Philosophy And Fallout 4: What's The Appeal Of The Post-Apocalypse?

If you’re ever stuck for an ice-breaker at a party, you may as well try asking what everyone’s zombie survival guide is. You’ll get some surprising answers – and what’s more surprising is how many people have thought about their strategy for living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Why do we relish the idea of (near) total destruction? With the release of post-apocalyptic playground Fallout 4 last week, three philosophers offer their views.

Laura D'Olimpio, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia: Dystopia and the desire to be ‘special’

With the hype surrounding the November 10 release of Fallout 4, a source of familiar excitement in the world of entertainment emerges: the appeal of a post-apocalyptic world. I first heard about Fallout 4 from my cousin’s 14-year-old son, who excitedly informed us that the game is awesome for a number of reasons, including the immersive open-world with its quests and storylines.

I’m not really sure what that means, as I’m not into gaming, but I questioned the appeal of a world where everything has been destroyed, except for yourself and a few others.

The appeal of the post-apocalyptic is something familiar to all lovers of fiction. The world is both different to anything we have ever experienced ourselves, yet also familiar enough to recognise. Nuclear war is a genuine threat to our existence, and this moral and political concern provides a backdrop to the action.

For an individual who, alone, cannot do anything about such a threat, the fictional world that has been ravaged by nuclear weaponry is a place of exploration and creativity as new structures are built, and new rules formed. Such make-believe spaces are engaged with imaginatively as you feel special: you have survived.

The appeal of being special is found everywhere in our celebrity-obsessed society as people compete on reality-TV shows with the hope of being “discovered”. Each one of us is the Hero of our own story – sorry, “journey”.

Humans have always narrated tales of Superheroes whereby we identify with the ordinary, flawed individual who goes on to discover his or her special powers that almost ensures he or she is invincible. We long for immortality.

There is another obvious appeal to a world that no longer has any rules. With the institutions and people destroyed who uphold civil society, as scary as this “Wasteland” may be, there is freedom. Without rules, you can do as you please … without anyone telling you to eat your greens, go to work or do your homework.

Everyone understands this feeling of rebellion. From 1954’s Lord of the Flies to The Hunger Games (2008) franchise, the dystopian universe is a great source of fantasy and wish fulfilment.

You – yes, YOU – could be the reluctant hero who saves future generations of humanity by selflessly overcoming power-hungry tyrants. A classic battle of good versus evil ensues. The eventual victor had better be humble, compassionate and want good for all, as ultimately a sense of community and belonging is reinforced as desirable.

Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University: The possibilities of the post-apocalyptic sandbox

Personal identity is largely relational: who we are and what we can and can’t do is very largely defined by our relationships to others. You’re a child, a sibling, partner, ex-partner, parent, co-worker, friend, enemy, frenemy, frenemy-with-benefits, relative, student, teacher, carer … any and all of these relations to others shape boundaries and expectations around how you live your life.

Without even noticing it, your life largely runs along in a groove formed by how you intersect with the lives of others, and they into yours.

Then one day you walk out the front door and into a freshly-nuked hellscape. All the sedimentation of your life has just been blasted away. Your defining relationships? Gone, or at the very least, dramatically altered. No job. No government. Possibly no family or friends. That snug groove you ploughed along in is now a wide-open plane.

Even the network of ethical and social norms that guide our lives in ways we’re barely even aware of suddenly go out the window. The moral sphere has broken down. So go ahead: loot the abandoned store, shoot your newly zombified neighbours with barely suppressed delight, and procreate like a rabbit on ecstasy with total strangers in the cause of “preserving the species".

Of course if this really happened you’d be excused for crumpling into a heap and lying in the foetal position until starvation kicks in. But it’s not really happening. When we engage emotionally with fiction we’re inhabiting a world that’s nonetheless held in suspension; as Rick Anthony Furtak put it in Wisdom in Love (2005):

our ‘aesthetic’ emotions are not founded on belief, but on the entertaining of propositions unasserted.

In that sense, post-apocalyptic fictions, particularly of first-person game variety, create a sort of sandbox in which you can mess around with grounding commitments that are in fact largely concreted in place: who would you want to be, what would you want to do, if none of it really mattered?

