The ambivalent nuclear politics of Fallout video games via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Cameron Hunter


The late French filmmaker, François Truffaut, once claimed “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film”—referring to the adventure and thrill of combat, the (usually) clear-cut heroes and villains, and the opportunity for the film-maker to indulge in spectacular pyrotechnics and loud, cinema-shaking explosions of sound. And the loudest and most impressive explosion of all is the nuclear mushroom cloud.

The same may be proving to be true of video games—perhaps even more so.

Just like war movies, video games have frequently exploited the exciting and dramatic aspects of war. Yet, unlike movie-goers, gamers do not passively consume their media; instead, they make choices and influence the narrative. The result is a medium that trades heavily on visceral, simulated experience. And what could be more visceral than up-close and personal exposure to a nuclear strike?

Trading heavily on its nuclear theme, the Fallout video game series has so far teetered between satirizing the Bomb, and reveling in its power. But now it may be toppling over that fine line.


The new Fallout 76 has gone one step further, encouraging you and your online friends to piece together pre-war nuclear codes and then fire dormant nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles elsewhere on the map, including the option to target other players. The resulting ground-zero is then populated with rare and valuable “loot” for the players to collect, creating a new environment to be explored and exploited. Should the intense radiation become too onerous, players will be pleased to know that the effects only last a few hours—laughably out of whack with the real world in regards to the time required for the half-life of various nuclear fission products to decay to a safe level. To give a sense of the time scales involved in the real world, in order to contain the radioactive remains from the accident at the Chernobyl reactor (whose effects have been likened to a single, huge dirty bomb) engineers had to construct a 32,000-ton concrete sarcophagus, taller than the Statue of Liberty, and designed to stand at least 100 years. Which is likely to be the minimum amount of time it will take to fully clean the area, wrote the New York Times.

Handing players large nuclear weapons that only have positive outcomes for the users is a major shift in the nuclear politics of the video game series. Yes, the inclusion of usable nuclear ballistic missiles has a level of preposterousness that will likely be humorous and entertaining for the players. But equally, where is the satirical bite found in the preceding games? Where is the consequential decision-making?


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