(A warning: this is an academic paper and so it’s pretty dense.)
Once only the province of social misfits and distressingly stereotypical high school students with glasses and button-up shirts, video games have emerged as a cultural monolith, consistently earning more than Hollywood as an industry year after year (Tanenbaum 2, Bogost viii). While initially the arcade game Asteroids and the Atari 2600 were novelties, artifacts of a curious development in electronics, today electronic entertainment is common in mass media.
With this growth comes a need for critical examination; just as with the growing medium of print throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, games as a medium require careful analysis to determine what messages are being transmitted and how those messages are communicated. For example, while novels present a fictional situation which involves ethically challenging material and the reader interprets the novel’s content and forms a conclusion about the morality of the text, some games take an altogether different approach. Rather than simply presenting an ethical stance, Fallout: New Vegas simulates a political situation for the player who manipulates it in a manner of their choosing. After the player enacts his or her solution, the game awards his or her character “karma” points which can either be positive or negative. By measuring a player’s actions on a good/evil axis, Fallout: New Vegas gives rise to a Foucaultian biopower paradigm in which the player’s actions are controlled as effectively through the politicized structure of gameplay decisions as Foucault’s conception of political regulation of a state’s population. As the player proceeds through the game, each instance of their gameplay decisions – to kill or not to kill this person, to help or harm – converts the heretofore neutral player into an agent of juridical power. Moreover, the player is transformed into Agamben’s Fuhrer; “[a body where] bare life passes immediately into law” (187). To the player of Fallout: New Vegas, the very act of engaging with the population of this fictional wasteland merges political life and private life; there is no existence for the characters the player meets other than bare life.
Bare life is a central tenet of Agamben’s elaboration on Michel Foucault’s conception of biopower. Biopower, for Foucault, centers around threats to the population of the human species. In a biopower system, “killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race” (Foucault 256). Although at first this statement seems to imply that wars, being a conflict between political adversaries, are not within the biopower system, Foucault goes on to suggest that war is “not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race [and] regenerating our own race. As more and more of our number die, the race to which we belong will become all the purer” (257). This agent of racial purification has what Foucault calls the sovereign right, which comes from the idea that sovereign political figures both constitute the law and are above it: whatever the king of a country decrees is law, but he may also violate that law as he sees fit. As political systems evolved from the monarchy, the state assumed the sovereign right. However, Foucault contends that the ultimate destination of the modern State is the play between “the sovereign right to kill and the mechanisms of biopower” (260). Agamben explores Foucault’s theories and expands upon his definitions by returning to classical conceptions of life. He turns to Roman law for the concept of the homo sacer, a person who may be killed but not sacrificed because the state has judged him for a crime (71). To explain this, Agamben turns to the ancient Greeks, who had two terms for life: zoe, which referred to biological life, the quality of being alive, and bios, which is life qualified by social action, a life lived within a society of peers (1). Agamben examines the overlap between the two states and terms it “bare life”: the property of homo sacer which allows him to be killed but not sacrificed. The production of bare life is “the originary act of sovereignty” (83), the single action which, once taken, bestows upon the actor the sovereign right: as Agamben quotes Carl Schmitt, the “sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception” (Agamben 11). Finally, Agamben recontextualizes the term biopolitics in terms of “the growing inclusion of man’s natural life in the mechanisms and calculations of power” (119), a consideration which, as this essay will demonstrate, is almost inescapable in the post-apocalyptic setting of Fallout: New Vegas.
In order to understand how Fallout: New Vegas functions as an ethical text differently from literature, first we must understand how ethical criticism of the novel functions. Mary Devereaux examines the question “What are we doing when we assign moral values to a work of art?” – specifically, the novel (3). She outlines a number of specific features that elicit moral judgements about novels which are unique to the genre of the novel: the purposiveness of the text, the posited author, and the novel as an agent of the moral imagination. To see a text as purposive is to read it as organized in such a way as to allow the reader to ask questions about the characters, events, setting and structure of the novel (Devereaux 6). Devereaux refers to Kant’s conception of “purposiveness without purpose:” seeing order and arrangement in nature but being unable to locate the causes of this form in a will (6). Similarly, for Devereaux written narratives are read in terms of intentionality, and it is this intentionality which enables novels to be intelligible from an ethical perspective (6). As a result, she argues, the act of reading a novel results in the conception of a “posited author,” an agent distinct from the historical author or narrator of a text, whose function is simply “to allow us to read the text in a certain way [...] under the concept of literary purposiveness” (Devereaux 6). Since the posited author follows from a conception of the novel as purposive narrative, Devereaux continues to the conclusion that to judge a novel morally is to judge the posited author of the novel (7). Finally, she recalls Lionel Trilling’s observation that the novel is “an especially useful agent of the moral imagination,” or in other words a tool for moral education (Devereaux 7-8). This recollection is important because, as Devereaux notes in the final section of her article, “the moral judgements we make of the novel’s “posited author” parallel our moral judgements about real human agents [, which] has implications for how we are to do ethical criticism,” referring to the necessity of engaging with literature on both aesthetic and ethical fronts (8-9). On the whole, however, Devereaux’s method of dealing with moral judgements about literature is to “engage the whole text [...] a task that requires careful reading, imagination, and hard interpretive work” (9). Ethical criticism of novels, then, requires the reader to assess the content of a novel and form his or her own judgements about the text. As we will see, this differs markedly from Fallout: New Vegas’ approach to morality in several important ways.
