 170 pounds war bow – a bow with a draw weight of 45 lbs can kill almost any creature on this planet. Medieval English longbow archers only used such high draw weights because their arrows had to penetrate thick steel plate armor, which became common in the 1400s. 64


Image. Because of its elongated shape, an arrow's mass per cross-sectional area (the sectional density) is much higher than in the case of a bullet. Image credit: Tim Ormsby.

However, bullets do more damage when they hit the target. Arrows penetrate tissue by slicing and cutting, similar to the damage done by a dagger or a knife. Consequently, injury is limited to the tissue incised by direct contact with the arrowhead. In contrast, bullets penetrate tissue by brute force, which can cause significant damage to tissue and organs not directly touched by the projectile. This effect becomes more pronounced as bullet caliber and speed increase and is most noticeable with rifles. 911121415

Based on wound damage alone, one could thus argue that bullets are more lethal than arrows. Small caveat, though: if the archer is skillful enough to hit vital body parts, an arrow can be just as lethal. The gunner, on the other hand, doesn’t need to aim so precisely to make a kill. Furthermore, it can be difficult – and sometimes impossible – to remove arrowheads from a victim’s body, even in a modern healthcare context. 11 Arrowheads tend to get stuck into bones, and war arrowheads often had barbs that complicated removal. 16

2. Range

Range distinguishes a missile weapon from a melee weapon (used in close combat). The person holding the weapon with the most range can hit the other while the other cannot hit back. In hunting, range makes it less likely that the hunter gets killed. The maximum range of a weapon defines how far you can shoot a missile, and the effective range marks how far you can cast it with sufficient accuracy and hitting power.

Conveniently, a bowshot was a common measure of distance. In England, it was eventually standardized at 204 yards (187 meters). 6 Being a standard, this was not the range obtained by stronger archers, who used bows with higher draw weights. 2 Historical sources from the middle ages put the maximum range of a war longbow between 200 and 400 yards (183-366 meters). 46 The current record with an English longbow, established in 2017, is 412.82 m. 17 Composite horse bows obtained longer ranges, between 300 and 530 meters. 18 The current record, established in 2019, stands at 566.83 meters. 1920

Unlike a bullet, an arrow remains lethal during its entire flight

Modern firearms have a much greater maximum range than preindustrial bows. However, their effective range is similar, at least for pistols and guns (not so for rifles). For example, the maximum range of a Beretta M9 handgun – a US military weapon – is 1,800 meters, but its effective range is only 50 meters. The US Army defines the effective range of a firearm as the maximum range at which an average soldier can hit a stationary, torso-sized target with an accuracy of 51%. I could not find similar data for archers, but the available information suggests that the bow can obtain a similar accurate range.

For example, a study of a 1916 archery competition in New Jersey – when archers still shot wooden self-bows – revealed the accuracy of the five best archers, each shooting a total of 90 arrows from three different distances: 40, 50, and 60 yards (37, 46 and 55 meters). The target measured 121 cm in diameter (the typical practice target), not a human torso but a comparable size. The percentage of arrows that hit the target was 98% at 37m, 96% at 46m, and 88% at 55m. 2122


Image: English singer, poet, and archer Ingo Simon shooting a Turkish composite bow. Via Bow International.

Comparing the range of bows and firearms is far from straightforward. Bullets travel very fast initially (almost 3,000 km/h) but quickly lose speed along their trajectory. In contrast, an arrow travels relatively slowly (150-250 km/h) but loses very little speed. 56 The same characteristics that make it easily penetrate a target also help to penetrate the air. Furthermore, unlike bullets, arrows fly – they are among the first applications of aeronautics, thousands of years before the invention of the airplane. 923

As a consequence, an arrow remains lethal during its entire flight, even at maximum range. Stronger still, its lethality increases if shot at an angle of 45 degrees, compared to shooting at medium range. 46924 The arrow will gain speed – and thus momentum and kinetic energy – on its way down. In contrast, when you shoot a bullet in an arc for maximum range, it will have lost so much speed that it’s unlikely to be lethal when it hits the ground. 25 A bullet not only needs more momentum and kinetic energy to penetrate a target. It also requires more speed to compensate for its inferior aerodynamics.

Although the accurate range of bows is smaller than that of rifles (which can be effective up to a distance of several hundreds of meters or more), the maximal cast of powerful bows equals the effective range of some rifles. As we shall see later, unlike recreational archers in the West today, preindustrial archers routinely practiced their skills at the ultimate range of their weapons. 26

3. Rate of fire

The rate of fire determines how many projectiles a weapon can launch in a given time frame. The higher the rate of fire, the higher the chance that one of the projectiles will hit the target.

When visiting a modern archery shooting range, one gets the impression that bows have a much lower rate of fire than firearms. However, modern archery is 100% focused on millimeter accuracy. Aiming is a slow process that often involves fiddling with instruments and looking through sights – many modern bows are essentially sniper weapons. Previously, archers aimed intuitively, with both eyes open and fixed on the target. Intuitive aiming requires more skill – it depends on eye-body coordination, like throwing a stone – but it can be just as accurate and has the obvious advantage of speed.

Medieval English archers had to be able to shoot 10 to 12 well-aimed arrows per minute -- one shot every 5 to 6 seconds. 6927 The best longbow archers could launch up to 30 missiles per minute – one every two seconds. 28 This is comparable to the sustained rate of fire for semi-automatic firearms – between 12 and 15 rounds per minute. 29 The sustained rate of fire includes the time it takes to aim, reload, and prevent overheating and malfunctioning of the firearm. For the bow, it depends on the dexterity, strength and endurance of the archer.

In the hands of skillful and strong archers, bows can produce a similar rate of fire as semi-automatic weapons, and they can outperform guns and pistols

Firearms can surpass their sustained rate of fire for a short time, ignoring the time for cooling down the weapon. Most semi-automatic weapons (which fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger) obtain a rapid rate of fire of about 45 rounds per minute. If there is no need to reload ammunition, the rate of fire can increase even further. The average shooter can fire a semi-automatic handgun at a rate of about 2 to 3 bullets per second while pointing at a single stationary target. However, military training aims to produce a well-aimed shot every one to two seconds. 29

Composite bow archers, in particular, developed ways of shooting that could compete with the rapid rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons. Horse archers launched arrows with a thumb draw, which differs from the Mediterranean draw used by self-bow (and modern) archers. The horse archer put the projectile on the other side of the bow (right side if right-handed) and pressed it against the string with a thumb ring. The thumb draw allows you to nock and launch with one continuous movement. Some Native Americans used the pinch draw – which had similar advantages. 30


Image. A Manchu archer shooting a composite bow with a thumb release. Source: Klopsteg, Paul Ernest. "Turkish archery and the composite bow: a review of an old chapter in the chronicles of archery and a modern interpretation." (1947).


Image. The thumb draw. Source: Klopsteg, Paul Ernest. "Turkish archery and the composite bow: a review of an old chapter in the chronicles of archery and a modern interpretation." (1947).

For short bursts of fire, composite bow archers kept extra arrows in their bow or string hand, allowing a higher rate of fire than when pulling arrows from a quiver. The fastest way of shooting involved laying up to five arrows on the bow parallel to each other, nocking each one consecutively. Lars Anderson, a Danish archer who revived the interest in Asian archery in the West in recent years, shoots up to ten aimed arrows in just 5 seconds – two per second. Anderson also manages to shoot three arrows in just 0.6 seconds after putting them ready on the bow. 31

4. Ammunition supply

In the hands of skillful and strong archers, bows can thus produce a similar rate of fire as semi-automatic weapons, and they can outperform guns and pistols. However, they cannot compete with automatic firearms (machine guns), which fire bullets as long as the shooter presses and holds the trigger. The machine gun appeared in the 1860s and can fire 30 rounds in just two seconds. 29

Furthermore, most archers will run out of ammunition faster than gunners. English longbow archers carried a maximum of about 25-50 arrows with them, which would all be gone after shooting a few minutes at maximal rate of fire. In contrast, US soldiers take seven magazines with a total supply of 200 bullets. 29 On their campaign in France, English archers were followed by dozens of supply wagons with spare arrows. 6

Parthian horse archers operated with a camel supply of more than 1,000 animals loaded with spare arrows

Horse archers carried more ammunition, from 60 to 80 arrows and up to 400 arrows in saddleside quivers. Their tactics were also aimed at keeping the enemy on the move, which facilitated the collection and reuse of their arrows. Horse archers could quickly ride to the supply train and back. Parthian horse archers, who defeated the Roman army several times, operated with a camel supply of more than 1,000 animals loaded with spare arrows. 24

5. Stealth & handling

A weapon's size and the space required to use it also determine its performance. Preindustrial bows were featherlight (around 500 g) but larger than modern firearms, and the archer needed more elbow room to launch a projectile. A gun or rifle can be shot from almost any position, while a self-bow is most effective when the archer is standing. That makes it harder for the archer to conceal himself and makes the weapon unpractical in some environments. Its size and light weight also makes the bow an inferior melee weapon. Archers usually carried a sword for hand-to-hand combat. 8 In contrast, the modern firearm works as a ranged and melee weapon.


