How many continents are there?

Come on kids, between us we can crack this. Image: Getty.

Once upon a time, “How many continents are there” was one of those questions with straightforward answers, like “How many colours are in a rainbow” or “what is the weather like in summer”. There are seven. Of course there are seven: all those picture books I had as a kid said there were seven.

Except, it turns out that, as with so many of the things we tell our children, this number owed as much to social convention as it does to objective reality. And social conventions can differ: depending on where you are in the world, there can be anywhere between four and seven continents, and you sometimes don’t have to travel very far to get a different answer.

So, to coin a phrase: what on Earth is going on?

Rules and regulations

First define your continent. The Wikipedia page on the matter contains this helpful explanation:

By convention, “continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water”.

Which sounds simple enough. Except the very next sentence is this:

Many of the seven most commonly recognized continents identified by convention are not discrete landmasses separated completely by water.

Which feels like an unexpected piece of dry humour from an open-sourced encyclopaedia.

But it has a point: it’s the work of all of four seconds to think of vast numbers of ways in which the seven things you almost certainly think of as continents don’t fit this rule. Off the top of my head:

  • Islands like Great Britain are considered part of continents despite not being part of continuous masses of land;

  • North and South America are not discrete masses of land, they’re connected by an isthmus;

  • Neither are Africa and Asia;

  • Europe and Asia aren’t even vaguely separated, they’re quite obviously the same bloody thing;

  • If Europe gets to be a continent because it’s separated from Asia by some mountains and some inland seas, then why is India only a sub-continent?

  • If Australia is a continent why is Greenland only an island? Okay, it’s smaller, but where’s the line? What are the rules here?

And so on and so on.

Spinning plates

There is another way of dividing the Earth up into roughly continent sized bits, which has a rather more scientific basis to it: plate tectonics, the geological theory which explains mountain ranges, volcanoes, and so on by showing how bits of the Earth’s surface have been sliding about and banging into each other for the last few billion years.

In this theory, it’s quite obvious why the Americas are two continents, why Australia is one but Greenland isn’t, and why Africa is a different thing to Asia despite being attached to it. It also highlights a very good reason for considering Britain to be part of Europe: they’re part of the same continental shelf, even if part of that shelf is submerged under water. Despite Brexit, Britain will always be in Europe.

The plates. Click to expand. Image: USGS/Wikimedia Commons.

In many other ways, though, the map of the tectonic plates doesn’t look anything like the map of the continents. For one thing there are a bunch of oceanic ones, which on maps of the world are mostly just water with a few islands in them.

For another, the Middle East and India are their own plates, so aren’t part of Asia; neither is the Russian Far East, which is actually part of the North American plate. Europe, meanwhile, very clearly is part of Asia, except for Iceland, which is half Asian, half North American.

There are good reasons why plate tectonics isn’t going to get us very far in explaining why we mostly think we have seven continents. One is that it’s a surprisingly recent theory: it wasn’t widely recognised by the scientific community until the 1960s, so there are plenty of people around now whose school text books will have laughed at the idea.

Another is that the plate boundaries are often invisible or, at least at the human scale, nonsensical: any system which splits Iceland into two separate continents is not going to be a useful categorisation.


Geography is written by the victors

The real reason we count Europe as a continent and include Britain in it, treat India as a part of Asia, and so forth is (this is where we came in) social convention: we do it because we do.

More than that, we do it because the rules on this stuff were largely formulated by the Europeans who spent much of the last five hundred years or so conquering the world. That’s why Europe is a seen as a single, diverse continent but the Indian subcontinent, with its own patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, isn’t: because the former was the imperial power that conquered the latter.

A related point is that, if you ignore plate tectonics, the entire world doesn’t divide neatly up into continents at all. The reason a huge bunch of Pacific islands get bundled together with Australia as a slightly miscellaneous category called “Oceania” is as much because people wanted to make everything fit in somewhere, as it is because of any real connection between the two.

So those lengthy explanations aside, how many continents actually are there?

Counting continents

There seem to be six different systems, helpfully portrayed in this gif:

A gif of the various models. Click to expand. Image: AlexCovarrubia/Wikimedia Commons.

The seven continent system is the one you’re probably familiar with. That’s the one that’s standard in the English-speaking world, China, south Asia, and parts of western Europe. The British Empire can probably be blamed, at least in part, for its dominance.

There’s also an ultra-stripped down four continent model which divides the world into four major landmasses: Eurasia-Africa, America, Antarctica, Australia. This, best I can tell, isn’t taught anywhere; but it is the logical end point of the definition that involves big bits of land divided by water, so it’s worth including it anyway.

