Video Games Have Always Trivialized Violence and ‘Fallout 76’ Is No Different
Reveling in fear helps us conquer it and focus our rage in the proper place
The world established in the video game series Fallout isn’t one any of us would want to live in. In an alternate timeline where the 1950s never ended and nuclear technology took prominence over miniaturized electronics, China and America fought a great war that ended in nuclear hellfire.
It’s in the ruins of the old world that the player emerges, to pick through the ashes and help—or hurt—according to their whims.
The newest iteration of the bestselling franchise is Fallout 76—set just 25 years after the end of the conflict. Players take control of the first people to venture from the underground vaults and reclaim the land from irradiated nightmares.
It’s an important distinction. Most of the other games have taken place hundreds of years after the bombs fell. Society—such as it is—has moved on. The United States is a memory and new powers fight in the ruins.
Part of the gameplay loop of the new Fallout 76 is the ability for players to gather the launch codes to an ICBM. Once a party has the codes, it can use the nukes to wipe rival factions off the map and spawn rare monsters in the immediate aftermath. It’s a first for a series that’s flirted with nuclear weapons and culture, but never given players complete control over the devastating power of the atom.
That shift has split the community. One side thinks the use of nuclear weapons looks like good fun while the other side feels nukes are too frightening and that putting them in the hands of the player is a shift away from decency. The use of nukes is, as a Waypoint article put it, “where power fantasies hit a breaking point.”
I’m torn on this. Nukes are awful, yeah, but I also think that play is an excellent way to trivialize and control that fear. But I think the real reason some are upset at Fallout 76’s incorporation of nuclear weapons is that it reminds us how little control we have over the real thing.
Getting upset about a video game is an abstraction of the real worry—that North Korea is going to nuke the United States or that Donald Trump is going to do something stupid. That’s what this is about.
Video games have always, thank God, trivialized violence. Nukes are just the latest weapon they’re trivializing. I’m less worried about a game breaking down nuclear taboos than I am about the current leadership of the globe doing the same. That’s where my fear is. Fallout 76 will help me deal with that fear.
Another argument is that Fallout 76—a game I’ve played but isn’t out yet—is a regression of Fallout’s anti-nuclear message. Letting players hurl nukes back and forth at each other shouldn’t be what Fallout games are about.
I think that’s bullshit. Fallout 76’s characters are one generation removed from the great war. The players are taking control of a group of people, all of whom have been raised to believe they’re exceptional—the inheritors of a proud American legacy. All they have to do is reclaim the frontier … by any means necessary.
People like that will absolutely grab hold of the nuclear weapons the first chance they get it. The older generation already used the nukes, after all. For this group of vault-dwellers, there’ll be no taboo. The world is already ruined, why not extract what value you can and move on?
The American anti-nuke movement took a few decades to get off the ground. We have a strong taboo against these weapons because of years of work by activists groups. The vault-dwellers of Fallout 76 will harbor no such taboo.