Image: A archer prepares to launch an arrow while huddled on the ground. Photo by Rudolph Martin Anderson, 1916, Canadian Museum of History. CC BY-SA 4.0.

On the other hand, the composite bow is much shorter than the self-bow. The thumb release gives the archer flexibility to be able to shoot to any direction and nearly in any position. There are also historical examples of small “pocket bows” with short draw lengths, lethal only at short range. 32 Furthermore, although the size of some bows makes it harder for the archer to conceal himself, bows partly compensate for this by being silent. The sound of a gunshot immediately gives away the position of the shooter.

When inferiority ruled: early firearms

When comparing the performance characteristics of preindustrial bows and modern firearms, it’s tempting to conclude that firearms replaced bows because they are indeed technologically superior. The difference in performance may not be as big as many people would have suspected. But even the most skillful archers from the middle ages could not compete with all types of modern firearms, especially not with rifles and machine guns.

However, bows became obsolete centuries before the advance of modern firearms. On the Europen continent, firearms – first the arquebus, then the musket – became the dominant hand-held missile weapons from the 1500s onwards. 933 The reason could not have been a better technical performance, because preindustrial firearms were in almost every respect inferior to bows. Firearms only matched bows in technical performance between the 1850s and the 1900s, thanks to industrial manufacturing methods. 924


Image: Men firing muskets. Credit: Edd Scorpio, Wikimedia commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The only technical advantage of early firearms was their lethality. Just like today, a bullet did more damage than an arrow. 3435 However, unlike today, actually hitting the target was quite a challenge. Compared to bows, early firearms were inaccurate, had a short range, and a low rate of fire. Before the twentieth century, gunners received no training at all because firearms were inaccurate, even in the hands of experienced shooters. 27 As late as 1793 – after roughly 300 years of use on the battlefield – a series of trials in England showed that the musket was less accurate than the longbow. 34 Around the same period, Benjamin Franklin considered arming American Revolutionary soldiers with longbows because they were more efficient than muskets. 4242736

As late as 1793 – after roughly 300 years of use on the battlefield – a series of trials in England showed that the musket was less accurate than the longbow

The main weakness of early firearms – and the last one to be solved – was their low rate of fire. The musketeer had to follow a series of manual steps for every shot. 34 In the time a man needed to load his musket and fire one round, a skillful archer could launch up to a dozen arrows towards him. During the US Civil War (1861-1865), the range of rifles had become similar to the range of war bows (200-300 yards), but the rate of fire was still as low as three bullets per minute. 9 Preindustrial firearms were also unreliable, while bows seldom failed. Even in the late 1700s, roughly 15% of musket shots misfired, increasing to 90% in wind and rain. Finally, a musket was as long as a bow and much heavier (7-9kg). 36


Image: A 17th century Dutch musket. Source: Rijksmuseum, image in the public domain.


Image: An English Civil War manual of the New Model Army showing a part of the steps required to load and fire an earlier musket. Image in the Public Domain.

The firearm also had tactical disadvantages. First, while the flat trajectory of bullets made aiming easier, it also meant that the volume of fire was limited further. 46 Archers could stand in deep formations and shoot simultaneously with several ranks at once – the archers in the back shooting over the heads of those in front. This technique, called “volley shooting”, had been in use since Antiquity. 24 In contrast, only two ranks of musketeers could shoot simultaneously (one rank kneeling, the other standing). Likewise, musketeers could only target the front ranks of an enemy force, and they could not lob their projectiles over a castle wall.

Second, archers could kill indirectly (and cause a lot of destruction) with fire arrows. These were slightly longer projectiles that carried combustible materials. Some types were for immediate use, while others required preparation in the field. 437 Their effect could be devastating in a time when people made buildings and ships from flammable materials. Defensive forces could set fire to supply wagons or siege engines of attacking armies. 6 Horse archers ignited the high grasses of the steppes to stop opposing troops. 33 Using fire arrows, bows were “firearms”, too.

The crossbow

The firearm was not the first weapon to replace the bow. On the European continent, the crossbow became the dominant missile weapon in warfare by the 1200s. Early firearms then largely superseded crossbows in the 1500s. 46 The crossbow, around since Ancient times, is a human-powered spring just like the bow. However, its operation is very much like that of a firearm. The projectile is locked in place, and the shooter only needs to aim to make an accurate shot. The crossbowman tensions the weapon through different mechanisms, like a stirrup, a double crank windlass, or a pulley system.


Image: crossbow with ammunition. Germany, 16th-17th century. Wood, leather, steel; overall: 37.2 cm (14 5/8 in.). Source: Internet Archive.

People often consider the crossbow technically superior to the bow, and that it largely replaced the bow in Europe only seems to confirm this. However, a comparison of the performance characteristics shows two equally valid weapons, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. A crossbow bolt was more powerful than an arrow, making it better suited for piercing armor. 38 Furthermore, a crossbowman needed less elbow room and could wear heavier body armor that would have interfered with the operation of a bow. 8 However, the crossbow was very heavy and its rate of fire was just as low as that of a firearm. Neither were crossbows suited for launching missiles in an arc.

When we compare the performance of the crossbow to that of the early firearm, a curious observation follows: the crossbow is clearly the superior weapon. It shared the low rate of fire with the early firearm, but at least the crossbow had an accuracy, range, and reliability that could match the bow. The crossbow was also relatively silent in operation and did not produce smoke (as all early firearms did). And yet, the firearm replaced the crossbow, not the other way around. Consequently, contrary to what most people assume, the bow and the crossbow were not succeeded by weapons that were superior in their technical performance. The opposite happened. Between 1400 and 1900, European armies replaced first-rate weapons by inferior weapons.

Taking the skill and effort out of killing someone

Looking at performance characteristics alone, the evolution of hand-held missile weapons in Europe seems to make little sense. Differences in manufacturing techniques don’t seem to explain it either. Bullets were cheaper to produce than arrows, but self-bows were more economical to make than firearms. The sequence from bow to crossbow and firearm makes more sense when we compare these weapons in terms of their learnability. The crossbowman only needed to aim well and could shoot in a straight line instead of an arc, which made the crossbow simpler to use than the bow. It also required less muscular strength than the bow, but the crossbow was still a human-powered weapon. The firearm did away with that.

Rather than being technically superior weapons, firearms took the skills and muscular effort out of killing someone from a distance

Rather than being technically superior weapons, firearms took the skills and muscular effort out of killing someone from a distance. The main reason most European armies switched from bows to crossbows and then firearms was the short learning curves of these weapons. Crossbowmen and musketeers required little or no training, while it took many years of practice to build an archer skillful and strong enough to be of use in warfare. 467839 The crossbow and the firearm thus expanded the number of people in a given population that could become soldiers. 40 That was great news for those in power because they could now build large armies quickly.

Archery practice

The importance of learnability is easy to forget nowadays because firearms are extremely easy to operate. With a machine gun, it’s not even necessary to aim well. In contrast, putting together and maintaining an army of archers required a lot of effort. Wherever the bow was an important weapon on the battlefield, archery practice was part of daily life. A well-documented example is England, where the longbow was retired from military service only in 1595 – roughly 400 years after most European armies had switched to crossbows and a century after the advance of early firearms.


Image: High school archery practice, 1962. Source: The Newark Public Library. Internet Archive.

The English crown forced its entire male population to practice archery. Legislation started in the 1250s and became increasingly strict in the centuries that followed. 4641428 All men between the ages of 17 and 60 had to own a longbow and were obliged to practice on Sundays and festive days. Parents had to provide boys with a bow and arrows by age seven. Other sports as football, tennis, and handball, were outlawed to eliminate distractions from archery practice.