Central to this essay’s understanding of the ethical structures which underlie the playing of games like Fallout: New Vegas is Miguel Sicart’s landmark book The Ethics of Computer Games. Like Mary Devereaux’s approach to the moral character of the novel, Sicart devotes much of his book to a structural examination of the formal characteristics which make some video games a unique ethical enterprise. However, as the play of interactions between the player of a game and the potential, actual, and ethical aspects of the game is quite complex, dealing with the ethical implications of computer games is correspondingly complex. Because of this complexity, Sicart cautions that not all video games may be seen as moral objects:
the games that can be considered moral objects are those in which ethical discourses and values can be found embedded in the practices suggested by the rules and that take place in this space of possibility. If the space of possibility of a computer game can be analyzed using the tools of ethics, and if that analysis is corroborated by actual gameplay, then we can say that a specific computer game is a moral object. (Sicart 51)
However, he hastens to add, “A game […] is not only its rules, its material aspect, but also its experience – the act of playing that game. A game is both its rules and the practical expression of those rules” (Sicart 54). Drawing on Aristotle’s conception of potentiality, Sicart makes the case that while a set of rules for a game (or, in a more technologically advanced sense, a CD-ROM or DVD containing the computer code and assets for the game) functions as a set of conditions that the player must accept in order to play the game, it is the presence of a player which makes it become a game (54). More than simply a catalyst for the game, however, when playing a game the player is subjectivized by the Foucaultian power structure created by the rules of the game, wherein the player is “at least partially affected in her moral being by the game” and, furthermore, creates an onus on the player-subject to be ethically conscious of the nature of the power structure in which she is immersed (Sicart 68-69). He goes on to posit that the player-subject also constitutes a “player skin”, a construct of the person interacting with the game which supersedes her everyday experience without ignoring it completely; the subjectivization of the player-subject, in other words, does not divorce the ethical subject outside the event or game from her larger cultural context and embodied set of subjects (77-85). Central to Sicart’s conception of games as moral objects is his explication of the virtuous player, inspired by Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. A virtuous player is a player who “engages in a game and enjoys its ludic experience, but it is also she who, in the face of a moral challenge, uses the practical wisdom acquired by […] playing the games that form her repertoire, in order to make the most ethically informed choice” (92). The virtuous player uses the experience gained from playing games as well as her own extradiegetic personal experience to make moral decisions within the context of a game’s rules and embodied ethical assumptions (93). While being a “good” player means making ethically appropriate choices, in the context of games it also means respecting the system of rules which constitute a game. To paraphrase Sicart’s example, a “good” player would use a motorcycle to navigate an obstacle course designed for motorcycles, while a player who circumvents the challenge by using a helicopter would not be considered “good” (100-101). However, this also means that “games as objects can condition what the ethical practices and values of the players will be through their affordances and constraints,” and although the game object “is not exclusively responsible for what players believe is ethical or unethical” (102), the conditioning of the player-subject’s ethical practices and values constrain the actions of the player in both a literal and ethical sense. While it might seem that the definition of a virtuous player precludes the idea of virtuously playing an unethical game, the above stipulation of “good” as keeping in mind the designed nature of the game pre-empts that notion by ensuring that while a virtuous player may experience unethical content within games, she does so while aware that by doing so she is playing the game by a predetermined set of rules, and that while a given game action may be violent or unethical, she realizes that this action is the most rational and efficient approach within the game. To use the infamous example of paying a prostitute in the Grand Theft Auto games to have sex with the player avatar, increasing the avatar’s health, and then killing the prostitute to get the money back, the virtuous player would “be aware that she is actually increasing her chances of passing a challenge by means of exchanging game tokens in the most efficient way” (Sicart 197). The virtuous player, in other words, performs unethical game content while simultaneously staying morally aware and reflective upon the unethical content’s implication, both upon the specific instance of gameplay which the player is engaged in as well as upon the game’s ethical nature as a whole. While the conception of the virtuous player-subject appears similar to the posited author of Devereaux’s critique, it is the element of interactivity which differentiates the media and changes the nature of the ethical discourse between the moral object and player. For the novel, the reader is a passive judge, viewing the work in its entirety and then proceeding to a moral conclusion on those terms; for the game as moral object, the virtuous player instantiates the game as moral or immoral through his or her actions in the space of possibility created by the game’s rules.
