If you’re ever stuck for an ice-breaker at a party, you may as well try asking what everyone’s zombie survival guide is. You’ll get some surprising answers – and what’s more surprising is how many people have thought about their strategy for living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Why do we relish the idea of (near) total destruction? With the release of post-apocalyptic playground Fallout 4 last week, three philosophers offer their views.
Laura D'Olimpio, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia: Dystopia and the desire to be ‘special’
With the hype surrounding the November 10 release of Fallout 4, a source of familiar excitement in the world of entertainment emerges: the appeal of a post-apocalyptic world. I first heard about Fallout 4 from my cousin’s 14-year-old son, who excitedly informed us that the game is awesome for a number of reasons, including the immersive open-world with its quests and storylines.
I’m not really sure what that means, as I’m not into gaming, but I questioned the appeal of a world where everything has been destroyed, except for yourself and a few others.
The appeal of the post-apocalyptic is something familiar to all lovers of fiction. The world is both different to anything we have ever experienced ourselves, yet also familiar enough to recognise. Nuclear war is a genuine threat to our existence, and this moral and political concern provides a backdrop to the action.
For an individual who, alone, cannot do anything about such a threat, the fictional world that has been ravaged by nuclear weaponry is a place of exploration and creativity as new structures are built, and new rules formed. Such make-believe spaces are engaged with imaginatively as you feel special: you have survived.
The appeal of being special is found everywhere in our celebrity-obsessed society as people compete on reality-TV shows with the hope of being “discovered”. Each one of us is the Hero of our own story – sorry, “journey”.
Humans have always narrated tales of Superheroes whereby we identify with the ordinary, flawed individual who goes on to discover his or her special powers that almost ensures he or she is invincible. We long for immortality.
There is another obvious appeal to a world that no longer has any rules. With the institutions and people destroyed who uphold civil society, as scary as this “Wasteland” may be, there is freedom. Without rules, you can do as you please … without anyone telling you to eat your greens, go to work or do your homework.
You – yes, YOU – could be the reluctant hero who saves future generations of humanity by selflessly overcoming power-hungry tyrants. A classic battle of good versus evil ensues. The eventual victor had better be humble, compassionate and want good for all, as ultimately a sense of community and belonging is reinforced as desirable.
Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University: The possibilities of the post-apocalyptic sandbox
Personal identity is largely relational: who we are and what we can and can’t do is very largely defined by our relationships to others. You’re a child, a sibling, partner, ex-partner, parent, co-worker, friend, enemy, frenemy, frenemy-with-benefits, relative, student, teacher, carer … any and all of these relations to others shape boundaries and expectations around how you live your life.
Without even noticing it, your life largely runs along in a groove formed by how you intersect with the lives of others, and they into yours.
Then one day you walk out the front door and into a freshly-nuked hellscape. All the sedimentation of your life has just been blasted away. Your defining relationships? Gone, or at the very least, dramatically altered. No job. No government. Possibly no family or friends. That snug groove you ploughed along in is now a wide-open plane.
Even the network of ethical and social norms that guide our lives in ways we’re barely even aware of suddenly go out the window. The moral sphere has broken down. So go ahead: loot the abandoned store, shoot your newly zombified neighbours with barely suppressed delight, and procreate like a rabbit on ecstasy with total strangers in the cause of “preserving the species".
Of course if this really happened you’d be excused for crumpling into a heap and lying in the foetal position until starvation kicks in. But it’s not really happening. When we engage emotionally with fiction we’re inhabiting a world that’s nonetheless held in suspension; as Rick Anthony Furtak put it in Wisdom in Love (2005):
our ‘aesthetic’ emotions are not founded on belief, but on the entertaining of propositions unasserted.
In that sense, post-apocalyptic fictions, particularly of first-person game variety, create a sort of sandbox in which you can mess around with grounding commitments that are in fact largely concreted in place: who would you want to be, what would you want to do, if none of it really mattered?
Matthew Beard, Adjunct Lecturer, UNSW Canberra: By freeing us from moral norms, post-apocalyptic worlds allow for ethical freedom
Post-apocalyptic literature has never been my favourite genre. I’ve always preferred the optimism of fantasy. And yet I was far more hooked by Fallout 3 than I was by Skyrim – Fallout’s fantasy rival. Why the distinction?
I think it has to do with the difference between the forms. In literature, you witness a narrative unfurl before you from the perspective of a spectator. You marvel in the adventure, hope for the best and fear the worst.
Read (and written) well, fantasy, like fairytales, provides us with a moral lesson. Admittedly, these lessons are more nuanced and less didactic than The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but there is a lesson the reader can glean, if he or she chooses to.
Fantasy, I think, provides this opportunity more than other genres (though every genre can and does share moral lessons) because it stimulates the imagination in a unique way - through magic. Tolkien himself defined fairy stories - a genre his own fantasy tales fit into - by this standard. In his 1939 lecture Fairy Stories, he said:
‘Fairy-story’ is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic …
Fantasy speaks to us of morals and deeds and religion through magic. It tickles a part of our imagination not bound by the world’s limitations. But magic also imposes rules: Tolkien insists magic “must not be made fun of”.
This makes fantasy less palatable as an avenue for the development of ethical agency rather than the seduction of gamers or readers to certain moral norms. Because of this, fantasy is a less interesting genre for videogames than for literature - to me, at least.
That’s because post-apocalyptic stories are ideal for the exercise of ethical agency. Without the usual constraints of a well-established society, gamers can exercise what Sartre called “radical freedom”.
They can choose their behaviour from a near-limitless slate of opportunities without coercion. Game mechanics also hold them responsible for their choices – murdering innocent people is likely to lead other characters in the game not to trust you.
Fallout was able do this better than Skyrim, I believe, precisely because by eschewing magic and fantasy it signalled to the gamer that there are no rules in its post-nuclear wasteland. It is expressly because post-apocalyptic games do not aim to convey a particular moral message that gamers can be reflective, ethical agents within the sandbox of the game.
It will be interesting to see how continuing horrors around the world – Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and so forth – affect people’s desire for post-apocalyptic freedom. Might feelings of powerlessness in the physical world make Fallout 4 appear as an escape? Or perhaps fear and uncertainty will lead gamers to desire something with more overt moral messages – something more magical …
After all, even grown-ups need fairy stories sometimes, don’t they?
This article was first published in The Conversation.