In between there are four other models:

  • A six-continent system in which Europe and Asia are one continent. This, the internet tells me, is the standard in Russia and Eastern Europe (which makes sense, given that the slavic world straddles the Urals), and also Japan (although, citation needed).

  • A different six-continent system treats Europe and Asia as separate, but combines North and South America. That one seems to be favoured in France, much of southern Europe and various places colonised by those countries.

  • There’s also a five continent system which combines the Americas but ignores Antarctica because, to the first approximation, nobody lives there. This is the one favoured by the UN and the International Olympic Committee (count the rings).

  • Lastly, there’s a variant five-continent system consisting of Eurasia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. I can find no reference whatsoever to anyone using this one, but it’s in the gif and also this National Geographic page, so I’m including it for the sake of completism.

So, there you go. The best we can say is that the world has “some continents”. Assuming you accept the notion that continents exist at all.

I’m still really angry at those picture books which promised me snow in winter and heat in summer, incidentally.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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City of Ruin: On Resident Evil’s Raccoon City

Photo: Wikipedia via Creative Commons

With the release of Capcom’s remake of Resident Evil 2 on Friday 25 January, gamers will return to the terrifying streets of one of the most iconic cities in video games: the zombie-infested Raccoon City.

Despite first being mentioned in 1997’s original Resident Evil, that game took place entirely in a mansion outside the city and it wasn’t until the 1998 sequel that we actually got to explore Raccoon City itself.

Since then, it’s become a recurring location in the games series and various spin-off media, even though – and this is an unavoidable spoiler, so abandon this article now if you’re planning to go into the remake completely cold – Resident Evil 2 ends with the city being comprehensively nuked by the US government.

In fact, the series returned to Raccoon City a year later in 1999’s Resident Evil 3, an asset-reusing fill-in instalment that cleverly loops around the events and locations of Resident Evil 2 and gives the player another, more detailed look at the city’s final destruction.

Raccoon City RIP, from Resident Evil 3. The author of this piece was not allowed to have the piano theme from the credits as music at his wedding.

Since then, the 1998 fall of Raccoon City has been revisited in the two Resident Evil Outbreak titles, in the Umbrella Chronicles and Darkside Chronicles light gun Wii games, and in the shockingly mediocre online shooter Operation Raccoon City, as well as the Milla Jovovich-starring live action film series.

Although the plot line of the main game series has moved on to new locales and time periods from 2005’s Resident Evil 4 onwards, the franchise clearly left a part of itself on the streets of Raccoon City in 1998, and can’t help but repeatedly return. But why?

To answer that we need to look at what kind of games the Resident Evil series are, their genre roots and the continuity that’s built up within the games themselves – and how these elements have created an eccentric idea of an average American city.

The original Resident Evil had horror game precedents in titles like Alone in the Dark and the film adaptation, Sweet Home – even sharing a developer, Capcom, and a director, Shinji Mikami, with the latter – but it twisted these influences and precedents to create a new sub-genre: survival horror.

The survival horror genre is distinguished by the cautious, steady exploration of a contained environment, facing off against horrific creatures that constantly threaten to overpower the player, who must conserve scarce resources like ammo and health top-ups. As opposed to game genres where environments are dashed through while shooting wildly, survival horror games, and their steady pace, demand locations that reward attention.

The live action introduction to the characters in the original Resident Evil. Mysteriously this technique hasn’t been used in the series since.

The first game, called Biohazard in its native Japanese but renamed Resident Evil in English, opened with a ridiculous live-action video in which an elite team of cops – as seen in the video above – wind up in the creepy Spencer Mansion located in the Arklay Mountains near Raccoon City. There, our heroes, part of the elite and very coolly acronymic STARS team, face off against zombies and other genetically engineered monsters created as weapons by the evil Umbrella Corporation.

Player characters, Chris or Jill, move from room to room in the mansion, fighting off monsters and making progress by solving baroque puzzles where rooms are locked by mysterious keys and booby trap devices. As the plot unfolds Chris and Jill realise that they’ve been set up, acting as experimental subjects to provide data about the combat efficiency of Umbrella’s Bio-Organic Weapons, or BOWs for short.

Gameplay from the original Resident Evil. NSFW due to gore and terrible voice acting.

Although we don’t go near Raccoon City in the first game, it sets several precedents that shape the urban space encountered in the sequel. The game relies on confined spaces and environments in which the player struggles to escape a looming zombie, with doorways to pass through to move from one small area to another. As well as building tension this is a technical issue – the dramatic fixed camera angles allow the backdrops to each screen to essentially be pre-rendered still images on which animated characters and interactive items move, allowing in turn for a much higher resolution in the backgrounds than was possible for moving 3D environments at the time – which lends the world of the game a distinct, atmospheric feel, the sense of a real, detailed place.