Fallout: New Vegas is the fifth instalment in the critically and commercially successful Fallout series, which are set after a catastrophic nuclear war which devastated most of North America and sent the world into nuclear winter. Many members of the American public – other countries are not mentioned, save for an annexed Canada – sought protection in privatized fallout shelters called Vaults. Unbeknownst to the inhabitants, each vault was the site of a predetermined social experiment: while one vault’s armory might be overstocked with weapons, another might not have any, a third requiring yearly sacrifices in a Soylent Green-esque robotic euthanasia chamber. Those who survived these experiments emerged, once the titular fallout had subsided, to start a new society in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. New Vegas is set in the year 2281, 204 years after the war, and is primarily concerned with the newly developed political factions vying for control over the former city of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada. The three main factions at work are the New California Republic, founded by Vault survivors who were concerned with preserving pre-war America’s democratic ideals and customs, Caesar’s Legion, a misogynist collective of slave-trading warriors whose society is modeled after the Roman Empire, and Mr. House, a Howard Hughes-esque pre-War billionaire who had made his fortune as a robotics engineer and used his company’s resources to achieve a level of life support so advanced as to essentially gain immortality. House controls the remains of Las Vegas with an army of robots which function as peacekeepers, allowing both NCR and Caesar’s Legion troops to entertain themselves within the renovated casinos on the Vegas Strip. An undercurrent of socio-political critique runs beneath the fabric of the game’s setting; the NCR are plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, House’s insistence on a Milton Friedman-like credo of unrestrained capitalism carries Randian undercurrents of corporatist, profit-based rule, and the Legion are the image of a fascist, militaristic culture whose jingoistic politics recall the nationalistic fervour of Hitler’s public addresses. In short, there are no ‘good guys’ in Fallout: New Vegas: only those whom the player supports in their agenda.
New Vegas’ gameplay systems are fairly standard for a game of its genre; Fallout 3, published two years previously, is almost identical to its successor save for the addition of the faction system. As the player completes objectives that benefit or harm a specific faction, she gains favour or infamy with that faction, measured as a positive or negative number. Additionally, when certain actions are performed the player’s avatar gains positive or negative “karma” points which modify how characters react when spoken to. While the karma system was present in Fallout 3, it has been modified in New Vegas to be less relevant than the faction standing system. However, the system’s mere existence is problematic in terms of Sicart’s conception of ethical games: as he points out in an applied examination of Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars game with a similarly unipolar morality system, “ethical decision making becomes another algorithm for the state machine to take into account, disempowering the player as an ethical agent with the capacity for self-evaluating her actions” (211). In other words, by assigning a good or evil label to a player’s given action, the karma system of Fallout: New Vegas undermines the virtuous player’s ability to judge her own actions within the game world. Taken in the abstract, this seems harmless, if somewhat unnecessary, but in practice this system takes a somewhat sinister turn. By assigning positive or negative karma values to certain actions or outcomes, the developers of Fallout: New Vegas encode their own ethical systems into a supposedly lawless diegetic space. As the player traverses the post-apocalyptic Mojave desert, she is occasionally attacked by hostile animals. Killing these results in no karmic response, but murdering members of specific gangs or “feral ghouls” – humans mutated by radioactive fallout to the degree that their biology changes, their lifespan extending and their skin changing into a chapped and mostly missing form – results in good karma. This is where Agamben and Foucault enter the fray. As ghouls are human, if mutated, the game’s rewarding the player for culling them can only be read in the most biopolitical of terms. No faction requires you to exterminate these posthuman lifeforms; indeed, most ghouls are not feral, possessing a decidedly human outlook and affect. Killing these non-feral ghouls does not result in a karmic loss, implying that the only ghouls who need to be culled are those who have lost their mental faculties. Additionally, killing the members of the drug-addicted Fiends or escaped prisoners will also result in karmic gain. Although both the Fiends and the ex-cons are enemies of the NCR, the Fiends are cast in terms of moral weakness; more than one character states that they feel sorry for Fiends members’ weakness in being addicted to drugs, but that they must be exterminated regardless. The implication, to quote the title of a collection of Foucault’s lectures, is that society must be defended; those members who are physically, mentally, or socially unfit within the Nevada wasteland are killed by the player instead of offered admission to any of the communities within Fallout: New Vegas.