Wherever the bow was an important weapon on the battlefield, archery practice was part of daily life

The principal mode of archery practice was shooting at the butts. These were mounds of earth, stone, and peat situated on common land that measured up to 200 meters long. These shooting grounds (known as butts, too) could be in the open countryside, within towns and villages, or on land adjoining castles or forts. 4655 Archery practice also involved prick or clout shooting, which is the art of shooting an arrow in a large arc and dropping it into a target from above at maximum range. This trained archers in volley shooting. Another form of practice was shooting at the popinjay, almost straight up into the sky. This trained archers for sieges and naval battles, where they had to hit targets high in the rigging of enemy ships.

In horse archer cultures, the type of practice was different, reflecting more mobile tactics on the battlefield. 24 The most typical military training in composite bow cultures were games where archers ran their horses over specially designed tracks, shooting sideways, backward, and up in the air at consecutive targets along both sides of the route. A 17th-century Ottoman archery manual of military horsemanship described nearly 20 different drills, sometimes combining the bow and the sword. 4 Many nomadic people taught their children to ride animals and shoot bows from a very young age. 36


Image: A Mongolian child archer. Credit: Nasanbat Nasaa. Via Traditional Manchu Archery.


Image: A Mongolian horse archer. Credit: Nasanbat Nasaa. Via Traditional Manchu Archery.

For many centuries, archery was a religious duty and a sign of status in the Islamic Crescent, from Turkey to India. It developed as a martial art and a ritual practice that supported social order and spiritual development in China, Japan, Mongolia, and Korea. 4344 The focus was not just on accuracy and range but also on rapid shooting, endurance, and shooting from awkward positions. For example, a particular practice in Japan was to launch arrows while kneeling at a target 131 yards away, despite the obstacle of a low overhanging roof. Another challenge was hitting a target repeatedly over a sustained period. In 1686, one archer shot 13,053 arrows over 24 hours (9 per minute), of which 8,133 hit the mark (more than five arrows per minute). 4

Modern bows have taken part of the skill – and much of the fun – out of archery as a sport. 45 A contemporary recurve bow with sight is accurate even in the hands of absolute beginners. When shooting across greater distances, instruments help the archer to launch the projectile with the correct ballistic trajectory. Often, the fingers do not even touch the bowstring. There's a mechanical release between the string and the fingers, and the archer pulls a trigger. The Olympic recurve bow adds stabilizers for better aiming. The compound bow, the most popular bow for hunting, has a system of cams from which the bowstring unwinds, which reduces the strength that the archer needs to hold the bow at full draw.

The cannon

When the English eventually gave up archery, it was only after much debate. 62436 The English longbow, being such a versatile weapon, was not defeated by the hand-held firearm alone. It was made obsolete by a new artillery weapon, the cannon. Large groups of longbowmen standing close together were an easy target when artillery became more mobile and effective. 442 The composite bow (and the crossbow) held out much longer against the firearm and the cannon. 34434647 In China, archery disappeared from military training only in 1901 – roughly the time that firearms had finally achieved the same performance as bows. 48

In China, archery disappeared from military training only in 1901 – roughly the time that firearms had finally achieved the same performance as bows

Since the Greeks and the Romans, European warfare made relatively little use of missile weapons. Battles were mostly stationary melee fights: men bashing on each other with swords, lances, axes, pikes, halberds, and hammers. When bows and later firearms entered the battlefield, men kept standing in rigid lines, shooting into each other. 24 Mounted warriors carried swords and lances, not bows and arrows. In contrast, Eastern warfare centered around large numbers of highly mobile horse archers who would never enter a melee fight. Horse archers galloped towards an enemy, launched a volley of arrows towards them at long range, and then quickly turned around and disappeared out of sight. Such dispersed hit-and-run forces were difficult to stop with cannons. 2447


European warfare: men standing in rigid lines, shooting into each other. Image depicts the battle of Agincourt (1415). Source: Antoine Leduc, Sylvie Leluc et Olivier Renaudeau (dir.), D'Azincourt à Marignan. Chevaliers et bombardes, 1415-1515, Paris, Gallimard / Musée de l'armée, 2015, p. 18-19, ISBN 978-2-07-014949-0


Image: Mongolian horse archers. Credit: Nasanbat Nasaa. Via Traditional Manchu Archery.

At the same time, horse archers were not interested in firearms or crossbows because their battle tactics depended on a high rate of fire. Those weapons would have forced them to completely revise their tactics, which had proven very successful – even against European cavalry with early firearms. 47 Native American horse archers also killed European colonists far into the nineteenth century. In the hands of the horse archer, the bow only found defeat when it met the repeating rifle.

Sustainable violence?

Advocating for a revival of the bow and arrow – at the expense of the firearm – sounds absurd and unrealistic. But is it? Reintroducing the bow would only bring us benefits. It follows the same sound thinking behind other low-energy strategies, such as switching from cars to bicycles. The bike and the bow are both highly efficient, human-powered technologies that would be advantageous to human and planetary health.

First, reverting to the bow and arrow would be a pacifying move. If firearms made it possible for states to build larger armies and fight wider wars, then reverting to bows and arrows – and other historical missile weapons such as trebuchets, catapults, and ballistas – would bring us less extensive conflicts. It would decrease the number of people in a given population who could become effective soldiers (unless archery practice becomes ingrained in daily life again). A society that switches from cars to bicycles would similarly bring shorter travel distances and more local ways of life (unless people train by cycling dozens of kilometers per day).

Reverting to the bow and arrow would decrease the number of people in a given population who could become effective soldiers

Second, reverting to bows would make warfare less damaging to the environment. We don't often assess weapons in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability. However, the production of firearms and bullets depends on an intricate global supply chain that involves infrastructures, factories, mines, and fossil fuels. So on top of the human suffering that firearms cause, they also pose a longer-term problem, just like other modern technologies.

On the other hand, bows and arrows can be hand-made from many natural and human-made local materials (See “When lethal weapons grew on trees”). Furthermore, artisanal production has an additional pacifying effect. Early firearms were hand-made products just like bows, and in both cases, the weapon supply was limited to what craftspeople could produce. With industrial manufacturing methods, these limits disappeared, facilitating large armies and extensive fighting.


Image: Outdoor archery practice at Palm Beach Junior College, 1950s. Source: Palm Beach State College Archives - Harold C. Manor Library - Lake Worth campus. Found at Internet Archive.

Third, low-tech manufacturing methods based on local materials also provide military self-sufficiency – the condition in which a state (or another political organisation) is able to procure or produce domestically quantities and qualities of miliary supplies, raw materials, and equipment for its survival or its foreign policy goals in general. 33 For example, modern ammunition depends on antimony, concentrated in China. Without it, we could not sustain the bullet speeds of today. 4950

It’s possible to build firearms with more local, low-tech manufacturing methods, but these would not have the same performance characteristics. For example, the British Sten machine gun – an important weapon during World War Two – can be made in a bicycle shop using minimal welding and machining. However, it was a notoriously unreliable weapon, and its maximum range was only 100 meters, easily surpassed by a skillful archer. 51


Image: A Sten gun. Source: Museum Rotterdam, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0.

Finally, replacing the firearm with the bow would reduce the damage done by missile weapons in a civilian setting, such as mass shootings, accidents, and suicides. In theory, a mass shooting could happen with a bow and arrows. However, it would take an archer years of dedicated practice, while a gunner can start out of the box. Bows are also much less likely to cause lethal accidents when not in use. Unlike firearms and crossbows, they cannot be carried and stored in a loaded position. 11 Finally, the bow is a very unhandy weapon for suicide – it would require you to pull the string with your toes while aiming at yourself. 11

Military technology leads by example

Even if you agree that reverting to the bow and arrow would bring advantages, you probably find it unrealistic. That may well be true, but in that case, it’s also unrealistic to make a transition to a more sustainable society. We cannot combine a low-tech lifestyle with high-tech weapons for several reasons.

First, military technology is one of the main drivers of technological progress. Many products that are destroying our environment were originally developed for military purposes. Second, the global supply chain that underpins modern firearms is at the heart of economic growth and all environmental problems. We cannot keep it working only for manufacturing weapons and dismantle it for all other purposes. Third, the capitalist system needs rising levels of military spending as an outlet for growing amounts of accumulated surplus capital. The global economy invests heavily and increasingly in warfare, conflict, and repression – high-tech weapons are big business. 525354


Image: High school archery practice, 1962. Source: The Newark Public Library. Internet Archive.

