Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fallout and American Culture: Through a Mirror (of Science!)

I mentioned the other day on Facebook that I was having an idea about a paper based on the Fallout series of video games, seen as a reflection of 1950s-era American culture. It's been bouncing around in my head for a while now, and so I thought I'd try and put a few of my ideas for the series down on (virtual) paper to see how they look. All comments are welcome; as a Medievalist primarily, my knowledge of the actual facts of 1950s American life and culture is pretty limited.

In the world of Fallout, the nuclear war that Americans feared throughout all of the 1950s happened. The war killed most life on the planet, leaving the few survivors to try and pick up the pieces and make new lives for themselves in a world which was no longer a very friendly one. Many of the common themes you see in Fallout games, though, are themes that were very present in the American mind between the 50s and 60s. Culturally, even though the Great War in Fallout doesn't occur until 2077 or thereabouts, American life and culture stays at about the 1950s level. The Fallout America, instead of focusing on miniaturization of electronics, chose instead to focus on the creation of massive supercomputers, the harnessing of the atom to a degree unseen by our culture, and robotics. This causes some big changes right away.

The choice to go away from miniaturization in the Fallout universe means that the television never becomes as prevalent a communication and entertainment tool as it did in our world. People have television, certainly, but they remain black and white, with few shows; radio remains the most common form of mass media. This essentially locks the Fallout world into 1950s-era culture, because they never get the kinds of developments that come with advancing media technology.

Hatred of communism, a staple of 1950s culture (House Un-American Affairs Committee, anyone?), continues in the Fallout universe, but instead of being focused on the USSR, the Fallout America sets its hatred against China. This is most obvious in Fallout 3, where you can find a number of dead (or ghoul) Chinese spies, sent to infiltrate American culture; there's even a piece of DLC that lets you virtually replay the reclamation of Alaska from Chinese invaders.

Just because the culture of Fallout America is stuck in the 1950s, though, their technology advances - though it seems to advance in line with the sorts of things 1950s Americans thought they would see in the future. Household cleaning robots become common, and one model of security robot, the Protectron series, bears an odd resemblance to the Robby the Robot character from the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet. Cars don't fly, but they become powered by fusion engines, which makes them much more efficient - though, as any player of Fallout 3 who has had a firefight near a car knows, also very explosive and radioactive. Powered armor is developed, making soldiers look like robots, often wielding weapons that seem to be lifted directly from 50s science fiction - the Fat Man, the plasma rifle, even the standard assault rifle. The various laser and plasma weapons to be found do exactly what they would in a standard 1950s pulp science fiction movie - reduce an opponent to ash or goo.

Computers, without the focus on miniaturization, change as well. No longer is it possible for every person to have their own personal computer, even in 2077 - computers are still clunky, and the transistor was created in Fallout America not longer before the bombs dropped, and there is no evidence that the semiconducting microprocessor chip is ever invented. While in Fallout 3 and New Vegas there are references to e-mails and such, implying that some form of internet had been created, it seemed to be mostly business-related, especially since only businesses could really afford computers anyway. And computers in Fallout America are ugly: the tiny display and the the keyboard for the vacuum tube/transistor 'personal' computers are merged into a single piece, while digital computers require entire rooms for storage. The primitive GUI (graphical user interface) shows they had not progressed into user-friendly territory, either. They did, however, have one advantage - massive processing power. This made it possible for primitive artificial intelligences to be created or develop on their own, like the Calculator in Fallout: Tactics.

Even some of the personalities of main characters in the Fallout games have been lifted straight from 50s and 60s culture. The 'President', Dick Richardson, in Fallout 2, is said to have been based in large part on Richard Nixon. President Eden in Fallout 3, despite who and what he turns out to be, spends much of his time trying to communicate through radio in a manner similar to FDR's Fireside Chats. Robert House, founder of RobCo Industries, and a main character of Fallout: New Vegas, was inspired by eccentric (or crazy) media mogul Howard Hughes. Even the Master, the villain of the original Fallout, was inspired by the tales of H.G. Wells, especially the Island of Dr. Moreau (The Master's original name was Richard Moreau).

