Digital Fallout

760px-Ground-Space_based_hybrid_laser_weapon_concept_art We are used to studying nuclear issues only in military and political terms. But what if we would consider this subject from an alternative point of view? In his seminar “Welcome to Wasteland-The Discourse on Nuclear Power and Post-nuclear Dystopia in Video Games”, Eugen Pfister (University of Vienna) analyzed how nuclear issues are depicted in video games, and why this phenomenon has to be considered.

There has always been a strong connection between the real world of politics, and the fictive world of popular culture. Video games, like all media, are not only a mirror of our culture: they are a place where our culture, politics and society are negotiated and constructed; therefore the historical analysis of movies, graphic novels, novels, radio programs and video games is useful to understand the collective identity which characterizes every society and its values and norms, which themselves influence the political process. For instance, the American president Ronald Reagan mentioned in his diary and speeches the movie The Day After which had a strong impact on the public opinion. The President watched the film in 1983, several days before it aired on TV and he described it as “very effective and left me very depressed”. The movie changed his mind on the prevailing policy of a “nuclear war” and it became an important factor in convincing Reagan that the existence of nuclear weapons put United States in danger.

According to him defense policy placed “our entire faith in a weapon whose fundamental target was the civilian population”. He was afraid of the possible consequences, observing that, “Even if a nuclear war did not mean the extinction of mankind, it would certainly mean the end of civilization as we knew it. [A]s long as nuclear weapons were in existence, there would always be risks they would be used, and once the first nuclear weapon was unleashed, who knew where it would end?”.

Four years later the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed. The amount of people who buy video games has experienced a constant growth: sales of video games in the US reached 15 billions dollars in 2012, compared to 7 billion dollars in 2005 when the movie business was estimated 9 billion dollars. Undoubtedly, they are very important and reflect social values and norms; this industry catches people’s desires and frightens to be more attractive. The possible apocalypse caused by the nuclear mutual mass destruction was the base for many different video games that have been very popular:

  • Balance of power  is a computer strategy game of geopolitics during the Cold war, created by Chris Crawford and published in 1985 whose aim is to avoid a nuclear war and to maximize the prestige of either United States or the Soviet Union. It was a game  where it was necessary to maintain the balance to assure stability, otherwise the world would have come to an end.
  • Missile command is a game where six cities are constantly attacked by an endless hail of ballistic missiles. It inevitably leads to the end oh the human kind as, like many other arcade games there is no way to win: the game becomes more and more faster until it becomes impossible for the player to defend the cities
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an Ukrainian horror video game set in the area surrounding the Chernobyl accident site that is called “The Zone” in an imaginary reality where a second explosion occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after the first one, causing strange changes in the area around it.
  • Fallout 3 is the most important example of how the nuclear war is represented in video games: it is the third chapter of the fallout series (with Fallout and Fallout 2). It is set in 2277, two hundreds years after a nuclear war. Human beings live in underground bunkers named Vault while the external world has been destroyed by a nuclear fallout.


All these examples demonstrate that there has always been a deep fear inside the society concerning the end of the world: human beings are always attracted by apocalypse, how to face it and they are afraid not to survive: nuclear war has been very important in shaping people’s fears for many years and video games, like all the other products, have to reflect people tastes, preferences and emotions in order to be sold.

This is why new media are so important and their connection with the political sphere is always relevant to deepen the knowledge of a particular historical period.

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