Wandering the Wasteland, Final Thoughts

One of the perks of doing a project about a video game is that I get to play the game. In the case of Fallout 1, 2 and 3 this involved a great bit of nostalgia mixed with mounting horror. Video games present an enormous challenge to unpack for a cultural historian. Fallout alone could be the anchor for a dissertation, and in a way, I continually felt that I was doing a disservice to the game by not packing more in.

As mentioned in On Gaming, Games, unlike movies have no forth wall. There is no point where the set ends to find the camera crew standing by, or a convenient catering table full of goodies. The experience of a game is limited only by the programming budget of the gaming company and the gamer’s willingness to explore.

Looking back on my paper, I was necessarily sparse in talking about the details. I limited myself to several of the main areas of the game, and even then I was brief. I didn’t talk about the presence of robots, built as a pastiche of 50s sci-fi movies. Like the post-apocalyptia in Fallout, the Robots are a homage to the 50s and yet, indelibly modern in their depiction. I didn’t mention that Fallout 3 featured an oasis full of green, mainly because it was not part of the main plot and is extremely hard for players to find.

Granted, Fallout is a special case because it is a sandbox game that allows players to wander freely. Rail-shooters which keep the player’s perspective fixed (still found in many arcades) are much more akin to cinematic experiences, and far less packed with information.

Yet even those are full of interesting topics for a cultural historian. Treatments of gender for instance. Why do some games allow for male or female protagonists? How does the gameplay differ, if at all between them? Questions of race are also interesting. Fallout uses ghouls as stand-ins for race, but when you’re dealing with former humans, beings that are physiologically and genetically different from human beings, is it really the same conversation?

It will be interesting to see how long before deconstructing games moves into the academic mainstream. I suspect my generation will play a major part in that transition. Having been raised on videogames, we are far more likely to take them seriously. In an odd way, Fallout is a part of my childhood, as much a part of my memory as the Challenger disaster, 9/11 or moving from Seattle to Cincinnati. The way games speak to us, and the way we talk back to game companies is a discourse that deserves our full attention.

The Persistence of the Wasteland

I thought I’d give an update on my project.  You will recall that I’ve been using the Fallout series as a benchmark for examining changes in American nuclear culture from 1945-2011.  It is striking how prevalent the image of the high desert is in current American concepts of a post-nuclear world.  Below are just a few of the photographs from games and movies.  It is simply impossible to display a post-nuclear world without reference to what Jeffrey Womack calls “The Landscape of Death.”  Yet, significantly there is little to no use of this landscape trope prior to the early 1970s.  My argument is that this is the result of the environmental movement, a reinvigorated anti-nuclear/disarmament movement, and most importantly the release and wide dissemination of films and images from the New Mexico and Nevada above ground nuclear tests, which permanently associated the high desert and the mushroom cloud together in American minds.  There is, in fact an almost total switch of thematic focus.  Most of the books of the mid to late 50s feature a decimated or extinct humanity in a pristine world, a world wiped clean by bombs.  The latter movies, books and games feature a resilient, surviving and tenacious humanity in a world utterly devoid of nature.  This changing focus speaks to larger fears about the affect of technology on our environment which simply was not a part of the zeitgeist prior to 1970.


Also, notice the theme of the barren road, and the loan traveler.  I’m not sure how to interpret why that image is so striking, and used so repeatedly.  Anyone have any ideas?

Playing with Justice: Argument Wars

Here’s the issue.  You’re trying to get students to understand the Supreme Court.  Not just that it’s an organization that consists of nine justices and that it interprets the law, but how it actually goes about doing so.  How does the court hear and structure arguments?  How is it that over the decades, the Court can by interpreting the same document, reach so many different conclusions?

Enter Argument Wars, a game designed to simulate arguing cases before the SCOTUS.  You begin by choosing a lawyer, and then choosing a case.  Your choices range from classic cases such as Brown v. Board of Education to more hot button issues such as Snyder v. Phelps, and you can argue for either side successfully.  This is one of the more interesting hidden messages of Argument Wars.  It’s not about perceived who has the moral high ground, but who can structure the better Constitutional argument.  It’s actually more fun to play the side that historically lost to see how workable their argument was.

The game does a great job of summing up both sides of the case in one sentence and then sets you to work.  You start by selecting one of

to make your case.  On the one hand, the cards are structured into real categories of argument, on the other, some of them are ludicrously easy.  Your opponent can then object to your argument if its silly.  If no one objects you then move onto the next portion.  At this stage you select which Constitutional amendment or clause justifies your argument.  The final part is perhaps the most challenging, though more so for being arbitrary than for being actually difficult.  You are required to string together a fill in the blank sentence which sums up the argument, picking from three sets of fragments.

