Meet Fallout’s philosophers who are obsessed with the game’s intense political feuds


With every theorised apocalypse – biblical, nuclear or otherwise – comes the inevitable question of, ‘How would you survive in the wasteland?’

Set 200 years after global nuclear destruction, open-world role-playing game Fallout places this question of macabre fantasy at its core. With well over 30 million units sold to date, and with the soon-to-be-released Fallout 76 offering new, innovative ways to blow each other up, the end of days has proved an entertaining hit.

But among its more die hard fans, Fallout is not just for fun. Instead, the series presents a doomed forecast of where we may be hurtling towards, and echoes real-life society and politics more closely than most of us would be comfortable with.

“I feel the series strives to present us with the absolute worst that capitalistic society and corporations have to offer,” says Shaka1277, a moderator on the r/Fallout subreddit, where over 500,000 subscribers gather to discuss Fallout theories.

In many ways, Fallout demands that players think about their political leanings as they play. Heavily influenced by the nuclear paranoia of 1950s Americana, the game franchise places you in an alternate timeline where the Cold War continued until 2077, at which point global superpowers, having depleted their oil reserves, levelled Earth with nuclear warheads in an ensuing battle for economic dominance known as The Resource War.

To progress in the game, you must align yourself with different factions, each of which has its own system of beliefs as regards the future of humanity. Each faction will offer you quests, and the more you complete, the stronger your allegiance to the faction grows.

Caesar’s Legion, a faction in the game Fallout: New Vegas, resembles a model of hegemonic stability – the theory that a global, single-nation military power is the only way to keep peace and economic prosperity. The Followers of the Apocalypse, meanwhile, which is found in several Fallout offerings, adopts more socialist and anarchist ideals, including a general rejection of hierarchies and the distribution of power.

The Brotherhood of Steel, a religious paramilitary group closely resembling the authoritarian far right, is a quasi-religious group borne from the ashes of the US military that believes technology and weaponry can only be trusted in its hands. Appearing in several titles in the Fallout franchise they are a natural enemy of the Followers of the Apocalypse.

Last year, referencing streams of online discussion and his own experiences of the game, Redditor Lyndon, who goes by the username Dethhhdog, created a political compass for almost all factions in the game – a political structure of right and left wing ideologies found in the Fallout universe. “If the compass was based on what I think politically today, pretty much every faction would be super right wing,” he says.

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Lyndon identifies as a “communist-anarchist” in the real world and says this affects how he plays the game. He heavily aligns himself with the Followers of the Apocalypse and shapes his play around his ideals. “When I created settlements in Fallout 4, I completely ignored the stands where people could sell goods in them, because I liked to pretend all of my settlements shared supplies as they needed to,” he says.

A particularly potent topic of discussion on Fallout forums centers around the existence of ‘androids’ in Fallout 3, later known as ‘synths’ in Fallout 4. Simplified, synths are artificial beings that can be perceived as either humans or robots, depending on which side of the debate you subscribe to. “The debate about whether synths are people or not is incredibly intense,” says Shaka1277. “To this day it appears as a discussion topic on our Discord server twice to three times a week.”

Discussion about synths often results in comments that echo racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic slurs; one user of the r/Fallout Discord server goes by ‘Gas The Synths’. “I do think this language can and does bleed over from games into the real world,” says Shaka1277. “This is a loose observation, but I have observed a loose correlation between liberalism and a willingness to accept synths as not just people, but human. I don’t even really see it as a reflection of their views on the game. Instead, I view these stances as people projecting their own political viewpoints onto the moral dilemmas presented by the game, for better or worse.”

Alec Opperman, a political philosophy student and writer for Wisecrack, a YouTube channel that dissects the philosophies of movies, TV shows and video games, agrees. “For me, who’s against racism, obviously, when the Brotherhood of Steel are calling synthetic humans ‘abominations’, it very much mirrors the language against interracial couples,” he says. “The game allows you to project your political views in that respect.”

The politics of Fallout have even lent the game to more academic discussion. Sherry Jones, an avid Fallout player and philosophy and game studies instructor at Colorado Technical University, draws links between the 2015 free-to-play mobile game Fallout Shelter and the ethical theory of egoism. “The lesson we can learn from Fallout is that when egoism and capitalism run amok, when unwieldy technology runs amok, we destroy ourselves,” she says.