For all these reasons, rather than keeping weapons out of the sustainability discussion – they should be our focus. If we cannot imagine low-tech warfare, we cannot imagine a low-tech, sustainable, and fair society. Switching to low-tech weapons sounds unrealistic because it would require global cooperation, but the same holds for lowering the emissions from fossil fuels. Switching to low-tech weapons sounds unrealistic because it involves “uninventing” things, but this also applies to many other problematic everyday products.

Indeed, military technology is one of the few domains in which we have collectively decided not to use certain technologies. Humanity has banned many types of weapons in warfare, such as nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons, and poisoned bullets. Meanwhile, no country has succeeded in outlawing SUVs, although their danger to other road users and the environment is well-known. As weird as it sounds, military technology leads by example.

Kris De Decker


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  1. A bow’s draw weight also depends on the size of the archer and the shooting style, which determine the draw length. The farther the archer can pull back the string, the more energy the bow’s limbs will store. Draw weight is typically measured at a draw length of 28 inches, but the same bow will be more potent in the hands of a taller archer. The same holds for the shooting style. Nowadays, most archers draw the bow string until the chin, while historical archers often drew the bowstring until the ear, the shoulder, or beyond – thus increasing the draw length and draw weight of the bow. 

  2. Randall, Karl Chandler. Origins and Comparative Performance of the Composite Bow. Diss. University of South Africa, 2016. 

  3. Pontzer, Herman, et al. "Mechanics of archery among Hadza hunter-gatherers." Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 16 (2017): 57-64. 

  4. Loades, Mike. War Bows: Longbow, crossbow, composite bow and Japanese yumi. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. 

  5. Lower than average draw weights usually implied the use of poisoned arrows. 

  6. Roth, Erik. With a Bended Bow: Archery in Mediaeval and Renaissance Europe. The History Press, 2011. 

  7. Nieminen, Timo A. "The Asian war bow." arXiv preprint arXiv:1101.1677 (2011). 

  8. Dougherty, Martin J. The Medieval Warrior: Weapons, Technology and Fighting Techniques: AD 1000-1500. Lyons Press, 2011. 

  9. Denny, Mark. Their arrows will darken the sun: the evolution and science of ballistics. JHU Press, 2011. 


  11. Karger, Bernd, et al. "Experimental arrow wounds: ballistics and traumatology." Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 45.3 (1998): 495-501. 

  12. Madhok, Brijesh M., Dipesh D. Dutta Roy, and Sashidhar Yeluri. "Penetrating arrow injuries in Western India." Injury 36.9 (2005): 1045-1050. 

  13. Ashby, Ed. "Momentum, kinetic energy, and arrow penetration (and what they mean for the bowhunter)." (2005): 1564244295094. 

  14. MacPhee, Nichole, et al. "A comparison of penetration and damage caused by different types of arrowheads on loose and tight fit clothing." Science & Justice 58.2 (2018): 109-120. 

  15. The type of bullet or arrowhead also influences wound damage. Some bullets are designed to expand or fragment on impact, further spreading the damage and increasing the chance that a vital organ is damaged. 9 Likewise, broadhead arrowheads, which have razor-edged metal blades, cause extensive bleeding. 11 On the other hand, field-tip points (which are used for target practice) typically do not cause bleeding until the arrow is removed, because the relatively small puncture wouund is filled by the shaft. 11 

  16. Extracting arrows is one of the rare medical disciplines that was better developed in the past than it is today – few surgeons these days have experience with arrow wounds. There is a significant danger of injuries, including to the operating surgeon. 11 The spoon of Diocles was an ancient medical instrument to extract arrows from the body without causing additional trauma. After enlargement of the wound, the instrument was used to follow the shaft and detect the arrowhead. The cups of the spoon then enclosed the arrowhead and pulled it out. Cornelius Celsus, who developed the surgical instrument, also wrote a chapter on the removal of arrows in his medical treatise, De medicina. In it, he proposed two ways to extract an arrow: extracting the arrow from the side where it entered the body (using the spoon of Diocles), and pushing or pulling it through the body after incision of the soft tissue at the opposite site. The second approach, which Celsus preferred if possible, involved tying the arrowhead to a horse, a bent stick, or a crossbow to pull it out. Sushruta, an Indian surgeon, reported such extraction methods already four millenia before Celsus. See: Karger, Bernd, Hubert Sudhues, and Bernd Brinkmann. "Arrow wounds: major stimulus in the history of surgery." World journal of surgery 25.12 (2001): 1550-1555 & Karger, Bernd, et al. "Experimental arrow wounds: ballistics and traumatology." Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 45.3 (1998): 495-501. 


  18. Chan, Hok-lam. "The Distance of a Bowshot": Some Remarks on Measurement in the Altaic World." Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 25 (1995): 29-46. 


  20. These distances refer to “normal” bows. Composite bow cultures are also keen on “flight shooting”, which involves special bows with very light arrows. These can fly for more than 1,000 meters far. 

  21. Bettinger, Robert L. "Effects of the bow on social organization in Western North America." Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 22.3 (2013): 118-123. 

  22. Another example illustrates the aiming skills of historical archers, even if it refers to a very short distance of only 10 yards. Turkish archers could surround a target the size of a coin with five or six arrows so that all of them were touching the outside of the target but none broke the border. 34 In yet another example, antropological research in the 1920s observed that the best native American archers were able to hit a very small target – the size of a quarter – “regularly” from distances up to 25-35 metres. In a final example, Ishi, the last Yahi (Californian) Indian, in the early 20th century, shot a squirrel through the head at 40 yards. 27 

  23. The throwstick is another example of prehistorical aeronautics: 

  24. Hurley, Vic. Arrows against steel: the history of the bow and how it forever changed warfare. Cerberus Books, 2011. 

  25. The bullet can still do damage, but it’s unlikely to penetrate the target. Shooting a bullet (almost) straight up into the air is more dangerous. 

  26. In Asia, archers still shoot at large distances. For example, the typical target distance in Korea is 145 metres, in Turkey 160-190m. 2 

  27. Townsend, Joan B. "Firearms against native arms: a study in comparative efficiencies with an Alaskan example." Arctic Anthropology (1983): 1-33. 

  28. Redmond, Gerald. "Longbow: A Social and Military History." (1977): 121-124. 

  29. Wallace, E. Gregory. "Assault weapon myths." S. Ill. ULJ 43 (2018): 193. 

  30. The pinch draw involves grasping the end of the arrow between the end of the straightened thumb and the first and second joint of the bent forefinger. Instead of nocks, these arrows are knobbed at the end. 

  31. Lars Anderson’s feats are not uncontested, and he is controversial in the archery community. You will find some articles and videos written and made by archers who debunk his techniques or claims. However, while I support a critical attitude, I have also experienced that primitive archers and modern archers disagree about everything. Furthermore, Anderson's skills have been recorded officially, be it for accuracy, not rate of fire: he entered the Guinness Book of Records after shooting seven consecutive arrows through a keyhole. Finally, horse archery still has skillful practitioners in many regions where the composite bow once played an important role. Those archers seem to shoot just as well as Lars Anderson. See for example this video: 

  32. See page 139 in The Bowyer’s Bible, Volume 4, and pages 250 and 283-284 in Mike Loads’ book War Bows. 4 

  33. Esper, Thomas. "Military Self-Sufficiency and Weapons Technology in Muscovite Russia." Slavic Review 28.2 (1969): 185-208. 

  34. Lanan, Nathan. "The Ottoman Gunpowder Empire and the Composite Bow." The Gettysburg Historical Journal 9.1 (2010): 4. 

  35. Historically, arrows did not necessarily have to kill to have the desired effect. First, those who survived being shot with arrows (or early firearms) often succumbed to wound infection. 27 Second, having an arrow stuck in your body is inconvenient, even if the wound is not lethal or problematic. Third, not every arrow had to kill. Blunt force against armor also wore an enemy out. Mike Loads, the author of several books on historical archery, dubbed arrows “steel-clad fists with a considerable range.” 4 

  36. Davies, Jonathan. "'A COMBERSOME TYING WEAPON IN A THRONG OF MEN': THE DECLINE OF THE LONGBOW IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND." Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 80.321 (2002): 16-31. 

  37. Various types of fire arrows existed. In the cage type, a wick of wool, hemp or tow, saturated with a flammable compound, was stuffed into a cage that formed the arrowhead. This type of fire arrow could be prepared in the field whenever the need arose. Archers carried push-fit cages, wicks, and combustable materials to convert a regular arrow into a fire arrow in an instant. In contrast, the bag type fire arrow had to be prepared in advance, but it was more reliable than the cage type, which had the tendency to extinguish during flight. In a bag type fire arrow, an extra long arrowhead was inserted through a sausage of incindiary materials, encased in a linen bag. See 4 and 6

  38. Although the crossbow had a much higher draw weight (up to 1,000 lbs), this was partly compensated by a lower efficiency (roughly 40%) and a shorter draw length than the bow: an arrow is much longer than a crossbow bolt. 