Finally, one of the big changes in Fallout America that make it a reflection of our own 1950s and 60s is what happened as a result of the Great War. While we know that radiation in large doses is likely to cause cancer, radiation sickness, and other unpleasant side effects, the effects of radiation in Fallout reflect what would be seen in 50s and 60s horror and science fiction movies. Giant irradiated ants (a la Them!), ghouls, super mutants, centaurs, mirelurks, and many more are all made possible by radiation, which for ghouls becomes the reason for their extreme longevity. While the main character of Fallout games can generally be harmed and killed by extreme radiation, this seems to be because he is, almost always, a regular human. Plus, it eliminates the horror aspects of being eaten by giant radioactive insects if you, too, can become giant by hanging out at a toxic waste dump.

That's basically what I have so far; there's probably more, but it's not coming to mind right now, and this entry is already fairly long. As I said before, feel free to comment, criticize, provide points of research, whatever floats your boat. I don't know if this will develop into something more serious, but it's good to get it out of my head for a bit.


  1. I think a key feature is the notion of the vaults. On a simple scale, they can represent white flight but I think if we dig more deeply we see what they represent about man's desire for perceived security in the face of any amount of danger. The new Fallout series really played with the Vaults as labs for social experimentation but even the first game dealt with the issues of an isolated community living under the illusion of self-sufficiency and achieved perfection, both themes seen in Post-war America.

  2. Forgive the "flightiness" of this post - I am writing on the fly instead of actually putting forth well-developed ideas.

    We also see, through all of this, a strong aversion to change and what seems to be an absolute faith in science, despite the change that science could represent.

    The aversion to change does not sit well with me, from a "realism" point of view. For culture to remain unchanged for so long, especially in the face of How is it possible that culture is still stuck in the 1950s, despite the passage of over 100 years? It seems more likely to me that culture perhaps actually changed over those 100 years (1950-2077), only to make its way back to the 1950s-esque world represented in the game. We see that very push in our own modern society: the desire to return to those "better days." Perhaps the same thing happened in the Fallout universe, which begs the question of "why?".

    As for the absolute faith in science, we see this clearly in the Vaults, in a few ways. First, people are willing to put their trust in the technology of the Vaults to keep them alive and to provide them with the means to live a happy life while the apocalypse rolls on through. We don't see a strong aversion to the Vaults. In fact, we see some characters trying desperately to join the Vaults even after the war, believe that the technology and societies found within are their key to salvation. This is at odds with what we see today in real life: a lack of understanding and a rising distrust of science and its findings. Technology in our world is slowly passing back into the realm of mysticism and magic, and some people are treating it as evil.

    We also see VaultTec placing its faith in scientists, allowing them to run experiments on various Vaults. This is social and psychological experimentation gone wild. These are the kinds of experiments that psychologists in the 1960s and 70s only dreamed of being able to do. There are control groups (the Vaults that are "normal") and any number of scientific aberrations. It would not surprise me if Vault dwellers had even been told ahead of time that top scientists were working to make society even better, and that some Vaults would be the testbeds for this exploration.


  3. I can't believe I forgot to mention the Vaults - they are, after all, just a large-scale extension of the idea of nuclear bomb shelters, which my mother remembers well.

    The lack of large-scale cultural change actually makes sense; without new forms of mass media to push a change, there's no reason or prevailing force for cultural change. If you've heard the story about how people listening by radio though Nixon won the first debate, but people watching it on TV though JFK won, it's like that; without a large-scale switch to TV or some other mass communication media, cultural change slows down.

    And Americans in the Fallout world probably have no reason to fear science or scientists. In our world, trust of scientists led to the creation of the atom bomb, havens for various former Nazi scientists, and the Tuskegee experiments - which ran until 1972, and probably only become news because it had the media to spread it. Fallout America has been given robot housecleaners, fusion cars, laser beams, and more by science - so why not trust them when they say the Vaults will be safe, trust us?

  4. Hey, James, this is Gold.

    Some things that I remembered about the Vaults: The "protection" they were supposed to ensure was a false hope: As I recall, VaulTec actually set up each vault to be an experiment (one where the vault door wouldn't close at all, one with audio-related insanity causing devices, one where the doors would never open, one where all the vault dwellers were under the age of 20, etc).

    Also, the RULES of the vault mirror the current dilemma we face now: the erosion of rights for apparent safety. As I recall, in Fallout 3, the initial sequence of leaving the Vault has you face a power-mad Vault Leader during part of your escape.

    Another theme of the 50s: the constant fear that "they" had better technology than we did, as evidenced by the portrayal of the chinese agents having "stealth suits".

    Just throwing stuff out there. Hope it is useful in some way.