The World on Fire

A long, hard look into an irradiated mirror.
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In recent years, Pornhub have used their server data to the foremost authority on pornography viewing habits. It’s a weird corner to be on, but like the Elias Sports Bureau, when Pornhub posts something on their traffic blog, it attaches itself to our brains.

The information, like the all-time single season home run record, becomes a part of the microcosmic zeitgeist for every kind of Reddit fandom or sub-Twitter group who gather their information from our news troughs conveniently placed at internet congregation centers. So when they announced that a 10% drop in traffic on November 10th could be explicitly tied to the release of Fallout 4, it felt like a moment where America’s hearts and brains looked at each other and threw up in their mouth a little.

Ignoring the amount of tangential information that Pornhub was able to pull to make their case – breaking down users (with some snazzy looking graphics) not just by those who regularly play video games and those that don’t, but by which genre of games they most preferred – it felt so logical as to be disconcerting in and of itself. There were also, of course, questions.

Did these users decided to shift their, ahem, daily routine, around to play the game for as much as possible? There’s some evidence to support this, with traffic spikes in either direction occurring in ways that appear to coincide with the natural rate of progression through the game’s installation and configuration process. And it makes a kind of logical sense wanting to jump from one kind of escape to another as seamlessly as possible.

Even if that is the case, though, it feels unsettling. At best, it implies that they did their business to past the time whilst the game installed, which is almost respectable in its focus on efficiency if you don’t think about it too much. At worst, it implies that they did so while watching the game install in the background which, it should be said, involves Fallout’s signature Pip-Boy character playing the role of a hyper-violent Bugs Bunny and/or Elmer Fudd being disemboweled or disemboweling someone to explain each of the seven S.P.E.C.I.A.L. skills that determine character growth in the game.

Of course, I’m mostly joking. People can do what they want when they want, and however they choose to. In fact, some people have made good livings off of just that. But it’s hard to ignore the deeper implications of what this kind of switch we have in our brains  says about us, and more importantly, about the future of our entertainment interactive or otherwise.

This isn’t to a call to arms, or a media siren to say that games are rotting our brains. But, as a player of the game myself – I’ve logged somewhere in the range of 32 hours of playing time in the past week while working a full time job -- it’s something I have to ask myself: is this really the way my brain is supposed to work?

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For many people, Fallout 4, and its modern-era predecessors Fallout 3 (set in the D.C. area) and Fallout 3: New Vegas, are a place to completely live in for the 100-200 hours of time we spent there. Fully immersive and free from any of the social moors or traditions that guide our actual lives, the games offer a genuine experience of freedom within the constraints of physics, skill and the amount of Stimpaks and/or Nuka Cola bottlecaps you have.

Most games that promise similarly immersive experiences, like Skyrim (a part of the acclaimed Elder Scrolls series), take place in an alternate world with  a mythology entirely separate from our own that the player only has to engage with on a superficial level. While there is plenty of red meat for the users willing to read the literal novels that can be found in random books of history through that world, they can also just keep shooting mad heads with poison arrows until they’re super dead and get just as much enjoyment.

And for all their expansiveness, games like Grand Theft Auto work not as paintings of a post-apocalyptic landscape or statues to the risks of unsustainable consumerism -- which is explicitly highlighted as the cause of the Great War that leaves much of Boston inhabitatably irradiated -- but as slick, well constructed action films intercut with the Netflix Originals-spinoff equivalent of side stories they couldn’t fit into the main narrative.

Fallout straddles these two worlds, existing as an explicit reinterpretation of the world in which we may one day live, lampshaded by prominent symbols of the locations in which the respective games reside. Filled with the fringes of history – the games usually take sometime in the 23rd century after an all-out nuclear war in the latter parts of ours – the games serve as origin stories for themselves as the past we understand and the future they present to us are connected through pixels.

Which is what makes the lessons we teach ourselves while playing much more resonant than they probably should be, and definitely more so than anything that can be gleaned from the number of rampages that one partakes in while exploring the seedier parts of San Andreas. You can very much be whomever you want to be in the Fallout-verse, especially with the choice of gender you are given at the very beginning of the game.

This explicit choice made at the beginning of the game -- to choose between a wife and husband, with the understanding that along with their child, Sean, they will the Sole Survivor that leads the game’s action -- may not seem significant, but shouts loudly at a changing tone of the video game universe.

Like Gandhi before them, Betheseda implores you to be who you want in a world changed, regardless of gender or race (it also appears to have, at least to these admittedly unqualified eyes, one the better examples of the “natural”, a hairstyle that has long all eluded the capabilities of create-a-player modes through gaming history). And it’s this fundamental mission that has lead them to create perhaps the most addictive and existentially troubling gameplay mechanic I can ever remember playing.

Settlements, built around “workshops” your character gains access to by completing tasks, allow you to construct your own settlements using the natural resources and discarded junk you can find literally everywhere in the Fallout world. Nearly anything in the designated settlement areas that you can see can be turned into scrap, which can in turn be developed into just about anything your heart desires.

And, in building these settlements and developing your skills to create a safe and secure community, you can learn things about yourself and in some cases, other people you’d never thought you’d never be able to comprehend the thought process of.

For me, it was Donald Trump, noted human-filled sausage casing and real estate developer. As I realized that I could build an entire city using spare parts of rusted out cars, I began having genuine delusions of granduer about building a tower to the sky with my named embalzoned on it for everyone in the (entirely fake) world (with no actual people that I had spent the last 15 hours straight in) to see.

The things I was willing to do disturbed me, as I thought nothing of the wholesale murder of other people as long as they could provide the steel for my monument to how monumental I was. I wildly overspent on shipments of building materials to provide walls and additional floors for my completely emptied building. I’ve continued to ignore the rules pertaining to just how much can built in one settlement, ignored some of the most basic needs of the people under my care (like, for instance, beds) and find myself using any excess supplies I have on defense of my crown jewel.

Making it worse is that I’ve done so and only made it through roughly 10% of the actual game, progressing really no further than someone who’d spent half the time -- and a fifth of the brain space that I used trying to figure out how to create scaffolding while building the penthouse floors of Bond Tower alone.

Suddenly, the distant call of actually civilization rang, with its Porn-and-Grubhubs, Facebook fights about whether feckless people are not feckless because they also happen to be governors and Twitter wars about, well, whatever

But all was no lost, of course. As I carefully positioned my defense turrets and guard posts to maximize my immediate  protection, forgoing long terms deterrents like fences for want of steel and wood as I contemplated which settlement to incorporate (and which groups of supposed hostiles to mow down with my trusty hunting rifle and the help of a Mysterious Stranger) into my ever increasing drive for ultimate power, I realized something about myself that I had always thought but never truly known:

If I play my cards right, I can run for president some day.


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