Fallout 3 as Economic Stimulus Model

22 03 2009

Can Fallout 3 help fix America’s economy?

The New Wasteland

I like Fallout 3.  I’ve played the shit out of this game and I still can’t get enough.  After a brisk run through the main story as a ‘good’ guy, I decided to replay the game again, focusing this time around on all the side missions and alternatives.  Just to make sure I got the full range of experiences, my character is now an ‘evil’ girl.   I also consulted an amazing online guide, wikia.com, to insure that I left no stone unturned.  I’ve lost track of the hours I’ve got in it so far, but it’s a considerable number.

To cover everything, this second pass required considerably more time and energy committed to scavenging, trading and resource management.  I’ve never been a huge fan of RPG’s in the past (too many swords, spells and orcs), so this is the first game that I’ve really gotten into the leveling and grinding required to hone my character just so.



One result of the hours of dedication is that I have now amassed quite a few Nuka-Cola caps (the in- game currency to you non-Wastelanders out there).   I’m so rich by the game’s standards that the primary reason for me to trade is not to earn money, like I needed in the early stage of the game, but to simply get rid of all the weight of the accumulated guns, ammo, meds, scrap metal, and other loot acquired during quests. I am in possession of so much of the circulating currency that the other traders in the game are usually broke from buying from me. But if the other traders are all already tapped out, how can they continue to buy the loot that I continue to amass?  

This question reflects the second reason I trade; Pumping cash back into the economy.  Since I seem to be the only person in the wasteland with spare caps, I feel a responsibility to free up some capital, so I have been buying up luxury items and expensive weapon blueprints every chance I get.  My home now sports a pristine antique Nuka-Cola machine, jukebox, infirmary, laboratory, workbench, a cabinet full of exotic weapons and a pretty cool retro theme throughout, plus a wide range of other unique and expensive items.  And I STILL have all the money.

Home upgrade

Home upgrade

So I continue pumping cash into the game’s economy.  True, it doesn’t seem to be having a huge effect upon the citizenry – they are still largely humans and ghouls scratching out a meager living in the nuclear wasteland – but it does allow them the chance to give that money right back to me in exchange for the weapons, drugs and other supplies that I have continually for sale. 

After a while of this economic cycle, the pattern started to look familiar to my cynical eye (My other eye, the non-cynical one, was busy shopping for a new household theme). 

Suddenly the Capitol Wasteland was a striking analogy for our whole nation – nobody has money, unemployment and homelessness are commonplace, the government is powerless, everyone’s got radiation sickness and huge mutated crabs attack at night.  Playing Fallout 3 is like America looking in a cracked, dirty mirror.  I start to think “Hey, maybe I AM an evil teenage girl with a gun that shoots nuclear bombs…”   The fact that the game allows me to steal Abe Lincoln’s top hat, rifle, beard and voice(?) and actually don them during my adventures adds another, somewhat twisted layer of meaning to this grimy doppleganger America – I’m just now sure what that meaning is anymore…

Wasteland Cutie

Does my character, with her wealth, power, winning smile and cute arsenal represent the Fed?  Or does she represent corporate America with her responsibility – or lack thereof – over the economic health of the wasteland?  Maybe she’s representative of American consumers, for whom shopping has become a patriotic duty?  Perhaps she is representative of all three, a symbol of the responsibility that we all collectively share. 

I don’t know.   I’m not a RL economic expert, and these days I’m often lost trying to keep pace with the news.  But I do know that in the world of Fallout 3, the economic health of the wasteland seems to hinge on my ability to continually feed a dribble of cash to a violent, hungry populous, simply so that they can buy my supply of guns and drugs.   Success in this activity encourages me to go out and rob, kill and plunder even more supplies from all the people, Mirelurks and Super Mutants I encounter.

I’ve recently noticed that over time, the other traders slowly acquire caps, presumably as a result of their other dealings, but in reality, the software itself is acting like the Fed by “printing” and distributing more cash to these NPC’s.  But even these cash injections are too small to ignite any real fiscal activity – I can still force them to spend every last cap they have on my sweet, sweet, meds and ammo.  The more money the game pumps into consumer’s hands, the quicker it ends up in my pocket.

This cycle, which essentially forces the fiscal growth of my character, is the cornerstone of the game economy, but it seems to me that it can not be sustained for long and will eventually collapse as my character amasses literally all of the liquid capital over the course of her adventures.

Mirelurks:  Wont you please help?

Mirelurks: Won't you please help?

It begs the question:  Is constant growth a good thing?  Is long-term unrestricted growth beneficial to society?  And if so, who really benefits?  Government? Corporations? The citizenry?  

At the very least, shouldn’t some of the money go to curing radiation sickness and establishing basic healthcare and job training for Mirelurks and Super Mutants, or does that very suggestion make me some kind of Wasteland socialist?

More thoughts on Fallout 3 and the value of bathrooms in video games.