Outside of the karmic system, Fallout: New Vegas’ game mechanics are as explicit a simulation of Agamben’s bare life as one could expect. Within the simulated Nevada of the game world, nearly every active agent has the digital equivalent of bare life: the player character may kill almost any character she meets without repercussions beyond a loss of reputation or karma, as qualified above. If she does so without being witnessed by a member of a faction, even reputation loss does not occur. Mechanically, nearly all of the entities who are depicted as having life – including plants – have the digital equivalent of zoe, as the game’s “kill counter” is increased whenever the player exercises their sovereign right. However, those few characters who are deemed essential by the game’s narrative are not able to be killed; rather, upon sustaining the amount of damage which would usually kill them, they are rendered “unconscious” and fall to the ground before getting up minutes later. These characters are explicitly political, possessors of bios; the reason that they are essential to the narrative is that the narrative is exclusively concerned with the political struggle for control of New Vegas. The player character is the sole possessor of sovereign power: her methods for influencing the political balance of New Vegas are nearly universally homicidal. Mr. House, the eccentric billionaire, needs your assistance to murder the Brotherhood of Steel, a technocratic organization whose mandate is the preservation of pre-War technology. The ambassador of the NCR would like you to discover the revolutionary plans of the proprietors of one of the casinos on the Strip, and afterwards, to murder them. Caesar himself sees culling weak occupants of the wasteland as his society’s mission, and expects you to fall in line. Although in comparison to Fallout 3, the pacifist solutions available to the player in Fallout: New Vegas are outlandishly numerous, it is still impossible to complete the game without murdering someone. When working with the NCR or Caesar’s Legion, Mr. House himself must be murdered to progress the storyline, a withered spectre of biological mediation who explodes into egregious amounts of gore once killed, a sharp contrast to the debonair exterior he projects through the computer monitors he has heretofore communicated through; even if the player disconnects House from his army of robots and leaves him within his machinery, the bacteria introduced to House’s sterile environment as a result will kill him within a year. If the player did not possess the sovereign power of exception or refused to exercise it, the world of Fallout: New Vegas would remain in stasis, and it would be as if she were never there.
If Foucault’s contention that the ultimate turn of the state is to biopolitics bears fruit, then Fallout: New Vegas will prove him prescient, having foreseen the arrival of these post-apocalyptic systems of thought nearly a half-century in advance. Rather like Mr. House himself, Foucault’s observations about the systematization of population control and measurement points the way towards a future in which the same assumptions which underlay the Nazi regime find a new home in modern politics, albeit under a different name. Although Fallout: New Vegas may well be an unethically designed game due to its measurement of moral action, that does not lessen its potential power as a rhetorical exploration of where the politics of today might lead; unlike more obviously political games like Bioshock, the interactive critique of Objectivist thought, Fallout: New Vegas is not always so obvious with its treatment of ethical quandaries. As ethical, moral beings, the players of games like Fallout: New Vegas, Bioshock, and others which present problematic ethical situations and ask for their players’ complicity must heed Sicart’s call for the virtuous player, a player who examines her own actions and the situations which necessitated those actions even as she performs them. One of the great strengths of both Devereaux and Sicart’s ethical conceptions of their chosen medium is their potential power as rhetorical tools and morally instructive works; both novels and games provide the potential to practice morality in a setting free of the consequences which infest our day-to-day life. Although we may be faced with the spectre of Mr. House, an eldritch Rip van Winkle encased within a bed of technology, our decision whether or not to open his box is one that we must not undertake lightly or without reflection. It is when the issues of euthanasia or machine-assisted longevity rear their heads that the players of today will recall House’s face, and the decision which accompanied that first sight of the man behind the monitor. When faced with the voting machine, these virtuous players will press the button with certainty, guided by the hesitation of the same press on the gamepad and the longing for a nonviolent solution which now presents itself.
Fallout: New Vegas. Version 1.1.1. Obsidian Entertainment. November, 2010. Video game.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford Press: Stanford, California, 1998.
Devereaux, Mary. “Moral Judgements and Works of Art.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62.1 (2004): 3-11.
Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Random House: Toronto, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended. Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976. New York: Picador, 1997.
Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009.
Tanenbaum, Joshua. Believability, Adaptivity, and Performativity: Three Lenses for the Analysis of Interactive Storytelling. MA Thesis. Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, 2008. Print.