  39. Antropological research reveals that hunting performance with the bow and arrow peaks surprisingly late in life, after peaks in strength. Source: Edinborough, Kevan Stephen Anthony. Evolution of bow-arrow technology. University of London, University College London (United Kingdom), 2005. 

  40. Grund, Brigid Sky. "Behavioral ecology, technology, and the organization of labor: How a shift from spear thrower to self bow exacerbates social disparities." American Anthropologist 119.1 (2017): 104-119. 


  42. Phillips, Gervase. "Longbow and hackbutt: weapons technology and technology transfer in early modern England." Technology and Culture 40.3 (1999): 576-593. 

  43. Grayson, Charles E., Mary French, and Michael John O'Brien. Traditional archery from six continents: the Charles E. Grayson collection. University of Missouri Press, 2007. 


  45. This is a recurrent theme in the Bowyer’s bible. Hamm, Jim. "The Traditional Bowyer's Bible, Volume One / Two / Three / Four." (1992-2008). 

  46. Although the Ottoman Empire was a pioneer in the use of gunpowder for artillery and infantry, it kept using horse archers well into the 1550s – for about as long as the English kept their longbowmen. 34 Muscovite Russia maintained horse archers to defend their southeastern borders against the Tartars until the end of the 1600s. 33 In the Middle East, archery declined only by the turn of the 19th century, and East Asia transitioned to firearms only by the early twentieth century. 43 In China, archery disappeared from military training in 1901 – roughly the time that firearms had finally achieved the same performance as bows. 48 In China, the bow coexisted as a military weapon alongside firearms for almost a millenium. 

  47. May, Timothy. "Nomadic Warfare before Firearms." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. 2018. 

  48. Selby, Stephen. Chinese archery. Vol. 1. Hong Kong University Press, 2000. 

  49. Leckie, Cameron. "Lasers or longbows?: a paradox of military technology." Australian Defence Force Journal 182 (2010): 44-56. 

  50. The US is heavily reliant on China and Russia for its ammo supply chain. Congress wants to fix that. Defense News, June 22, 2022. 

  51. Thompson, Leroy. The sten gun. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012. 

  52. Robinson, William I. The global police state. London: Pluto Press, 2020. 

  53. Phillips, Peter. Giants: The global power elite. Seven Stories Press, 2018. 

  54. Gregory, Anthony. "Rise of the warrior cop: The militarization of america's police forces." (2014): 271-275. 


  56. Arrows typically retain 75-80% of their initial velocity on impact, as well as 60-65% of kinetic energy. Source: Gorman, Stuart. The Technological Development of the Bow and Crossbow in Later Middle Ages. Diss. Trinity College Dublin, 2016. Refers to: Strickland, Matthew J., and Robert Hardy. The great warbow: from Hastings to the Mary Rose. Sutton, 2005. 

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Five Problems With Chess


Firstly, of course: many folks I like and respect love chess, and I’m happy for them and have no interest in persuading chess fans to like it less or want something different. But it’s not for everyone, and I’m one of the people for whom it’s not. So what I’m interested in is: what needs fixing to make it a game I enjoy? And if you did that, who else might enjoy it?

I am gonna call these problems problems, though, because it gets exhausting to say “possible areas where there’s scope to broaden or mutate its appeal to a different set of people, without wishing to detract from or disparage the great enjoyment many already draw from the game as it stands.” And because some of them, from my perspective, for players like me, with all the caveats above, seem incredibly fucking stupid.

1. Being exhaustive is exhausting

This is my main one. To be competent at chess – not even good – you need to at minimum check over every piece on the board, all the squares it could move to, what it could potentially capture, and what could capture it in response if it did so. There are 32 pieces on a chess board, and 64 squares. I just don’t have the kind of brain that can do that diligiently and hold all the results in its RAM, turn after turn, and so I endlessly slip up and leave an important piece vulnerable.

If you’re doing that regularly, you just don’t get to play actual chess. There’s no room in the brain to read your opponent’s strategy or formulate your own, you just have to spend every brain cell running a brute force search on “What can take what?” – and still missing shit.

I also just don’t enjoy that kind of mental work. It’s not juicy or exciting to me. And it’s so central to success: seeing two or three moves ahead is really just even more of that work – exponentially more. Whoever can do that better has such a huge advantage that any other strategic merits either player might have waft into irrelevance. The parts of the game’s strategy that sound interesting only really kick in if both players are at roughly the same move-crunching ability tier.

2. The early game is slow and boring

All your good pieces are trapped behind a wall of bad pieces, so you both have to spend a bunch of turns moving the bad pieces out of the way so the good pieces can fight. Having a ramp-up can be good, but because the initial board setup is the same for every game, there’s now just a known list of viable openings. Expert players do one of those, while beginners like me just have no idea how the specifics of all that awkward early un-jamming affects the very long sequence of moves that will eventually put important pieces in dominance or danger.

3. The pawn is a shitshow of clumsy balance changes

Oh my God. OK, so as far as I can tell, the pawn has always been fiddly all the way back to chaturanga, the game chess comes from. Unlike every other piece, it can move to some tiles only if they’re empty, and to others only if they’re occupied, and only if by an enemy. And unlike every other piece, one of their moves is directionally locked – every other piece’s move options are rotationally symmetric. It wasn’t until I tried to program this in my own chess game that I realised this is already three special cases, for the least exciting unit in the game. That would already have me going back to the drawing board of a game concept to see if there’s a more elegant way of hitting the design goals.

But then the history of the pawn reads like the patch notes of an incompetent game dev scrambling to appease a community without any conviction or guiding principles of its own.

  • The pawn can move 1 square forwards if the space is empty, or capture 1 square diagonally forwards if the destination is occupied by an enemy. Weird and bad, but seemingly there from the start, so fine.
  • In 15th-century Europe, it was decided the early game was too slow (agreed!), so the pawn should be able to move 1 or 2 spaces on its first turn. This is two more special cases: no other piece has range other than infinity or 1, and no other piece has different movement rules depending on their history.
  • But there was consternation that now a pawn could skip past a position that would have threatened it under the previous rules. I can’t speak to how important this is, but the fix is the absolute nadir of fussy, awkward, unsatisfying game design: if and only if a pawn just moved 2 spaces on its last turn, and an enemy pawn (and only a pawn!) could have taken it on the intervening square, this turn and only this turn, that pawn may move to the square the original pawn would have been on, and capture it as if it was there.

FUCKING LISTEN TO YOURSELF! What the fuck are you doing?! That is blithering, dithering, baffling bullshit. It reads like a bad faith thought experiment you’d use to shoot down someone’s suggestion: “Oh, what do you want us to do, [that horror show of rule salad]?!” And I say bad faith because apart from the other 20 problems with this, there’s a much simpler solution that better addresses the stated problem:

  • If the square in front of a pawn is threatened, it cannot move 2 spaces.

It’s still a special case, but it only takes one sentence to explain, chess already has other rules where threats prevent movement, and it doesn’t involve pieces capturing the imaginary history-ghost of a piece that could have been there in a previous version of the game’s rules for fuck’s cocking sake.

*deep breath*

I’m so angry about en passant.

4. Draws are common and draws are bad

In chess games played at the top level, a draw is the most common outcome of a game: of around 22,000 games published in The Week in Chess played between 1999 and 2002 by players with a FIDE Elo rating of 2500 or above, 55 percent were draws. Wikipedia

That’s not great. It’s not as common at lower skill levels, but it still happens way more than it should. A draw is almost always a failure of game design: a 1v1 game implicitly promises a victor, when it ends in a draw the design could not deliver what it promised. Because chess can only be won by forcing an opponent into checkmate, or hoping they resign, it’s very easy for both players to end up with too few powerful pieces left to ever trap each other so decisively.

In fact, chess’s other string of embarrassing patch notes include an increasing list of rules about when you can force a draw to avoid the game just going on forever. The miserable outcome of a draw is actually one better than the infinite tedium many chess matches would otherwise end in. And it’s pawn movement you chose to patch?

