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.