An artist has made it possible to rule Rob Ford's Toronto in civilization-building video game.
Canadian digital artist Steph Caskenette creates wickedly funny work. Earlier this year, her low polygon re-envisioning of the Super Mario World map blended a papercraft aesthetic with classic Nintendo nostalgia. Recently, Caskenette used the same technique to create cover art for an imaginary Little Golden Book, Ford More Years. And now, once again using our mayor for inspiration, Caskenette has created another piece of satirical art: a mod for Civilization V—a turn-based video game in which players choose a civilization, take on the role of leader, and guide its growth with the ultimate goal of ruling the world—that adds the City of Toronto (and mayor Rob Ford) to the game. While Caskenette avoids any mention of the scandals that have plagued the mayor’s career, every aspect of the mod features a carefully conceived, often barbed joke: in this mod, for example, the cost of roads and railroads has been quadrupled, and the costs of social policies “increased tenfold”—and the city’s religion is “Ford Nation, represented by the football symbol.” While Caskenette warns that her mod is “not intended to be winnable or even enjoyable,” it is entirely hilarious.
Our interview—about political shortsightedness, Giant Death Robots, and the likely fate of the Torontonian empire—is below.
Torontoist: You stated that “this is a mod that is playable, but not intended to be winnable or even enjoyable.” Which handicap or hindrance built into the game is your favourite?
I wanted the traits of the Toronto civilization to mirror Mayor Ford’s track record. The one issue that Mayor Ford ignores in his claims that he’s saved the City a billion dollars is distinguishing between saving money for the City and saving money for the citizen, as the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Increasing user fees for transit while simultaneously removing the car registration tax—much-needed revenue—isn’t saving money. Never mind the fact that spending is going up due to the Scarborough subway line. To cover these costs and to account for the inevitable repair of the Gardiner Expressway, I quadrupled the cost of road and train maintenance.
On a side note, as it’s more of a feature than a playable element, I particularly enjoy the customized dialogue I inserted, as it has all been taken from actual Rob Ford quotes.
How do you find that Rob Ford compares to the rest of the leaders and despots in Civilization?
The leaders featured in Civilization have been recognized as some of the greatest in history. Their legacies follow the illustrious histories of their empires, with countless accomplishments written by countless historians over countless generations. On the other hand, we have Mayor Rob Ford, whose legacy will probably culminate in a crude trivia night question at bars 10 years from now. Ford champions his role in job growth, putting cranes in the sky, saving the city from the brink of destruction, and will soon declare that he has ushered in world peace. Of course, these are at best exaggerations or misinterpretations of the facts. The juxtaposition is bizarre, considering that Ford himself claims to be the best mayor Toronto has ever had.
What inspired you to take on the project of making this mod?
It was entirely based on that speech Mayor Ford made during city council when he was nearly unanimously stripped of most power. Earlier this month, I was joking and lamenting with friends about how misplaced his melodramatic victimization was when he equated himself to Kuwait, as it sounded like a declaration of war that one of the Civilization leaders would make. I put the mod together in a few days and uploaded it an hour or two after the second mayoral debate.
On a deeper level, though, I’m interested in game studies and the ways that video games can change or influence our perception of the world and how we engage with real experiences. Playing video games is usually an activity separate from our regular lives, but when we play games such as Civilization, that require us to take on the role of a historical leader, the act of playing becomes performative. By assuming the role of a character in which the odds are heavily stacked against you, like in this case, you can explore the complexities of political issues, albeit in a highly abstracted and simplified way. Engaging with the issues with civic media in a more hands-on way is more effective than simply reading a newspaper or listening to sound bites on the news.
Do you feel that Toronto fits in well with the other great cities and civilizations native to the game?
It is reassuring to know that Ford’s determination to put Toronto on the map, or at least a map, is now possible. Toronto is its own unique region, and its prosperity is tied to its tourism, happiness, and accomplishments that go beyond saving the taxpayer’s dollar. We have a divide between the downtown core and the suburbs, and it seems to be the biggest factor that is holding back a lot of much-needed infrastructure. So while Toronto obviously isn’t its own country, balancing its many needs requires a lot of micromanaging that is similar to what’s required in Civilization.