5. Stalemate is a wildly stupid concept

All that draw stuff, above, is what I thought ‘stalemate’ meant – you determine no-one can win and it’s a draw. That’s not it! A stalemate is when one player, let’s say white, is left in a position where every move they can make would let their king be taken. Ooh, tough game design problem! Who can say who should win that game? Maybe a draw, maybe white wins, maybe it’s illegal to put someone in that position?

NO, idiots! BLACK FUCKING WON! Read it back to yourself! White is in a position where EVERY MOVE THEY COULD MAKE would lead their KING, THE PIECE YOU MUST NOT LOSE, to be LOST. That is check fuckin mate, mate, in everything but name. The concept of stalemate was absolutely introduced by a sore loser with a lot of clout when they found themselves utterly outplayed. “Waaaa, every move I could make would lose me my king!” THEN FACE YOUR DEATH, COWARD.

It comes, of course, from another bit of weird but normally harmless bullshit chess talked itself into: instead of ending when someone loses their king, it ends one turn earlier, when that’s the only possible outcome. Seems weak to skip the climactic kill of this whole charade, but I guess it’s the punch Ali never threw – fine. But somehow that got mutated into “It’s illegal to move your king into danger”. Why?! What’s the point of that rule? If you wanna lose, go ahead. You lose! You can already surrender a game, so it’s not like we’re preventing suicide.

The only material effect of this rule is that it allows rules lawyers who’ve forgotten the point of the game to talk themselves in circles until they declare something provably insane like “If you put me in a position where I’ll definitely lose my king, YOU lose the game.” That was actually the rule in 18th century England. In fact, all the examples I gave of laughably bad ways to handle this situation were real: 

Today, a stalemate is a draw. Baffling. Your game already has a chronic abundance of draws, you cannot afford to be lawyering legit victories into more of the worst outcome possible.

If it was up to me, a stalemate would count for more than checkmate. 1.5 wins. It’s the secret unlockable ending where you actually get to take their king. Maybe throw it at them.

Why are you telling me this?

Oh, I’m making a chess game in my spare time. It’s been in the back of my mind as a fun design exercise to try ever since Bennett Foddy suggested it in a GDC talk, and tinkering with it has been super fun so far. Design-wise, I wanted to thrash out what it is I’m trying to fix, at minimum, before I get into what kind of flavour and twists I want to add. 

What I have so far, a week in, does a pretty good job of alleviating 1 and 2. 3 is interesting, because obviously I’m ditching pawns in their current form, and removing them clarifies what their role is. The hole they leave is not specifically pawn-shaped, but what I fill it with will probably be recognisably equivalent. 4 is not hard if you’re not trying to please die-hards, and 5 is self-evident.

There’s also a 6, but it’s such a stretch to call it a problem with chess that I ended up deleting it from this post: I want it to be single-player.

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16 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Out of the shadows...

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For those wondering what I've been up to for the past while, here's the news; a year or so ago I moved back to Montreal, and have been working on an upcoming Assassin's Creed game. Assassin's Creed: Codename Hexe was...
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75 days ago
Can’t wait to see what Clint and team are up to.
Santa Monica, California
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Austin is the capital and fourth-most populous city of Texas, with just under on...

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Austin is the capital and fourth-most populous city of Texas, with just under one million inhabitants. It has been one of the fastest growing cities in the USA since 2010 and is experiencing a skyscraper boom, with recent construction on new office, hotel and residential buildings. This Overview focuses on Downtown Austin, along the Colorado River, with the Texas State Capitol Building at center.

30.270565°, -97.738784°

Source imagery: Nearmap

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77 days ago
I lived here for a couple of years, a fun lively city.
Santa Monica, California
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Accessibility for The Last of Us Part I

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The Last of Us Part I: Joel crouched behind cover with visible threat indicator UI elements.

Back in 2020, I wrote about co-heading the accessibility effort on The Last of Us Part II and the incredible reaction to our expansive set of features. Later that year we were also honoured to receive the inaugural “Innovation in Accessibility” award at The Game Awards. In the years since, we’ve seen awareness and support grow for accessibility across the games industry, and many new games that have pushed the frontiers in novel and exciting ways.

More recently, I had the incredible opportunity to step into the role of game director on The Last of Us Part I remake for PS5. While our goal was to stay faithful to the original in terms of story and core mechanics, we had a chance to integrate a decade of technology and craft improvements to modernize the gameplay. This of course included accessibility.

In addition to porting over options from Part II, we developed a handful of new features for the remake. The most ambitious was providing descriptive audio for the cinematics. These were developed in partnership with Descriptive Video Works, who brought professional expertise from the world of film and television. We also developed a new DualSense controller feature that plays spoken dialogue as haptic vibrations, with the goal of conveying the cadence and emphasis of the actor’s performance without audio.

I was thrilled to be able to showcase the accessibility features in the game’s marketing. We released an accessibility feature highlight trailer, as well as Naughty Dog’s first audio-described story trailer. I also had the opportunity to discuss these features (and accessible design more generally) in interviews with Eurogamer, Fanbyte, and The Inverse. The Washington Post also featured a great story about players with disabilities who were excited to experience the original game without barriers that might have excluded them.

Screenshot of the TLOU2 accessibility options in Japanese.

Finally, I had the unique opportunity to discuss accessibility with Den Fami Nico Gamer, one of the premier video game magazines in Japan. It was published alongside an interview with Hiromi Wakai about the accessibility features built into the PS5 OS.

For the benefit of non-Japanese speakers, I have provided my full original responses in English below, since automated web translation loses a lot of the details and jargon. (The translations of the questions were provided by Sony PR, and I have lightly edited them for clarity.)

Could you tell me reasons why you decided to support accessibility in your games? How do you decide which titles to support and which not to?

Accessibility welcomes players who wouldn’t otherwise get to play. While we specifically aim to support players with disabilities, the broader truth is that accessibility is good universal design for everyone. For example, subtitles are useful for deaf players, but I use subtitles if I’m playing games late at night while my daughter is sleeping. If I break my arm, I might temporarily need to use motor accessibility features while it’s in a cast.

Disability is extremely common (1 in 20 adults in Japan are considered to have some type of disability), and for all of us it is an inevitable part of our own mortality. Our vision, hearing, and motor coordination are all affected by aging. If the generation that grew up with video games wants to continue playing them into their old age, games will need to serve their changing needs.

We strive to support accessibility for all of our titles, and to continuously develop new technology that we can carry over to future games.

Before you start development, what did you start with and what did you research?

There are many excellent free resources that outline the most common issues and best practices for inclusive design. For example, the Access Design Patterns framework gives names to specific high-level design principles. “Second Channel” suggests that a visual cue in a game should be matched with an audio cue, and vice versa. “Clear Text” means providing options to improve legibility through colour, size, and contrast.

With these principles in mind, we begin designing and prototyping new features that we think would be useful. While most developers on the team are able-bodied, we can imagine playing the game without sound, without visuals, or only pressing one button at a time. However, we make sure to always invite players with disabilities to come playtest the game, provide feedback, and validate our feature ideas.

Development may cost higher and take more time to support accessibility. How did you persuade and secure the publisher with this in mind? Does the request come from the publisher side asking to support accessibility?

When we look at the big picture, the development cost of supporting these features is very small compared to the overall game production. The benefit is that it allows us to expand the audience for our games, bringing in new players who might have otherwise been excluded. Being able to modify settings to suit their needs allows all players to experience the gameplay more comfortably, without cumbersome barriers getting in the way.

In software and video games, features tend to be cheaper and easier to develop if you plan for them early in production. By being proactive about accessibility considerations, we ensure that they’re a natural and integrated part of the development plan, not something we’re having to scramble for at the end.

We are very thankful to have the full support of the studio leadership at Naughty Dog, and also from our publisher SIE. They recognize the importance of creating games that welcome players with many different needs and abilities.

I think it is very tough to decide how far to support [accessibility]. What did you do when you had to decide to limit some of the support? It would be great to ask about the thought process behind it.

When we started development for The Last of Us Part II, the team decided to pursue four big accessibility goals based on technical feasibility and player feedback from previous games. The first was to offer fully customizable controls through button remappings. The second was to make our user interface (UI) and HUD elements dynamically scalable to larger sizes. The third was to provide a high contrast render mode that highlighted important visual elements for players with low vision.

Our last big goal was the most challenging and ambitious: we wanted players who are totally blind to be able to complete the game. We had recently heard a talk by accessibility consultant and blind gamer Brandon Cole, and he amazed us by showing how he was able to play games like Killer Instinct and Resident Evil 6 entirely through sound. We wanted players like him to be able to play our game too.

