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.