To what degree is the mod purely funny, and to what degree is it an attempt at political commentary?
The great thing about satire is that it accomplishes both. Satire is an important facet of political critique as it not only examines the contradictions made by its target, but also reflects them for the audience’s amusement. Many of the leaders standard to the Civilization series were featured subjects in satire—Napoleon and his “Little Boney” caricature were heavily employed in his day. Today we only need to look to television shows like Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, both of which have showcased Ford in the past. This past week has brought us those parody “No Ford Nation” election signs that have been effective in showing how absurd this situation is, and how low our standards for viable mayoral candidates have become. It makes politics more accessible to those on the fringe, creating more informed voters who can properly engage with issues that are meaningful to them.
But of course, despite any overarching political commentary this mod may present, the experience can still be boiled down to the ability to create nuclear weapons and Giant Death Robots to attempt world domination as Rob Ford. It’s silly and entirely hypothetical. The possibilities are endless, except for victory.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have encountered playing as/within Rob Ford’s Toronto? How does it fare as a civilization?
Sadly, the Torontonian empire doesn’t seem to be built for greatness. Social policies are paramount to success, as they provide many valuable bonuses. But by increasing their cost by 10 times, the process of growing your cities and your wealth is heavily burdened and delayed. Furthermore, the increased costs of roads and railroads force cities to be built very close together in order to connect to your capital without going into debt. It is extremely difficult to win, and the odds are purposely stacked against you. At the very best, you can stay afloat, but you certainly won’t be winning any space races or leading the World Congress.
Why did you decide not to engage with the scandals that have plagued Ford’s political career? I mean, you’re right, there’s plenty to work with without going there, but the temptation must have been mighty.
This isn’t to suggest that it’s okay to turn a blind eye to Ford’s behaviour—that his substance abuse, associations with criminals, along with a multitude of other issues, are strictly private and do not reflect his very public position as mayor, as they obviously do.
However, it’s been clear that Ford’s persisting support base doesn’t care about the multitude of problems that have come into the public eye during the past year. The problem is that looking at the scandals tends just to focus on what is wrong with Rob Ford when it comes to his personal habits. And it’s so easy. Everyone knows that Ford has admitted to illegal activity, has made racist, homophobic, and vulgar comments in city council and to the press, but people have said time and time again that they will put up with it because they don’t want their tax dollars being wasted.
Instead, we can look at his track record that he’s always boasting about and see the contradictions in his claims. Regardless of how the upcoming election turns out, the mayor of Toronto doesn’t have the ability to force the city into chaos. But using some contrived math in order to “save” the most money today won’t help Toronto 10 years from now … and the decisions that are made now need to consider the future growth of the city in order to make it accessible to everyone.
You decided to include Doug Ford as the Great Prophet. Were there other positions he was considered for?
The game offers you four advisors to advise you on specific areas of gameplay: economic, military, foreign relations, and science. I really wanted to just replace all four figures with Councillor Ford. In typical Doug Ford fashion, though, instead of giving advice, he would just pump Rob up and tell him that he can do no wrong. Most people accustomed to the games rules turn off this option, so sticking with Doug as the replacement for the Great Prophet would be more visible to players and much easier to implement. Really, though, he acts as a jack of all trades when it comes to supporting his brother, so he would be appropriate for any position.
What has been your best experience playing Civilization with the mod in place?
I think it’s best to play against Toronto rather than as Toronto in order to witness a train wreck spread across a few thousand years. The Torontonian empire tends to stay underdeveloped, and so the AI Ford will go around asking for some handouts, quoting the real Mayor Ford by exclaiming, “I’m poor as a church mouse buddy—I don’t have any money.” I managed to witness Washington, Caesar, and Gandhi simultaneously declare war on Toronto, which quickly became very surreal. The Torontonian capital was quickly taken, and after some peace treaties, Ford was left nothing but Etobicoke, which was a rather poetic fate.
All images courtesy of Steph Caskenette.