Fallout 3’s Curious System of Race

Posted by on Jan 4, 2012 in Articles | 5 Comments

Fall In

Non-fantasy roleplaying games don’t often allow the player to choose a race.  However, Fallout 3, Bethesda’s open world roleplaying game set in post-apocalyptic Washington DC, allows players to select from four races: African American, Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic, with Caucasian—unfortunately but not unsurprisingly—the default choice.

An explicit breakdown of races in this way, along lines similar to the U.S. Census, is exceptional in its own right, but also curious given how inconsequential these races are to Fallout 3’s fiction. Unlike Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim which attributes histories, skill attributes, cultures, and geographies to each race, Fallout 3’s races have no impact on the game beyond providing familiar stylistic variety.

Racial choices from the 1950 US Census via Racebox.org.

Yet I don’t want to stop here and simply reduce this design decision to a familiar critique of racially insensitive representation. Since meaning within procedural systems is both limited by and dependent on restrictions, I see Fallout 3 as open to a far more complex reading that can be redemptive of the limitations of its character creation system. 

One of Fallout 3’s most pronounced character restrictions has to do with the range of skin colors available for each race. For instance, Asian and Caucasian characters cannot have the darker skin tones available to African American characters. The legibility of these racial categories are thus dependent on color differences, similar to a 20th century color line divide. This ideology mimics the 1940s/50s American nostalgia of the game world, and effectively constricts the true range of physical difference present in people who self-identify as each of the four races in the “real world.” To put it succinctly, by forcing the player to identify with one of four rigid and institutionalized racial identities inside of a retro-futurist pre-Civil Rights world associated with segregation and nuclear annihilation, Fallout 3 affords a rare and bold consistency between setting and character (and let me note that whether this is conscious or not is of no interest to me). The player is uncomfortably hailed into mid 20th century American racial ideology.

Importantly this schema also effectively elides difference, folding the myriad ethnic identifications people might claim into monolithic and reductive notions of identity such as “Hispanic.” Many races are wholly negated, including several often featured in U.S. Census breakdowns such as Native American, or Pacific Islander. Creating a character in Fallout 3 initiates the player into  the violences of a system of raciological thinking similar to 1940s America, but the continued familiar violences of racial categorization seen today in the Census as well as job and school applications, advertisement, and so on.

Ghouls as Racial Proxies

These issues disappear in the gameworld, limiting them to character creation and squandering what could’ve been an interesting exploration, both procedurally and narratively, of racial politics and issues like nationalism and xenophobia which caused the destruction of DC. But that’s not to say that racial tensions completely disappear. Instead the game’s anxiety over race is displaced onto the “ghouls,” whose irradiated and disfigured bodies separate them from the rest of the human population, and who, as figures of zombie fantasy, allow for a safe and comfortable canvas  for the issues of race announced by the process of character creation. It’s a classic design cop out: instead of tackling race head-on, we use fantastical proxies.

Charon, a ghoul in Fallout 3.

Ghouls are a ghostly often underground presence that are easily distinguished from the rest of the population, and predominantly discriminated against. Their scarred bodies bear the violences of both nuclear warfare and the burden of racial conflict they carry within the de-politicized gameworld. (Sidenote: In Fallout 3’s sequel, Fallout: New Vegas, one of the more memorable missions finds the player collaborating with (or undermining) Zionist ghouls whose ultimate dream is launching a spaceship and colonizing another planet. It’s not difficult to see parallels here to Marcus Garvey or Afrofuturism.)

It’s no surprise that the racialized ghouls within Fallout 3 are ultimately the products of technological meddling. Humans are nothing if not technological; in turn, technology as a constitutive and mediating presence is also used as a differentiating mechanism, infinitely fracturing or reconfiguring what it means to be, or who gets counted as, human. Machinic and digital technologies in particular, and the real and imagined posthuman and cyborg beings they create, bear similarities to the racialized condition. For example, Thomas Foster has argued that the supposed malleability of race in digital interactions is prefigured by minstrel shows which didn’t require black bodies for a performance of blackness but a technology of blackness (e.g. burnt cork applied to the face).  Fallout 3’s ghouls are just one instance in a long line racialized bodies manufactured and marked through technology, effectively destabilizing the integrity of any notion of humanness.

Gene Projection

Fallout 3’s modeling of the technological configuration of identity functions at the level of metaphor as evidenced by the ghouls, it permeates the logics of character creation, but it’s perhaps best embodied in the fictional technology used in character creation, the Gene Projector. Rather than making character creation an unexplained event prior to the game’s narrative, Fallout 3 embeds the process diegetically. The player begins the game as a newborn baby. The doctor, the main character’s father, first asks, “Let’s see. Are you a boy or a girl?” prompting the opening of a dialogue box presenting the two choices to the character for selection. The socio-medical gendering and sexing of children is modeled in this moment, forcing the indeterminacy of the newborn and all of its possibility into the politicized rhetorical structure of boy or girl, which, quite fittingly, is conflated with a sexual distinction.