Based on all of this, the judge awards you points, and the side with the most points wins.  At this point, you’re informed how the case actually turned out, and are given the option to “certify your victory” printing out a certificate that can be turned in to a teacher.  It’s easy to see how this game could easily be applied to a history, or street law class.  While it is built for middle school students, it’s actually worthwhile at any level.

This game deserves kudos for a lot of reasons.  It allows students to see how the Constitution is actually applied to law, and how to make a legal argument based upon it.  It simplifies complex legal arguments without unduly sacrificing their meaning, and it’s actually quite fun.  I especially got a kick out of the look of disappointment on my opponent’s avatar when he lost his case.  “Yeah take that Brown,” I found myself saying, “No desegregation for you!”  But then, I tend to get a bit competitive.

Of course, by reducing these cases merely to their Constitutional arguments, and divorcing them of their cultural context, students can loose some important perspective on the social role in Supreme Court cases, and the singular impartial Judge is certainly not at all typical of the Court.  This game, however, is about the meat and bones, not deep analysis.

Project Proposal: Bringing the Webquest into Higher Education

Over the past 20 years secondary and primary education have made a number of forays into the digital world with webquests.  A webquest is a structured project designed to produce a term paper or major assignment using guides to help students conduct research independently.  As an adjunct instructor, and a teaching assistant, one of the problems I have consistently encountered is that despite being web savvy, students have no experience doing formal research, or sifting good data from bad.  Most have never read an academic article, or a book review.  Thus, I spend a great deal of time trying to find novel ways of teaching methodology as well as content.  By removing some of the structure from webquests, I believe they can be adapted for an undergraduate audience, and provide a teaching experience that not only fosters knowledge of content but research method as well.

Webquests are an increasingly popular tool in secondary and primary schools around the country, and increasingly adult education and ESL as well.  First and foremost, they are easy to share among faculty, and are excellent for collaborative projects in team teaching environments.  They allow students to use digital resources in constructive ways, and can be part of valuable lessons about determining bias and sifting through information on the web.  They also provide the teacher with accountability and transparency, since every step of the project is laid out for the students in a format that can be easily accessed.

The webquest, has unfortunately, not made much headway in higher education.  This is likely for several reasons.  Higher education does not foster team teaching where resources like this are shared.  Often it falls solely on the professor in question to develop their own coursework, and professors rarely receive training about resources available to them.  Professors tend to view highly structured assignments such as webquests as too simple for college students, or have never been introduced to the concept.  Webquests, however, are adaptable enough to service any grade level.

Webquests taught at the gradeschool level all follow a specific format.  They focus on a specific topic, such as McCarthyism, which is briefly explained in an introduction.  They then have a Process Page which lays out the project requirements in a level of detail appropriate to the grade the project is designed for.  The webquest then provides resources that students are required to examine.  These usually include specific books, articles and websites vetted by the teacher for the students to read and examine.  Finally the webquest generally contains an evaluation section with a rubric explaining how the papers should be submitted and graded.

My idea involves creating a webquest for a survey to 300 level class on Modern American History.  This assignment would be valuable for a three reasons.  First, it provides a guided method that can introduce students to serious independent research.  Second, it provides an easily accessible digital means of presenting a rubric based term paper.  Finally, its methodology appeals to the digital learning techniques already discussed in the class.

The specific webquest I would create would be called Political Violence in the 20th Century.  Its brief introduction would spell out the definition and include several examples: Sedition Laws, Japanese Internment, McCarthyism, etc.  Under the task system, I would define a research question, requiring students to answer it in 5-8 pages, with a double spaced original research paper using Chicago style citation.  Resource pages would include links to JSTOR, a select library reading list from the library placed in reserve, as well as a more extensive list of outside resources.  Finally, I would provide a rubric and a link to the Turn It In page on Blackboard.

Because this assignment would be a test of students research methods they would be required to submit project proposals with bibliographies earlier in the semester.  This would require an extra page, explaining how such a thing should be written.  Another advantage of the webquest is that scanned examples of proper bibliographies can be uploaded as a .pdf for students to view.  I would likely include several examples of movies, webpages, books, and articles cited so that students would get a feel for how Chicago works.

The question of how to integrate digital resources in higher education continues to be a quandary for faculty.  Hours are spent in conferences, and buckets of ink written in journals and periodicals.  I propose a simple suggestion, that we use the tools already developed for us.

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.