Matthew Beard, Adjunct Lecturer, UNSW Canberra: By freeing us from moral norms, post-apocalyptic worlds allow for ethical freedom

Post-apocalyptic literature has never been my favourite genre. I’ve always preferred the optimism of fantasy. And yet I was far more hooked by Fallout 3 than I was by Skyrim – Fallout’s fantasy rival. Why the distinction?

I think it has to do with the difference between the forms. In literature, you witness a narrative unfurl before you from the perspective of a spectator. You marvel in the adventure, hope for the best and fear the worst.

Read (and written) well, fantasy, like fairytales, provides us with a moral lesson. Admittedly, these lessons are more nuanced and less didactic than The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but there is a lesson the reader can glean, if he or she chooses to.

Fantasy, I think, provides this opportunity more than other genres (though every genre can and does share moral lessons) because it stimulates the imagination in a unique way - through magic. Tolkien himself defined fairy stories - a genre his own fantasy tales fit into - by this standard. In his 1939 lecture Fairy Stories, he said:

‘Fairy-story’ is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic … Fantasy speaks to us of morals and deeds and religion through magic. It tickles a part of our imagination not bound by the world’s limitations. But magic also imposes rules: Tolkien insists magic “must not be made fun of”.

This makes fantasy less palatable as an avenue for the development of ethical agency rather than the seduction of gamers or readers to certain moral norms. Because of this, fantasy is a less interesting genre for videogames than for literature - to me, at least.

That’s because post-apocalyptic stories are ideal for the exercise of ethical agency. Without the usual constraints of a well-established society, gamers can exercise what Sartre called “radical freedom”.

They can choose their behaviour from a near-limitless slate of opportunities without coercion. Game mechanics also hold them responsible for their choices – murdering innocent people is likely to lead other characters in the game not to trust you.

Fallout was able do this better than Skyrim, I believe, precisely because by eschewing magic and fantasy it signalled to the gamer that there are no rules in its post-nuclear wasteland. It is expressly because post-apocalyptic games do not aim to convey a particular moral message that gamers can be reflective, ethical agents within the sandbox of the game.

It will be interesting to see how continuing horrors around the world – Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and so forth – affect people’s desire for post-apocalyptic freedom. Might feelings of powerlessness in the physical world make Fallout 4 appear as an escape? Or perhaps fear and uncertainty will lead gamers to desire something with more overt moral messages – something more magical …

After all, even grown-ups need fairy stories sometimes, don’t they?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


    Some people dream of a post-apocalyptic society (or even an apocalyptic event) in real life because they see themselves as equipped for such a scenario and someone who would thrive in it. I generally assume people are wrong about this, and see it as an alternative to doing something to improve their actual current lives, or perhaps just exasperation with the insurmountable obstacles society throws in our way sometimes that we all have a small desire to tear it all down and start again.

    For me post-apocalyptic settings mean that there is no society so conventional rules go out the window. The idea of survival becomes paramount so whatever society exists now is reframed around that singular concept because the weird interplay of people and culture has been simplified in the extreme. It's something that could be explored better in fiction but I'll take what we're getting for now.

    I know a handful of folks who are actually looking forward to something pressing the reset button. Zombiepocalypse, nuclear war, economic meltdown, climate change tipping point into catastropher, or some interconnected domino-effect combination of all of the above. They just want the reset button to break the current status quo.

    Currently, society is wired so that the fruits of your labour go to someone else who derives greater value from them than they compensate you for.

    If someone does this broadly enough, the economies of scale mean that they end up earning several times the worth of any one person's potential output, which can snowball into a handful of the world's wealthiest 'earning' more than several billion people combined. All for the virtue of having taked the initiative to come up with such an unfair system in the first place.

    Or, these days, since that system's been in place for so long, having inhereted or clawed out a piece of that system from the well-established. And they've used that wealth to enshrine their paradigm as sacrosanct. It's only lonely at the top because those at the top do not want company.

    The momentum this paradigm has gathered is virtually unable to be challenged. But a global reset button... now, that would level the playing field (for a time).

