I’m an Android user, so I missed the initial Fallout Shelter craze. All I could do is report to work and hear about the hype from my subordinates. I would be late in discovering the thrills of playing this licensed F2P game, complete with a retro-futur post-radio pre-color television art direction, and Pipboy-people as proxies for Little People in my virtual playground Bethesda Game Studios and Behaviour Interactive get extra points for integrating weapon and armor tiers while complimenting the generic NPCs with those named after famous Fallout characters such as Dawgg and Scribe Rothchild.
My little social/science experiment was chugging along just fine with little issue except for a casual famine here or water contamination there. I then decided to sign onto the internet to make sure that I was not playing FS “incorrectly.” That is when I encountered the controversy:
Satire actively criticizes its target. Fallout Shelter’s pregnancy mechanics aren’t satirizing 50s sexism, just “humorously” reproducing it. — Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) July 3, 2015
There is not an adult gamer out there with an internet connection who does not know who Anita Sarkeesian is, especially after news of Gamergate took the internet by storm. Just the mere sight of Sarkeesian’s name makes the blood of many (male) gamers boil, and I feel that this effect has less to do with her feminist criticism of video games, and more to do with the fact that she made one hundred fifty-eight thousand, nine hundred twenty two (plus) USD from a 30-day kickstarter that she launched in 2012 in order to support the costs associated with purchasing and playing video games as well as the video editing in her Tropes Versus Women in Video Games series. Though her initial goal was $6,000, the generous contributions demonstrated the fact that what Sarkeesian endeavored to accomplish was in great demand yet short in supply. She would expand the project from the initial five videos to an indefinite number with no deadlines. As of November 2015, Sarkeesian has published ten videos in this series, and the fact that there are more missing than have been delivered from the initial promise is an unquestionably legitimate critique—notably, “The Fighting F#@k Toy,” “The Sexy Sidekick,” and “The Sexy Villainess,” because she has only delivered “Damsel in Distress” and “Women as Background Decoration” from the original of five.
I would be a hypocrite if I said I was mad at her, because I, too, would love to take a furlough from my “day job” to play and read and write analytically about video games. I am also in solidarity with her intentionality in producing her work, appreciating and adopting Blizzard’s “when it’s done” game development philosophy. Nevertheless, I am a man, so I must acknowledge that some of the most vocal of Sarkeesian’s critics are obnoxious specifically because of her gender.
Cosplayer Liana Kerzner, a feminist who has been doing criticism of video games while Feminist Frequency was still nothing more than brain waves, highlights some inconsistencies in Sarkeesian’s mode of analysis, and it can be inferred that those shortcomings have contributed to a degree, to the volatile nature of Sarkeesian’s detractors. I highly recommend listening (or even better reading) at least to the first of Kerzner’s five part treatise where she rightfully scorns Feminist Frequency for, and I paraphrase, “effectively silencing the ability of men to participate in the liberation of women and themselves from patriarchy.” If feminist theory is genuinely interested in establishing equality among genders, Sarkeesian’s ethos of “her way or the highway,” as Kerzner correctly points out, is critically and intellectually flawed, and is fragile under intellectual, rather than zealous, scrutiny.
That said, one must give credit where credit is due. When I saw Sarkeesian’s criticisms of Fallout Shelter, I subconsciously responded the way that I imagined most players did: “Here she goes again!” After all, FS is such an innocuous/harmless game that I even let my kids play it. “Why does [she] have to try and ruin this too?” I imagine fans of Bethsedia’s franchise thought. Or as Kerzner framed this mode of thinking, “[She] is the DESTROYER OF FUN!”
Fallout Shelter is a game that lacks any ultimate goals. Truly, it is a pleasant time killer that, given its timing in release, uses the Fallout license to build hype for Fallout 4, and most of us will eventually forget about it in the great ocean of mobile games. Like The Sims, there are intermittent objectives such as maintaining resources or training dwellers to raise their stats to keep the vault running efficiently, just like a Sim’s fun, sleep, and food meters have to be kept full for an optimum mood. There is no canonical story, but rather, it is emergent: the “story” “emerges” through the direct actions of the player with little guidance from the developer. So a Sim that raises his charisma stats to make friends easier to get a promotion and make more money to buy better household items is, in the player’s mind, an ambitious proxy for the player who, in television sitcom fashion, spends time in the mirror rehearsing their future interactions with their peers and more importantly, the boss, who will be so impressed that they will offer the contract for the new position on the spot. The narrative continues as the player achieves different goals: get married, have kids, take up hobbies, and so on.
It was not until I realized how in my own sessions with Fallout Shelter that Vault 116 (UNASHAMED!) became its own living thing, and how I came to realize that Sarkeesian was correct in her prognosis: Fallout Shelter propagates traditional (sexist) roles for men and women.
