03 July 2015

Some thoughts on romance, monogamy and incest in Fallout Shelter

Just yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian tweeted that

As inevitably as the sun rising in the east, this led to complaints about her failing to understand the game, justifications along the lines of 'Well, yes, but it's satirising the 1950s' or 'How else would you survive a nuclear holocaust?' At this stage, Sarkeesian could tweet that 'Link typically wears green', and some people would find a way to complain (probably along the lines of 'I want to see photographic evidence from five independent sources that you have ever played a Zelda game'). But I digress.

I noticed the same thing while I was playing Fallout Shelter, but I had other issues with the 'romance' mechanics of the game as well. So let's take a look at them.

In order to increase the population in Fallout Shelter, you place two dwellers of opposite sexes in the Living Quarters, and allow them to get to know each other. At some point, based on their Charisma score, the prospective couple will start to dance together, and at shortly after that they will retire to the back of the quarters to become more intimate (it's possible that the dancing does not always occur; I couldn't say for certain). The will emerge a short time later with broad smiles, the woman already heavily pregnant. Several hours later, the woman will give birth, with a notification that looks like this:

Now, one thing to notice here is that the child takes the surname of one of the parents (either the mother or the father), but the two adults keep their surnames. You can edit the names of the dwellers, either at birth, or by finding them in the vault and clicking on their names. So the game does give you a way to make 'families', although it doesn't do so automatically, and doesn't explain that you can do so as you're playing.

The men are also frisky little devils, as I found at the very start of the game. I placed two couples in a room and let them pair off; one of the men was a rare dweller, with rather high Charisma, acquired through a lunchbox (the micro-transaction mechanic, although you don't need to buy any to play). He and a female dweller quickly decided to that they would like to get to know each other better, while the other couple in the room, with less Charisma score, took more time, exchanging compliments but not even getting to the dancing stage.

When our Casanova emerged from love-making, the woman of the other pair immediately left the man she had been romancing and sped over to him, and within seconds Casanova was getting intimate with the second woman. Once they emerged I decided that enough was enough, and sent him off into the wasteland to kill monsters and gather loot.

The romance mechanics of the game have absolutely no sense of commitment to them. The woman becomes pregnant, and can't have sex again until she gives birth; while the male partner can be as much of a womaniser (and I think the term is utterly appropriate here) as his Charisma score will let him.

There is, admittedly, a mechanic which will stop parents have sex with their children in the game, although it doesn't seem to apply to half-siblings (so a daughter and son born of the same father with different mothers). And because the names given to children can either take the name of the father or the mother, it can be difficult to keep them apart.

So: Fallout Shelter does, unquestionably, cast women as baby-making machines, and men as commitment-free studs. Furthermore, it is entirely up to you if you want to couples to form a monogamous relationship: the game itself allows dwellers to (effectively) sleep with who they want, and that is in fact the default state of play, especially for male dwellers. And incest is permitted, if not with direct siblings, at a level most people would be uncomfortable with if it wasn't packaged in a resource management mobile game.

Now, I'm not saying that monogamy is the only socially acceptable relationship, that 'open' relationships are bad, nor even necessarily that incest is categorically immoral (regardless of whether you agree with them, there are arguments concerning the issue of incest between consenting adults, for example).

But the point is that the mechanics of the game actually make it difficult for the player to have monogamous couples in the shelter, and also make a certain level of incest tolerable. And this is on top of the baby-making mechanics Sarkeesian tweeted about.

Let's return to the first of those responses to that tweet for a moment: the argument that Fallout is satirising 1950s America. That may be true; but, at best, only for one aspect of the romance mechanic. It may be true that women were largely perceived as baby machines (and homemakers) in the 1950s; but it is certainly not true that marriage was virtually impossible, nor that incest was largely acceptable, nor even that women were completely equal in the workplace when they were not pregnant (as in indeed the case in Fallout Shelter).

Here's the thing: you don't get to use an argument to support a mechanic in a game if the part(s) of the mechanic you're ignoring would completely undermine that argument. That's called cherry-picking.

Basically, the argument that Fallout Shelter is satirising 1950's America can't be used to justify the romance mechanics of the game, because a huge part of those mechanics have absolutely no connection to 1950's America.

Similarly, there's a problem with the argument that the romance mechanics would be appropriate in the even of a nuclear holocaust. Even if women-as-baby-machines was a plausible solution (which is by no means certain: a population explosion at a time when living space and resources would be highly limited would probably be a disaster), the other consequences of the mechanics are another question altogether. Would the need to have as many babies as possible lead to the dissolution of marriage, and the encouragement of incest?

And even if you're gearing up to say that it would, the problem is that none of these things are true of the Fallout universe. Fallout is not a world in which women have become baby machines, nor incest is accepted in order to survive. Yes, individual vaults and groups developed different societies, but if anything, the majority of the population of the Fallout universe came out of the vaults with the similar morals and social ideas that they went in with.

The romance mechanics in Fallout Shelter are mechanics, nothing more and nothing less. They do not mesh particularly well with the Fallout world, and they do not mesh well with the society the game is supposedly based on. They exist solely as mechanics, as ways to achieve a goal in the game, and nothing more. And since the only justification for them to be the way they are is because that is the way they are, it is perfectly okay to ask why they are not different. As I've pointed out, an approach to romance which was more consistent with the Fallout world and 1950s America would probably involve 'marriage' to one partner in the game, and incest being strictly forbidden. In fact, if you're listening, Bethesda, that would be a great way of adding an extra level of difficulty to the game.

Also, just in case you're wondering, I don't believe the romance mechanics in this game reflect the 'view' of the creators, because quite frankly they're not well enough thought out. That doesn't stop them being "troubling", as Sarkeesian points out; if anything, it makes them more troubling, because of how easily a game like this slips into ethically suspicious ideas, let alone sexist stereotypes. It couldn't be that casual sexism is so ingrained into society that the games' creators didn't even realise how sexist they were being, could it? Heaven forbid.

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