Because we aligned on these goals early on, it provided boundaries that safeguarded us from continuously adding new features. If we had a new exciting accessibility idea that didn’t match these goals, we could put it aside for consideration on a future game. We’ll keep striving to reach further with each game that we create.

Generally speaking, I think one of the selling points of PlayStation is the beauty of graphics. I think it is one of the most expensive parts of game development. Supporting [blind or low vision] users would mean to cut back on that strongest selling point, were there any dilemmas or struggles on those decisions? Were there any points of innovations or difficulties when trading off the graphical beauty for accessibility?

We take great pride in our visual art, so developing a new high contrast render mode that flattened and simplified all those finely-crafted details wasn’t something we took on lightly. The team made great efforts to ensure that the final result, while primarily functional, was still aesthetically pleasing and up to Naughty Dog’s artistic standards.

There are also many aspects of our games that can be appreciated without sight. We have a world-class sound team, and The Last of Us Part II won several awards for its audio design and music. Players also enjoy the combat challenge; blind gamers have beaten the game on the hardest difficulties. Of course, most players come to our games for the storytelling, which is still a powerful and moving experience with the voice acting alone.

When developing games, I think it’s important to have [people with several types of disabilities] to actually try out the accessibility features. Can you describe the framework you set up for the process?

There is a saying in the disability community: “nothing about us without us”. Throughout development, we periodically invite accessibility consultants to playtest the game. They provide critical feedback on our features and prototypes, letting us know what is working well and what needs further refinement. They also identify barriers we may have missed, and help us brainstorm new ideas to address them.

Were there any skills or requirements for the [accessibility consultants]? [Do they require] special school / vocational training school in order for them to supervise accessibility features in games?

Some accessibility consultants come from a background in user experience (UX) or human–computer interaction (HCI) design. They bring in knowledge of best practices from outside the games industry, such as subtitle guidelines from the BBC or the screen reader technology on the iPhone.

Consultants also bring in a wealth of communal knowledge from gamers with disabilities. If we’re discussing a particular feature, they can give us examples of good (and bad) implementations in other games, or share feedback they’ve heard within the community.

I hope to continue to see accessibility supported in games and hope to see more in the future. What were the positives / negatives that resulted from supporting accessibility?

We were incredibly excited by the positive reception from the breadth of accessibility features in The Last of Us Part II. We were surprised when the coverage even spread to major non-gaming publications, such as NPR and USA Today. We were also incredibly honoured to receive the inaugural award for “Innovation in Accessibility” at the Game Awards. We hope that this helps promote awareness across the games industry of the importance of accessibility.

More importantly, we received so many wonderful emails and letters from players. They said how excited they were to share the experience with loved ones. They recounted how they’d triumphed over boss battles without requiring able-bodied assistance. Nothing makes me prouder as a game developer than hearing these incredible stories.

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81 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Reprint: In Memory of My Grandmother

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(I originally wrote this essay in 2016 for my old newsletter here, and made it public in 2019 after she passed away so some people may have seen it before. I’m including it here to keep it all in one place. The pandemic, tragically, had a lot of “debate” about the value of elderly life. My grandmother was very sober about aging—”when it’s my time, it’s my time”, she always said. But her last decade into her nineties was full of love and life, and I’m grateful for having the chance to share it with her.)

In Memory of my Grandmother: "Educate Your Girls, Cherish Your Good Memories"

by zeynep tufekci

My beloved grandmother passed away last night, peacefully in her sleep. She had a stroke a few years ago and spent the last three years happy, but without being able to form significant new memories. … She was a remarkable woman, and changed so many lives besides mine. I will always hold her memory in my heart, and her example as one to live up to. -zeynep 5/5/2019  

Lessons from my Grandmother: Educate Your Girls; Cherish Your Good Memories.

By Zeynep Tufekci written on 11/17/2016

I started writing this, my first newsletter, by my grandmother’s bedside, when I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey last week to visit her after she suffered from a stroke. She’s now 94, and she was born the very month the Republic of Turkey was declared, in 1923. Republic day (October 29th) is a national holiday in Turkey, as well as the day we celebrate my grandmother’s birthday since we don’t know the exact date.

This year feels like a turning point for both.

Turkey’s been in the news a lot lately. A bloody coup, barely averted. The state of journalism. Arrests. Internet shutdowns. Explosions. It’s also very difficult for me to truly follow and understand the news from Turkey in detail anymore—neither mass media nor social media seem reliable in conveying what’s truly going on.

I also cannot speak to my grandmother about her life stories anymore. The stroke in left temporal lobe has deeply affected her memory, and much is lost. She recognized me though, and immediately wanted to feed me—her deepest instinct, probably.

I told her that my forthcoming book—which includes parts of the story of her miraculous journey to get an education that I’m about to tell—was dedicated to her, and she was thrilled and emotional. She forgot about it in about five minutes. So I told her again, and she was just as thrilled and emotional.  Then she forgot about it again, and I told her again. You got it: she was thrilled.

So we had a few days together last week, her asking me if I had enough to eat every five minutes, and me telling her that I dedicated my book to her every five minutes. It was difficult, and it was full of grief for me. But it was also joyful. She was not sad at all.

My grandmother repeatedly prayed in gratitude to three people in her life: Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, her elementary school teacher who made her education possible, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. I recounted her semi-miraculous story in my (forthcoming) book on networked social movements:

When my grandmother was about 13 years old and living in a small town near Mediterranean coast in Turkey, she won a scholarship to the most prestigious boarding school in Istanbul. Just two years earlier she had been told her formal education was over, after completing fifth grade. As far as her family was concerned, that was more than enough education for a girl. It was time for marriage, not geometry or history.
 My grandmother didn’t know her exact birth date. Her mother had said she was born just as the grapes were being harvested and pressed into molasses in preparation for the upcoming winter, and just as word of the proclamation of the new Republic of Turkey reached her town. That would put her birthday in the fall of 1923, as the world struggled to emerge from the ruins of World War I. It was also a time of transition and change for Turkey, for her family, and for her. The new central government, born from the ashes of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, was intent on modernizing the country and emulating European systems. They made a push for spreading schools and standardized education. Teachers were appointed around the country, even to remote provinces. One of those teachers remembered a bright female pupil who had been yanked from school, and secretly entered her into a nation-wide scholarship exam to find and educate gifted girls.“And then, my name appeared in a newspaper,” my grandmother said. She told me the story often, tearing up each time.In a small miracle and a testament to the unsettled nature of the era, my grandmother’s teacher prevailed over her family, and she boarded a train to the faraway city of Istanbul to attend an elite school. [The teacher had also signed her documents, promising to pay all her educational costs were she to fail. In effect, the teacher had stepped up in lieu of a parent, at great financial risk to himself. My grandma’s family tried to prevent her from leaving, and her older brother almost blocked her path—an act he later apologized for many times. But the teacher persevered and succeeded—a dramatic act, changing someone’s life forever.]

My grandmother was joined by dozens of bright girls from around the country who had made similar, miraculous for the time, journeys. They all got a superb education. After she got her high school degree, my grandmother became a teacher: marrying a little too quickly as my grandfather pursued her aggressively, and she relented. She sometimes wondered what else she could have done. But she loved being an elementary school teacher.
My grandmother wasn’t just a great teacher in the formal classroom—her students always showed remarkable improvement in the years they had her—but she also basically became everyone’s teacher. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, let alone college. Practically every child, grandchild, nephew and niece after her ended up going to college and beyond, to a large degree because of her. She insisted that everyone go to school. She taught them how to navigate exams, how to pick majors, how to study, how to apply to schools and scholarships. When parents were reluctant to support their children in their education, my grandmother stepped in, using her authority as the elder of the family to overrule them. It was a delicious subversion of hierarchy—the youngest teaming up with the oldest to overrule the reluctant middle. If the parents wouldn’t pay for the children’s school, she would. If they needed a place to stay, she’d take them in.
This wasn’t limited to family. She informally “adopted” countless children—her own students, neighbors, distant relatives—and tutored them, guided them, paid for their tuition and school supplies. She convinced many parents to let girls continue on to high school or college.

When girls get married in Turkey, they are often gifted bracelets made of gold—to be used in emergencies or when savings are needed. My grandmother always said that education was the most important pair of “golden bracelets” that girls needed. “Get your golden bracelets” she would say all the girls she encountered, telling them that in a world dominated by men, women needed to make sure they could make a living if need be. To escape an abusive marriage. To support one’s own children. To deal with an illness. To be able to live a life on one’s own terms.