Egoism, she explains, holds that “everything we do has to be self-serving,” and that “instead of recognising the integrity of the individual human, we use them as resources to achieve our end.” In this sense, she says, there are parallels between the game and real life. “Why is this relevant to today? Because we’re seeing it happen. Will it happen like the game says it will? We have to understand the game as a thought experiment, but Fallout speaks to our current fears and that’s why it resonates.”

One aspect of the game that Jones pulls out is the idea of surveillance as a tool for progress. In Fallout Shelter, you play the role of overseer to a vault of dwellers, managing their production, resourcefulness and, essentially, their survival. You watch over your dwellers and put them to work. If they become too old, or too economically invaluable, you can send them into the outside world to their doom, increasing productivity and freeing up resources for younger, healthier dwellers.

“In order to achieve efficiency in a capitalist system, surveillance is justified for making sure people are efficient,” says Jones, referencing both Fallout and real-world economics. “I see technology as a tool for achieving efficiency, and capitalism commodifies everything, including ourselves.”

The critique of capitalism and commodification is also visible in the advertising of the Fallout world. Nuka-Cola, the light and refreshing pre-war cola brand, places nuclear dominance at the core of its marketing strategy – and is reminiscent of Coca-Cola’s marketing campaigns during World War II, when it branded itself as the soft drink of choice for American servicemen and women (“There’s a friendly phrase that speaks the allied language. It’s Have a Coke,” went the slogan).

And then there’s Vault-Tec Corporation, the in-game nuclear survival provider, which advertises luxury fallout shelters through the cartoon mascot “Vault Boy”. “The Earth may be destined to die, but you don’t have to,” reads one particularly motivating poster found in Fallout 3.

“The sheer perverseness of living in a world where you’re constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation, but can assuage this fear by buying a nuclear bunker, is the perfect microcosm for capitalism,” says Opperman. He relates this notion of the “ad-pocalypse” to the writings of the political theorist Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s 1964 book One-Dimensional Man is a critique of consumerism and explores the shared traits between capitalism and communism, such as how wealthy Soviet and American citizens were advertised luxury bunkers to survive in the new world after a Cold War nuclear attack.

Today, the super wealthy are still charting their escape to a new world once Earth is destroyed. Elon Musk is in a race to colonize Mars to flee a theorised World War 3 which, in the Fallout universe, resembles the ethos of RobCo Industries, headed by a 261-year old cryogenically frozen autocrat called Robert House. House yearns to leave Earth behind and colonise new planets to save humanity, using kidnapped citizens and surveillance to ultimately achieve his goal.

As the main protagonist of Fallout: New Vegas, you’re forced to make a moral choice near the game’s ending: kill House, or let him live. Killing House will overthrow the stability-through-surveillance society he’s created, but if you let him live, then you’re siding with a dictator who enslaves and murders their own citizens.

The next installment in the franchise, the forthcoming Fallout 76, brings a new element to the politics of the series. As the first MMO (massively multiplayer online game) in the franchise, it requires players to work together.

Set in the aftermath of the apocalypse in 2102 West Virginia, you form allegiances with fellow online gamers and battle the mutants of the wasteland, but as each surviving character you meet in the game is a real person moulding the wasteland in their own image, it requires much greater cohesion from players than any Fallout game before.

For the first time, players also have access to nuclear weapons, which, if launched at a rival base or location, will drastically and irreversibly mutate the landscape and its dwellers. In an effort to suppress trolls, killing another player unprovoked will place a bounty on your head and make your location available to other players who can form a mob to hunt you down.

Currently in beta phase, Fallout 76 may be the most ambitious title to date. But is it wise to give a community the platform to envisage their wildest political fantasies without restraint? Opperman references English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical notion of a self-governing society without laws or power to restrain human nature. “If you want to reinforce the idea of a Hobbes state of nature,” he says, “then put anonymous people on the internet and try get them to build a world together.”

About the author

Adeline Darrow
By Adeline Darrow


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