The kicker, though, is that I am unsure the perceived sexism in Fallout Shelter is necessarily a bad thing. I think that this product of Bethesda Game Studios and Behaviour Interactive is brilliant in its depiction of a community that has survived Nuclear Winter. In actuality, Fallout Shelter exposes the flimsiness of the Mad Max fantasy, giving pause to our ability to suspend disbelief that anything more progressive than the residuals of human civilization adhering to traditional roles is a possibility. To put it more simply (if I can), I believe that Fallout Shelter is the most accurate simulacrum of what a post-apocalyptic world would look like in science-fiction.
Returning to Sarkeesian’s initial criticism, she takes umbrage with the fact that pregnant women run around helplessly when something bad happens. Well DUH, what would we expect a pregnant woman to do? Fight? Using Children of Men as a sci-fi reference point in this context of a post-apocalyptic world—the film very painstakingly illustrates that all women on the planet suddenly becoming infertile would be a catastrophic event on par with all the men in the world dying in Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man or a Nuclear Holocaust in Fallout—it would become the imperative of all of humanity (minus a few crazies) to be even more protective of pregnant women than we are now! Sarkeesian and her allies mourn the fact that pregnant women become useless during negative vault event even when armed, but their ideal fantasy contrasts with the only appropriate response within Fallout Shelter’s emergent narrative: be fruitful and multiply. Especially do the latter…a lot.
Sarkeesian is correct in that Fallout Shelter incentivizes baby-making. As a married man, I can attest that the Lord has already incentivized sexual congress, but certainly not in the format of “objectives” that FS pushes. Nevertheless, the frequency in which these objectives appear combined with the exigency of populating a fledgeling community as soon as humanly possible (the gestation cycle in FS is conveniently fast; literally hours from courtship to kid) forced me to arrange Vault 116 in a way that guaranteed maximum prosperity, dare I say fruitfulness.
Thus, I took the premise of Fallout Shelter’s emergent narrative to levels that may exceed the parochial sexism that disgusts Sarkeesian. I will self-reflectively narrate and analyze Vault 116 going forward.
FS and specifically in Vault 116, is where ideologies like feminism as we know them go to die. After unlocking the radio room, I did not think to recreate Galaxy News Radio, but instead, a broadcast of seduction: if my vault was to succeed as an experiment—and fans of Fallout know that every vault is an experiment if not a control—I would need more “specimens” than what my vault could produce on its own. As with the Asari in Mass Effect, I found it culturally as well as biologically beneficial to attract outsiders into the vault for reproduction. Therefore, women who approached my vault due to the allure of a woman’s voice who is may be at liberty, or the promise of men’s protection, would be in most cases put to work in a resource room straightaway. Breeding for newbies is optional, however it is the mission for women native to Vault 116, The Daughters of Sarai, to take pride in their reproductive work, and gain their true names upon first menses.
An obvious oppressive consequence of this arrangement is that women native to Vault 116, including girls born in the valut, that are infertile are shamed. They are allowed to contribute to the community through their work, but this is seen as a “wasted potential” because men can simply work; only women can give birth to assure the continuation of the human race.
New men attracted to Vault 116 would be put to work in a different way: studs. After attracting a viable male, I shift the radio room attendees over to the barracks where this new man awaits, half expecting to sow his oats because of the radio advertisements, but absolutely unsuspecting of how rigorous the process really is. Then, it is not a matter of if they will reproduce, but when. Of course, I gave all the women the “naughty nightwear” costume, and the male sports the “lucky nightwear” to expedite the process, though the Daughters of Sarai would all be eventually trained for max charisma for efficiency in both the radio room and also “the harem.” Make no mistake: this is not male fantasy, but instead, what “Death by Snu Snu” looks like without the side-jokes. New males are essentially prisoners expected to impregnate not only the Daughters of Sarai, but any woman in the vault who may find the new specimen, uh, stimulating. Failure for on the male’s part results in life imprisonment in a storage room; the vault’s “secret” cannot leave its walls, and execution would be counterintuitive to Vault 116’s mission. Male soldiers stand guard outside of the room and women doctors facilitate fertilization with hormones and aphrodisiacs. This process takes precedence over all other operations in Vault 116.
Few players of Fallout Shelter are willing to describe what goes down in their Vaults as rape, especially because a game mechanic of doing-the-do results in maximum happiness and smiling dwellers even they are lacking in food and water—Sarkeesian validly indicates this in her tweets. I challenge FS players to ask themselves this: when placing four of the same men and four same women in the barracks and leaving them be, is what goes down completely consensual without one lick of coercion? What about eight random men and women? What about “not rape“? I would like to think that while my oversight of Vault 116 has exacerbated these unspeakable things that must be discussed, it is in the very least more humane than say, a random group of raiders that has taken on the mission of repopulation by random rape, or Caesar’s Legion in New Vegas, the only town/faction that I have encountered in the entire Fallout universe that has a sustainable replacement rate, but only because all of the women in that community are slaves with zero chance of upward mobility—chattelry.