This is why educating girls is such strong leverage for social change: educated girls can grow into strong women who bring along and lead their families for generations, and can also shield and nurture their children and others as they can exercise choices. So my grandmother prayed to Ataturk and her teacher, the two people she believed made all this possible for her.

All three of her grandchildren moved abroad, something my grandmother greatly supported even as it caused her a lot of longing. She herself had worked for a telephone operator for a few years, and now the telephone became her most cherished possession, connecting her to us. She put her cellphone in a little pouch, and wore it as a necklace. In 2012, I had traveled to Kenya and visited some rural areas where I encountered elderly women with the same set-up: cell phones as necklaces. I asked one: “is this for your grandchildren?” She grinned. It was the same story: her grandchildren had migrated away searching a better life. She wanted them to go, but didn’t want to lose them. The telephone connected them.
 After most phone conversations—which we had often, even as her memory failed—my grandmother would say, “May [Alexander Graham] Bell rest in peace. May he be accepted to the best corner of heaven. May his soul be blessed”, and so on. At first, she hadn’t wanted to talk on the phone much, thinking it was expensive. I finally convinced her how cheap it had become, and she took to it, chatting with me at length. She was enormously grateful, and she had a name to thank for all this: so Bell got all the blessings.

 But we didn’t just talk on the phone, of course. In 2004, when I was finally graduating with my doctorate, I wanted to skip the ceremony—I had skipped every graduation ceremony before that. One friend said “this one is not for you; it’s for everyone who helped you along the way.” The phrase struck me hard it was the truest thing I had heard.  I arranged for her to attend my dissertation defense as well as the graduation. I was nervous that it would be hard for her. I met her at the plane’s gate. She walked out of the jet bridge, chatting—somehow, in her broken English—with the cabin crew. She had apparently invited all of them to dinner. After educating people, she most loved feeding them.

By the time a Ph.D. student is allowed to defend, it is mostly understood that she should be able to pass, but the “oral examination” part is not just a rubber-stamp. It is a multiple- hour process in which the committee members grill the student. My defense was also scheduled right at lunch time. I didn’t really need to read the research to know that leaving your interrogators hungry was not the best idea.

My grandmother, now staying with me in the United States, had been itching to be useful. I asked her to cook some Turkish finger-food for my committee to eat during the defense. Not only would they not be hungry as they listened to my presentation of my dissertation, they would be eating afterwards. More chewing, less questioning.

So my grandmother sat through my defense which lasted maybe three hours or so, the many types of food she cooked on the table. She didn’t understand anything I was saying--she spoke only a few words of English. But she didn’t seem bored at all. A lot had happened along the way for her and for me to get here.

If it sounds like I’m drawing a picture of an ideal family—a lovely grandmother, a granddaughter who gets an education—the truth is far from it. It’s exactly because things went so wrong that my grandmother’s “golden bracelets” were so important.

My mother had been a non-functional alcoholic, and my father abandoned me and my brother to our alcoholic mother when we were young teens. Consequently, I was borderline to actual homeless throughout much of my teen years. It was a complicated crisis, and to allow my mother to have a house to live, my grandmother left hers to my mother, and moved into an assisted living facility. Hence, I could not live with my grandmother anymore, nor could I really live with my mother. It was a tough time, and grandma helped me immensely as I managed to ground myself, finding a job as a computer programmer and going on from there. Without her ability to help me and my brother through, we may never have made it out. My mother eventually died from her alcoholism. To great trauma to my grandmother, she was the one who found her daughter’s lifeless body. “I would not wish this upon the worst person in the world”, she said of her pain.

Addiction is a curse from hell, and I still have not fully grasped what happened. Neither has my grandmother. We just say she was ill with a fever we don’t understand. My mother struggled; she quit multiple times but always succumbed again. We watched her spiral down, and then we lost her. My mother saw me start my PhD, but didn’t make it to see me graduate.

My grandmother sat through my defense with an intense look on her face, beaming when anyone ate any of their food. I got asked fairly few questions, which I credit to her food.

After a defense, the standard procedure is to invite the doctoral candidate to step out and for the committee members to confer among each other whether she passed or not. The candidate is then invited back in, and the decision is announced. So I concluded my defense, the questioning ended, and we all stepped out.
The chair of my committee called us back, smiling, nodding approvingly. I smiled, too, and braced myself to accept the congratulations. He indeed said “congratulations”, but not to me. The whole committee turned to my grandmother, first congratulating her, and then standing up and applauding her. I was stunned: I had not set this up. I wish I could have been so smart and thoughtful to set it up. I had mentioned her story to a few people. To their credit, my committee had recognized the hero in the room. My grandmother, too, was stunned but she grasped that she was being recognized. Everyone went and hugged her as she wept.

For the rest of her life, my grandmother told this story to pretty much everyone she met. When I visited her at the assisted living facility for the next decade—where she loved living as it gave her independence—even the janitors would greet me as the granddaughter who had gone to the United States to get a doctorate, and whose committee had applauded my grandmother. She told this story to people she sat next to in the ferry; she told this to anyone who asked her about her life. I never tired of it; it was the only context in which being called a “doctor” meant something personal. I never use the title otherwise, except to joke in planes when they ask if there is a doctor on board. (“Not unless you need a literature review in aisle three.”)

I didn’t know what I would find last week, after her stroke. It was not as bad as I had feared, but she had clearly lost a lot of her stories. She appeared to have forgotten my grandfather’s death. She’d ask where he was, and we’d say “oh, soccer match”—as my grandfather would often go to soccer matches—and she’d say “oh, okay.” It was sad, but it felt merciful.

I wasn’t as ready, though, when she asked where my mother was, apparently also forgotten her death. “She’s out shopping”, I stuttered. “Oh, okay”, my grandmother said, unperturbed.

She had forgotten the worst event of her life.

We chatted mostly about lighthearted topics, since her past was mostly gone. We chatted about her room, and how she liked her pillows. She wanted one more to be able to sit upright better, so I got her one. True to form, she worried when I left to fetch a pillow. She was always fine with me globetrotting, but if I were visiting her, she didn’t want me out of her sight. It was her quirk. We chatted about my brother, even arranged a video call with him, to my grandmother’s delight.

I brought up the story of my doctoral dissertation defense. I expected she would have forgotten it, too—if my mother’s death was forgotten, I assumed everything else must be gone, too.

Do you remember, I said, how you traveled to my defense, and how you cooked food, and how everyone loved eating it, and how everyone stood up and applauded you.

“And how I cried”, she responded, mimicking tears falling down her face with her fingers. She smiled at me, and said it had been wonderful. There was no mistaking it, somehow, that memory had survived.

Her room at the assisted living facility was just as I had seen it for the past few decades: pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, adorned the walls. There were also lots of pictures of her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. I saw her cell phone in its necklace pouch, hanging on the wall. 

I also found lots of notebooks in her room, and realized that she had been writing a lot notes to herself as her memory had gradually failed, long before the stroke. There would be a date and an entry “My son went on a trip to Italy; he will be back on Wednesday” it would say. I knew she wrote that so she wouldn’t worry if he didn’t call. She noted when my brother or I called or visited her. She also collected clippings of my articles or interviews with me.

I flipped through the pages of her notebooks and saw an entry that was repeated, again and again, with some variation. “Zeynep became a professor” one said. “Zeynep was promoted to a professor.” “Zeynep is in the United States and she is a professor.” So it went. It was on many pages. It was on loose pieces of paper. It seemed to infuse the room.

"Zeynep became a professor"

I looked at dates and pieced together what must have happened. I called her quite often, and it seemed like she often wrote this down to herself every time after we chatted on the phone. She had gotten an education—against all odds—and had leveraged it to make a life as best she could for everyone she loved, and that was her achievement in life. She wasn’t just proud of me; she was proud of herself. She had deserved that applause, and she knew she deserved it.

Her notes to herself made sense in of what had happened: she didn’t dwell on the tragedies, and she hadn’t reinforced the painful memories. Instead, she had focused on the positives: her own education, her grandchildren. After phone conversations, she wrote reminders to herself: things had turned out okay.

I left Istanbul, relieved she was not unhappy or in pain, but also with a deep sense of loss. For the past decade, she had been preparing me: telling me that she was content, and ready for whatever came next.
The republic that her life was so intertwined with, too, is now undergoing a transformation, and one that I am increasingly disconnected from. It’s not possible to avoid the sense of loss, both personal and political.

But there are lessons, too, also for both.

Educate the girls. Call your elderly loved ones. And write down your good memories.

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156 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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