Mediated Survivialism in *Fallout 3*

Curator's Note

The featured clip from Bethesda Game's Fallout 3 stages a convergence of the survivalist ethics frequently explored in apocalypse media and the objectivizing logic of digital games. It shows a previously unknown NPC (non-player character) approach the player and ask for help defusing a bomb strapped to his neck. What I find remarkable about this moment--which is only enhanced by the voiceover--is the way this randomly generated encounter attempts to evoke sympathy and the urgency of a moral dilemma, despite the fact that there are no apparent stakes for the player.

Apocalypse media often depicts the breakdown of civil society as a test case for humanist moral codes. Characters facing dwindling resources and mounting dangers must measure their own chance at survival against the value of another's life. Think the cannibals in Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Such harrowing dilemmas speak to the desperation of the end times; yet, similar objective-driven justifications undergird the spectacular violence enacted in numerous video games. Just moments before encountering the human bomb, our featured Fallout player attempted to assault a group of NPCs guarding the abundant resources of a grocery store.

With that as the backdrop, how do humanizing sympathies get mapped on this particular meaningless arrangement of pixels requesting our help? Are video games ideal for playing at the apocalypse because they embody utilitarian, survivalist logics? Or, does the insignificance of virtual characters subvert the game's attempt to present players with the moral dilemmas of the end times? In the featured clip, does the player's willingness to jeopardize the non-playable character's life demonstrate an affinity between the ethical propositions of fictional apocalyptic scenarios and our real mediated condition? Or does his (mild) disappointment at the death of the stranger by his own hand signal the persistence of human sympathies against such dehumanizing logics?


Interesting post. The apocalyptic imaginary is also closely linked to anxieties over unfettered free-market capitalism and its (perceived) un-sustainability. I'm not familiar with the game, but it seems like this apocalyptic scenario relies on people clinging to those very technologies which are (directly, indirectly, cumulatively) responsible for the breakdown of civil society. So it's survival of the most outfitted. Clinging to "stuff" in order to survive. "Oh, she's got a lot of stuff. I'll take some armor, end up selling it probably." I'm also curious about the "Pip Boy." It seems like, even in the end times, it's still about accumulation at any cost. And isn't that a popular mentality? Survival of the fittest / social darwinist world-views, while not fashionable in scientific or scholarly communities of thought, are still operative in the popular imaginary... and in the rhetoric of some major social institutions. As for the NPC... I don't really hear any disappointment in the players voice. More like befuddlement at his random appearance... but that's the point, right? surprise, variety, randomness, unpredictability = realism. Do you think the game is trying to present players with moral dilemmas? Maybe. But listen to what the player says after he shoots the random woman: "Yeahhh, bend over that car, bitch." Does the game design actually include any situations where players might benefit from being more "human?" Like getting "stuff" for saving people with bombs strapped to their person?

In response to the first part, at some level games are almost always about accumulation and allocation. The question here is how does this encounter pose that imperative. There are two ways, I think, of interpreting the player's reaction. Either it is a moment of empathy--Why couldn't I help--or a pure expression of algorithmic logic--If I couldn't help why offer the option? Both reactions are possible, and they aren't mutually exclusive. It is possible to help the NPC; success is calculated from the player-character's skill in Science and Explosions. Or, the player could choose not to help. One possible scenario, then, has the player--knowing her character isn't that good with bombs--thinks algorithmically and makes the 'moral' to not assist the NPC. If this is an ethical moment it is one in which the game asks players to consider the possibility that aid isn't necessarily altruistic.

I'd be interesting to know if there is a morality difference between those who choose to save the NPC and those who don't, or if these exercises in morality affect morality in the "real world."

It would be interesting to inquire how a game’s genre might affect the mapping of sympathies. Thinking about Fallout specifically, there is very little substance to the game’s protagonist aside from what is chosen by the player him or herself – gender and appearance are selected at the beginning of the game, the character has no audible voice and only communicates through the many player-chosen dialogue options, customization and moments of choice continue throughout both exploration and the game’s central narrative. The game, then, becomes a fairly complex system of character building. That is, if the player opts to role-play through the game. The video posted, as a commentary on the events, suggests that the illusion is broken significantly for this particular player, but I would suspect that even in this instance there is some role-play occurring due simply to the game’s design, and that there always is on some sliding scale from player to player in all role-playing games, but perhaps in all video games in general. Questions of morality then become not “What should I do?” but “What would my character do?”

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