Opening birth cutscene in Fallout 3.

Immediately afterward, the doctor opens up the Gene Projector, a device that allows him to imagine what the baby will look like as an adult. The player finds herself within the character creation interface which is made to look like she is the doctor staring into the monitor of the Gene Projector. The player assumes the medicalized gaze of power, forcing the player character’s body into an established frame of meaning. She’s framed in the projector’s screen, locked within the boundaries of the code, and fixed within the ideological perspective of the game’s setting. The informatic and ideological layer upon each other infinitely, like a video camera pointed at a TV. We participate in the forced insertion of a body into a schema of cultural intelligibility divided up into clear racial categories and their expected phenotypes. We, the institutional force, assert our influence in projecting the player character’s future. In light of this diegetic frame, the use of racial categories to orient character creation makes more sense: we’re born into an ideological grid. Both the sex/gender and physiognomic differences are revealed in this process as supposed inner biological truths which, through the clever diegesis of the game, function more as deterministic choices shaped by the logics of the game and the player’s desire.

Fallout 3 character creation.


Many years after my birth, I emerge from the vault, a sealed communal bomb shelter of sorts, or a crypt containing the anxieties and fears of the human remnants who found refuge there. It’s a matter of perspective. The sunlight adjusts just as it did when the harsh fluorescent light first entered my eyes in the vault’s hospital room. It’s a second emergence, and one that fills my chest with the euphoria of possibility. This time there’s nothing to choose but a direction. The open-air landscape sprawls before me destroyed and sublime, and I realize that my choices and freedoms are exercised upon a landscape scarred by violence and division. I’m confronted by this in the first town whose center is an undetonated bomb. Do I detonate it or disarm it? This is just the first of many dilemmas along my branching path as I scar the sand with my footsteps, experiencing the horror and redemption of this digital diaspora.


  1. Separated by the Father: Identity in Fallout 3 « Digital Ephemera
    January 4, 2012

    […] Sometimes all it takes is one person to say or phrase an idea in a certain way and then everything clicks for you. I’ve had it happen several times in the past with things professors have said in classes and, is often the case, with many blog posts too. I build up various frameworks in my mind from researching various ideas and then, at the moment of serendipity, I see how they all fall into place to define something. In a singular instant, it becomes very obvious. The most recent case was just a couple hours ago when I read Tanner Higgin’s Fallout 3′s Curious System of Race. […]

  2. “Bingo bango bongo [we] don’t wanna leave the jungle” | Wondrous Windows
    February 14, 2012

    […] this writing 8C appears to be playing it, so he’s also reading stuff about it, and linked me to this post about race in the game.  It’s interesting, and made me think of a few things. You know, like articles […]

  3. pedro
    April 30, 2012

    “African American, Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic, with Caucasian—unfortunately but not unsurprisingly—the default choice.” unfortunately having Caucasian as the default choice? calm down. Why is it such a big deal that before you click on any race it comes up as Caucasian? all you have to do is click on another race… “Racially insensitive” its a game, get over it.

  4. Tanner
    April 30, 2012

    @pedro I don’t see games as silly and insignificant. I think they’re ways we think about and explore our world and the relationships within that world. And since games tend to privilege whiteness, even in seemingly innocuous ways like making “Caucasian” the default choice, that connects to a particular understanding of the world that has a long and troubled history of white privilege and supremacy. And, on a more practical level, the continued privileging of whiteness has an alienating effect on the player-base. It implicitly (if not explicitly) tells players: “You don’t really belong here.” This is becoming an increasing problem as the player-base diversifies and this becomes more and more untrue and regressive.

  5. Gerald Voorhees
    July 10, 2012

    I read the more recent iterations of the Fallout series as a neoliberal post-race world, par excellence. As you point out, the construct of race exists but according to both the game’s model of social life and its simulation of self, race has no impact on one’s ability to play the game. In this way, the game models what Foucault calls ‘equal inequality’ and suggests that one’s capacity to act upon/in the world is a product of the way that the avatar’s ‘human capital’ is developed and managed by the player rather than any innate physiological aspects. Viewed this way, the inclusion of race in Fallout 3 (and New Vegas) entrenches discourses of racial difference, as you point out, but only insofar as the existence of some sort of racial difference is a necessary precondition to the post-race argument that race doesn’t factor into determining one’s chances of success or failure in life. The retro-futuristic aesthetic of the Fallout universe is the give-away ideological stroke, situating this post-race future world in the past that will have been.

    The ghouls and the discrimination they face due to their physical appearance throw my whole argument in the garbage. Or, they point to the continued contestation of the neoliberal paradigm (and the competing narratives of race circulating in the discursive contexts in which the developers are situated).

    Either way, I enjoy your blog.

Leave a Reply