      I don't know of a historically successful system where everyone is equal. Both capitalism and socialism end up with a few who hold the majority of power and wealth and wish to enshrine the paradigm that got them there.

      The apocalypse may be enticing to those at the bottom because a reset button gives them a chance to be a leader in the new hierarchy, which will end up looking pretty similar to the old hierarchy.

    1. Everybody dead, meaning no more lines for them theme park rides.

    2. Don't need to work, pay tax, vote, or fork out money for holiday gifts.

    3. People who are very much PC can be shot, stabbed, clubbed, bombed, hung, gassed, skinned and/or worn/eaten.

    4. The opportunity to be left to our own devices.

    I think the post apocalypse would be a relief in that, given I survive along with my husband (I wouldn't be too thrilled if I was at it alone I have to admit), social expectations are completely dropped and we can all stop faking smiles and pretending to like each other when all I want is to be left alone with people that I actually care about. All that social anxiety wiped out over night.

    Other than that, I think it would actually suck for the most part. I basically have no survival training so I can't imagine I'd last very long.

    I'm not attracted to post apocalyptic fiction. Where i enjoy such fiction, it's usually despite it's setting, not because of it. The stuff I loved about Fallout: New Vegas wasn't wandering through a wasteland or shooting mutant bugs; it was the intricacies of the societies like the NCR or the Legion, bonding with the companions and having a noticeable impact on the game through how you resolve quests.

    It's the same thing with zombie fiction. I find zombies to be the least interesting part of those works. Far more interesting is how characters react to the collapse of civilisation, and how they try to put the pieces back together.

      Zombies are only ever good as a plot device, not as an actual monster. Great zombie stories come from the human drama.

      I love the idea of a story about people running from zombies in the long term. They need to eat and sleep. They get injured, they get sick. Their nerves become frayed and their relationships are strained. But no matter what they have to keep working together and keep moving. Because it could be zombies, or a plague, or fire, or anything else. The issue is that there is an unstoppable danger that doesn't need to rest or sleep. Every minute not moving is a minute that the tide comes closer.

    The fantasy is that you survive and flourish. The reality is you get a toothache, you live in pain for days, then one night someone hears you whimpering in your sleep, smash you over your head and take all your stuff.

    Try this thought experiment - small scale tactical war take out government, and major utilities (water, electrics). Now...

    * At home, turn of the water mains (there's no more electricity to pump it).
    * Wait n hours until whatever water your home has runs out.
    * Now, fetch clean water from a source other than someone else's water mains (no electricity). You might encounter someone that takes offence to you taking their water, so you need to go armed.
    * If you have a rain water tank (like we do), remember you need to defend it from the 10,000's of other people that live within 1000 meters of you.

    That what the post apocalypse means - you die from lack of clean water, or die defending what clean water you have, or die trying to get it.

    Fallout helps me to picture what the world will be if such a thing really did happen. And they have little bits of fun side quest to do.
    But the VATs system is what really kick ass!

    Yeh it's a bit of an escape fantasy from the modern day situation I think, especially for people like myself who just can't seem to find their niche in the world. In first world's we are just expected to fit a certain mould - kids, mortgage, hey nice new car! etc. - and it can be sort of exhausting explaining certain life choices to people with a look of confusion on their faces.
    People are capable of many great things, but many people are also massive dicks a lot of the time, so a world with less of that seems nice...but even at the expense of our modern day trappings? Hard to tell until you're in the situation.
    Also, maybe there's sort of a romantic notion of getting back to actually surviving. Not just living for the sake of it,or to buy that shiny new item, but really getting by on our wits, our strength, our resolve. I recall reading about our hunter gatherer ancestors and the fact that their brains were wired in such a way that they were actually using more of their brains and problem solving skills each and every day than we ever do because, you know, they had to actually adapt and overcome all sorts of shit just to survive. Eh, food for thought.
    Also, the idea loses its a shine somewhat when you realise there will still be people with absolutely no conscience, no morals or scruples, and there will be basically nothing to stop them from doing exactly as they please. See the walking dead for an example...humans really are the worst kind of monsters imaginable.

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