Drinking Radioactive Toilet Water – The Importance of Bathrooms in Video Games

29 11 2008


Trader Vic's at the Plaza

To anyone who has ever accidentally wandered into a bathroom while tripping on psychedelics, the power of that room to act as a conduit for deeper understanding of one’s self is undeniable. Looking into a bathroom mirror while tripping can trap you like a deer in headlights.  Suddenly you’re caught, unable to move, think, or even pee.   My own tale involves wandering into the Trader Vic’s tiki bar bathroom in the Plaza Hotel after a long, sweaty (and oddly bloody) day of tripping balls and playing Frisbee in Central Park.  My bowel was telling me I needed a pit stop, but once I entered that cool, quiet room with fancy marble and big, unblinking mirrors – plus the octogenarian attendant eyeing me with well-placed suspicion – there was no way I was capable of producing anything more than conspiracy theories and a dusty dribble of pee.  After a few minutes pretending that I was busy and trying not to completely melt into the toilet, I hastily scurried out of the bathroom and back out onto Central Park South where my inner monologue could be directed at others, and not on myself.  Phew… That was a close call.

Life in DC

Life in Fallout's DC

Recently I was scavenging supplies in Megaton, a shantytown just outside of Washington, DC, taking a fetid drink of radiated water from of a filthy toilet, when I suddenly came down off of both Jet and Psycho, two drugs to which I’m currently addicted, and had to take a moment and just reflect on my life.  And it my dawned on me…  This is just like that other time at trader Vic’s when I was tripping and bloody.  The only difference is that Trader Vic’s bathroom was in a fancy New York restaurant, and this one was an outhouse in post-apocalyptic DC, in the game Fallout 3 on the Xbox 360.  But in both cases, it’s the experience of facing myself in the isolation and solitude of a bathroom that I begin to see both myself, and the world, in brutal and unflinching clarity.

Duke enjoying the view

I realized that depictions of bathrooms in videogames offer an interesting perspective into the evolution of interactivity, realism and meaning within games.  Who can forget the thrill the first time you saw your character reflected in a bathroom mirror, or the ‘magic’ of the first actual time a toilet flushed?  The first game to turn the bathroom into more than just textures for me was Duke Nukem 3D, a pioneering FPS game that tried to make as much of the game world interactive as possible.  The bathrooms offered working lightswitches and sinks, as well as urinals and toilets that flushed (along with a satisfied grunt from Duke himself).  Duke was also capable of getting a good long look at himself in the mirror – then still a unique opportunity for an FPS game.

Bride cleaning the toilet in The Sims

Bride cleaning the toilet in The Sims

Game bathrooms have become more commonplace and useful since then, evolving into a zone where spare ammo and health packs can usually be found, as well as the requisite hidden-enemy-in-toilet.  Sometimes bathrooms offer a secret passage or escape.  That’s why you have to open every stall door – every time (it’s same equation in horror movies).  On the other end of the spectrum are games like the Sims, which effectively turn the bathroom, and all basic bodily functions, into core components of game play.  While this might make for a less-than-thrilling game mechanic, it nonetheless is an interesting effort to inject realism into a game about the minutae of daily life. 

Preys next-gen facilities

Prey's next-gen facilities

One interesting aspect of game bathrooms is how they can be used to gauge a game’s art, design and graphical detail.  Things like running water, flickering lights, reflections on metal, tile and glass can all be challenging to realistically render, especially when they interact – like in a bathroom.  Over the years, checking out a game’s bathroom was an easy way to quickly determine a game’s visual quality and style.  The opening scene of Prey, one of the earliest “next gen” titles on 360 takes place entirely within the bathroom of Jen’s bar, a dusty joint on an Indian reservation.  The first thing the player sees is a reflection of his character in the dirty mirror.  A quick investigation of the rest of the bathroom shows a new level of interactivity and detail – water flows into sinks realistically, air dryers work when pressed.  Even the condom machines have turning coin mechanisms.  Outside, the bar contains a working TV, juke box, Pac-Man coin-op clone and poker machines. 

Odd Sculptures in a Ruined Rapture Bathroom

Another recent standout of beauty, functionality and design are the gorgeously decaying bathrooms in Bioshock’s Rapture.  With their retro art deco styling, rotten walls dripping with water and submerged floors, you could practically smell the mold growing in them.  

In Fallout 3, the functionality of the bathroom is taken a step further by providing a resource needed to live – health-boosting water.  But it does so in a double-edged form – the water is radioactive.  Individual small doses are not too bad, but drink too much and the radiation accumulates in your body over time, forcing you to consume anti-radiation meds to which you will undoubtedly become addicted.  So every time you look at a bathroom or toilet in Fallout, you ask yourself  “How badly do I need that drink of water?”  Health management forces you to consider what kind of player you want to be: Methodical and patient, or quick and dirty?  Clean or addicted? Unexpectedly, the Fallout 3 bathroom has become the location where self-reflection and moral choices are faced – just like that time in the bathroom at Trader Vic’s on Central Park South.