project idea: Wandering the Wastes: Fallout and Imagery of Nuclear War

Video games, like movies serve as cultural measuring sticks.  Because they are primarily visual media they tend to be packed with culturally significant imagery.  During the past two decades, historians have begun unpacking and examining the images within film as a way of understanding the collective societal fears, pressures, and desires they draw upon.  Very little work, however, has been done on video games as a medium capable of transmitting the same ideas.  This is due largely to two reasons.  First, it is only in the very recent past that video games became sophisticated enough that such ideas could be transmitted.  Second, video games are not considered a mature enough medium.  Many mainstream voices consider them to be along the same lines as an electronic toy, rather than a place for artistic expression.

Recent games are both visually striking and artistically relevant.  The Fallout series, including its latest iteration Fallout 3 serves as a cultural measuring stick in much the same way as cinema of the past half century.  Because Fallout deals with nuclear war, and seeks to portray a post-nuclear landscape in which the player must survive, it is possible to unpack the imagery of Fallout and learn how Americans, especially American children learn about and experience the possibility of nuclear war.

Among the important ideas in Falllout’s portrayal of nuclear war is the wasteland concept.  A landscape of death in which green flora is almost non-existent and fauna is gigantic and hostile to humanity.  The idea of a death landscape is a relatively new concept in the history of nuclear war culture.  Prior iterations of a post-nuclear world such as On the Beach, Alas Babylon, and Canticle for Lebowitz written in the 1950s and 60s do not feature a dead landscape.  Rather, they feature a living world in which humanity is either entirely removed or greatly reduced in technology and numbers.  The  landscape of death, however, has become one of the most dominant tropes of nuclear war culture in the last twenty years, with more modern movies such as Terminator, The Book of Eli, and The Road relying heavily on this concept.  This is an idea that I would like to explore in more detail.

Giant creatures has been, conversely, a popular and longstanding idea within nuclear war imagery.  The idea that radiation creates monsters was the topic of a number of films from the 1950s and even late 1940s.  Films like Them!, The Beginning or the End, and The Amazing Colossal Man each personified the threat of radiation to humanity.  In Fallout, this tradition is preserved in its Radroaches, Radscorpions and Super mutants.

Another important facet of Fallout is the persistence of Civil Defense culture in the idea of nuclear war.  This takes two forms within the game, first in the dark irony of educational filmstrips such as “Bert the Turtle” and second in the Shelter Culture of the mid to late 1950s.  One of the key elements of the Fallout universe is the Vault, a government sponsored corporate enterprise to build gigantic self-sustaining fallout shelters in case of nuclear war.  These Vaults, and their sinister true purpose plays heavily in the game.  Yet while shelter culture was present in the 1950s, Fallout’s portrayal of it is far from its original form.  Shelter culture portrayed in Fallout and in fact the entirety of 50s culture in the game is not an accurate reflection of the time, but rather a 21st Century American interpretation of it.  Thus Fallout can be used as a measure of nostalgia, the attempt to recreate an idealized version of a past event.

In writing this paper I would draw on recent studies of science fiction cinema, as well as the historiography of Cold War culture.  The tools of cinema can be applied to video games with some modification.  Games are player driven experiences, which leaves the creators less control over the experience.  Thus Fallout 3 is a game peppered with references that not every player will experience equally.  Yet the overall appearance of Fallout’s wasteland, the creatures within it, and the dark humor that pervades the game have been universally commented on in reviews.  Understanding the cultural significance of Fallout is a way of measuring how the shadow of nuclear war continues to intrude on our culture a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

5 Replies to “project idea: Wandering the Wastes: Fallout and Imagery of Nuclear War”

  1. I donI don't really have much to comment on here. I think this sounds like a great paper. Your ideas about the death landscape, giant creatures, and the Vault all sound compelling to me.

    I am curious if in reading the game you might also want to consider reading the broader commentary on the game. In my experience, video game forums and online reviews can offer up a ton of great material for testing ideas about how actual players interpret games.

    It might also be interesting for you to think about how playing a game about this topic is the same or different than reading a book or watching a film. The themes in the game appear in different places in our culture and it would be interesting to explore how medium agnostic or specific they are.

    If you do decide to do this as your project, I might suggest that you take a look at some of the essays in Alexander Galloway's "On Gaming" for some neat ideas about ways to analyze the game itself.

  2. I love the idea of the project and wished I had spoken up first about similar idea. I see a couple of problems though. The first is scope. I don't know how familiar you are with the series, but it does span 3-6 games (depending on which ones you count). Which games would you be focusing on and why? I can easily see narrowing the selection to just the most recent games published by Bethesda (3 and New Vegas), but if you have been a longer fan of the franchise, I can understand including the older games. I would just be afraid that examining 5-6 games could be too work intensive and more than a little hard to do, but I guess if you start preparing early, you can get it done in one semester.
    Secondly, as someone who just wrote a paper about video games, I would just caution you to start thinking about how you are going to cite video games. There just is not a well-defined process for mentioning video games in scholarly work yet, so I would just sort of advise to be aware of that.
    I hope I was helpful in some small way. Once again, I love the idea and I would love to read the final project.

    1. I think when talking about atmosphere I'm largely restricted to the last two games, Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Though I plan to reference the first two as well. I'm especially interested in the maps and the appearance of the enemies as well as the incorporation of civil defense sounds into the music. The creators of the original game also put together an extensive document called The Fallout Bible in the interest of preserving continuity which is available online. Citation is a huge problem, and it's definitely something I need to look into.

  3. Here are the preliminary Sources for this project:

    Womack, Jeffrey. “Mutants in the Desert: The Impact of Nuclear Imagery on Science Fiction Films,” Presented on Panel, Doomsday Scenarios: Hollywood and Nuclear Radiation in the Cold War Era Panel. Organization of American Historians Conference, Friday March 27, 2009.

    Masco, Joseph. “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico” Cultural Anthropology, vol 19 (November 2004) pp. 517-550
    Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

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