*TRIGGER WARNINGS FOR THE COERCION AND NOT RAPE LINKS*
Once fertilized, I shift women from the makeshift harem back to the radio room. The potential father is then brought into vault production. When the children grow up, they are tested for fertility and genetic defects. Yes, we are indeed talking eugenics here. Nasty stuff, indeed, but with survival at stake, moral codes shift.
And so goes the cycle: on one hand, childbirth in Vault 116 is looked upon as empowering rather than a burden. Without it, Vault 116 and for all intents and purposes, human civilization, dies. I previously mentioned the unavoidable consequence of perpetuating the “Man with Boobs” stereotype that I expected Sarkeesian to discuss in her Tropes Versus Women series: women having babies are not just doing work, but “men’s work.” I have not fully fleshed out the “gendering of work” in Vault 116, but I do recognize some shortcomings in its emergent narrative. For example, I mentioned that (most) doctors are female; if they are not literally giving birth to life, they are directly involved in sustaining it in some way through prenatal and postpostnatal latal care, the elimination of venereal disease, and treating infertility. Only men are allowed to exit the vault not necessarily because of natural strength or toughness, because any woman who has had a natural delivery will say that men’s pain tolerance sucks, but because they are considered to be more expendable. Remember: only one man is needed to impregnate an entire colony of women, but women are can produce only one viable baby at a time (multiple births is seen as bragging rights, of course.), and pregnant women and children cannot, should not, fight, because that would mean that they could die, which would defeat the entire mission of repopulating earth.
As a Christian, I have to approach a scenario such as a post-apocalyptic world in nuanced ways—indeed, as Book of Eli demonstrates with acumen, people will still care about God even after it might be interpreted that he has forsaken us all. At the same time, it would not be possible to repopulate the earth the if the world’s remaining men and women lived in monogamy. With all the issues concerning disease and fertility that are problematic to us now, I foresee no reason why the potential for exposure to extreme levels of radiation would alleviate us of our imperfections. In fact, like the inability for pregnant women or children to die hard-coded into Fallout Shelter, incestual relationships are also prohibited. Without question, I, and most FS players are relieved, yet simultaneously, the game laughs at players who make a genuine attempt to keep husbands and wives faithful. Doing so is simply inefficient; such players players will be spending more time creating multiple barracks for every unique male and female pair than collecting the resources necessary for sustaining life. And good luck with remembering everyone’s names!
So does sin reign for goodness sakes?
In a completely different direction, what would come of those attracted to the same sex? Homosexuality alone would be outlawed as selfish behavior, and counterintuitive to survival. However, accommodations would have to be made for a certain degree of social pansexuality, though declared sexuality is only tertiary to that person’s sex organs and their usage. In short, “sex for pleasure” in Vault 116 is encouraged as “play” or “practice” for its “intended” purpose, but that of same-sex is under surveillance so that it never overtakes or become equal to heterosexuality.
Oh, the irony of Vault 116 becoming like that of Ancient Greece, or worse, Sodom. This is what would happen if we took it upon ourselves to play God now or after a nuclear catastrophe.
If there is any saving grace, once my fault exceeded 100 citizens, the Daughters of Sarai ceased in its aggressive “deceptive” enterprize. Like modern civilization, the populace advances to a certain stage in development and one of the three prime human functions, reproduction, is no longer a crude necessity, but a luxury. Many of the Daughters of Sarai elected to “graduate” after their 30s and enroll into an all-girls school in the basement of Vault 116 where they advance scientific discovery. Some of them, alongside men, decide to train for exiting the vault to explore the wasteland, reducing some of the stigma associated with women doing “men’s work.” Still, the stigma of an “expired biological clock” exists, and the possibility of a Sarah, Veronica, or Imperator Furiosa remains a luxury of liberty. I only began experimenting outside of being slave to survival because of game mechanics: I was not going to be able to accumulate hundreds of thousands of caps to upgrade tier 2 and tier 3 rooms by sticking with objectives.
No doubt, I agree with Sarkeesian that the first three-fourths of nurturing a vault (that survives its first deathclaw raid) is completely dedicated to baby-making. However, I also believe that FS is a microcosm of what the post-apocalyptic world would really look like despite what our imaginations may desire. Vault 116 is just one of potentially millions of vaults, though I am positive that only a minority of them have analyzed its behavior in this way.
The wasteland is a cruel and unforgiving place, indeed.
**Feel free to make requests for me to play through games on my Backloggery for future articles in the comments. You can also hit me up on Twitter @AbsoluteZero0K.**
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