The fiction of the game justifies the Spencer Mansion’s weird layout and complex locks partially through its use by the Umbrella Corporation as a secret laboratory and testing facility, and partially through the story of the Mansion’s eccentric architect, George Trevor, who installed all these traps and puzzles on the orders of Umbrella’s founder, Ozwell Spencer. These narratives are told through documents found around the Mansion and its grounds.

The final element here is one of genre. If you’re a Resident Evil newcomer, you may well have read the past few paragraphs and thought “this makes absolutely no sodding sense whatsoever”, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The most obvious genre precedents for the series are the zombie films of filmmaker George A Romero, but the series also takes influence from the considerably less coherent European knock offs Romero inspired, all through a lens of Japanese horror, which is far more prone to abstraction and nightmare logic as well as post-Hiroshima concerns about mutation.

These overlapping influences shaped Raccoon City itself – a city in the mid-western United States, created by Japanese game developers in the mid to late 1990s taking influence from zombie films of the 1970s and 1980s, some of which were shot in Europe. Factor in the technical and gameplay requirements, and you end up with a uniquely skewed vision of an American cityscape.

The original Resident Evil 2 opens with the zombie outbreak well underway, and protagonists Leon and Claire stranded in a Downtown area overrrun with the undead. The narrow streets are rendered narrower by crashed cars and barricades, evidence of the carnage that has occurred and failed defensive efforts. The opening scenes of the game are a hectic dash through cluttered streets and a crashed bus to get to a gun shop and the game’s first major environment, the Raccoon Police Department. Resident Evil 3 revisits Downtown and the RPD, filling in restaraunts, shopping streets, an area under construction, an electricty substation, the City Hall, a gas station and a tram station.

The unusually narrow streets of Raccoon City as seen in Resident Evil 3.

Resident Evil 3 also adds the adjacent Uptown area with warehouses, sales offices, bars and residential streets that border on tenements in their density and narrow alleys. Between the two games the ruined city is a beautiful example of stage-managed desolation, with distant screams and evidence of horrors past strewn across the cluttered chaos. It’s also ridiculous, a toytown version of a city where industrial, residential and commercial activities are piled upon each other. The George Trevor school of architectural madness is also in full effect, with the RPD building being a converted art gallery complete with doors that are opened by manipulating statues, and gates to City Hall that unlock when a clock outside is completed.

An eccentric approach to architecture and city planning is one hand wave explanation for why Raccoon City doesn’t make much sense, another within the fiction is that it’s an Umbrella Corporation company town, with their labs and facilities scattered across the city. Every business and facility can hide a lab or storage area for Umbrella. In Resident Evil 2, the sewers and a cable car trip lead to a dead factory hiding a lab facility in the Raccoon City outskirts, an underground lab revisited (or pre-visited?) in Resident Evil Zero and the Outbreak games.

In Resident Evil 3 a disastrous jaunt in a tram leads to the city hospital which hides a lab full of reptilian monstrosities, then on through the park, across a dam and into another dead factory hiding another laboratory. 

As much as anything makes sense in Raccoon City, there’s a sort of logic to seeing the city as a giant laboratory in which the local population are bred as guinea pigs, who can be snatched up and experimented upon in the individual facilities across the city. It’s a groteseque but not entirely inaccurate caricature of urban space where the masses live and die at the whim of the corporate forces who shape the city for their own purposes. The cramped urban spaces of Raccoon City, where industrial, residential, and commercial areas pile up on each other in a mass of twisty, narrow streets that are barely more than corridors, add a level of dream logic to this scenario, making for an evocative urban nightmare.

The boring, sensibly proportioned streets of Operation: Raccoon City

While the Outbreak games added new areas to Raccoon City – a zoo, a university by the sea – their adherence to the oppressively warped architecture and geography of the series made these additions of a piece with their predecessors. Other adaptations have been less successful: the Chronicles and Operation Raccoon City games turned the streets into open boxes for less contained, run-and-gun-type play, completely losing the rich detail and claustrophobia that made Raccoon City such a unique place and turning it into... well, something resembling a real city, with streets wide enough for cars and buildings with sensibly broad corridors. That nightmarish quality was entirely lost.

Hopefully the Resident Evil 2 remake released this week will, amongst all its high definition upgraded gore, retain Raccoon City’s convoluted, unrealistic geography. The story of an apocalyptic event reducing an American city, the supposed apex of Western civilisation, to carnage and despair will always have a certain perverse appeal, and the fall of Raccoon City, in all its nightmarish eccentricity, is one of the greatest iterations of that story. Long may we keep being allowed to revisit it.

Resident Evil 2 is released for PS4, XBox One and Microsoft Windows on 25 January 2019.