Why Don’t We Set The World On Fire?

(Updated Aug. 3, 2019)

In “The Playstation Dreamworld,” a 2018 book (available here for free), Alfie Brown provides a series of interesting responses to the question of why the movie and gaming industries are obsessed with visions of the apocalypse.

We are all familiar with the scenario: a post-industrial wasteland often populated by zombies or zombie-like creatures chasing humans who scrounge for scarce resources, living in something close to a Hobbesian state. I wrote a long essay about the philosophical implications of such videogames some time ago, so this is something that I’ve been intrigued about for a long while.

The question is: why is this suddenly so prominent, when it was never a staple of popular entertainment until the 1980s-1990s? The most basic response, Brown posits, is Marxist:

As critics like Frederic Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and Mark Fisher have all variously pointed out, such images of dystopian futures (after a zombie apocalypse) promote the dangerous idea that only capitalism separates us from a barren wasteland.

This may appear simplistic, but a close look at computer games (admittedly, not a common point of reference for philosophical books) indicates that Brown is on the right track. He offers the example of Stardew Valley, a very simple but popular farming game, that “reflects the difficult political position of the potential subversive today.”

In Stardew Valley, one plays a subsistence farmer, only concerned with the cycle of seasons and the basic production of foodstuffs. This is attractive to many, and Brown explains the reasons for that appeal:

The fact that internationalism is understood as synonymous with the iniquitous capitalist disaster of globalization is preventing the development of solutions on a broad enough scale to address global crises. This may account for the return to localism.

As Brown notes, dystopias include a strong undercurrent of localism: after apocalypse, the survivors typically come together in simple communes, where any social sophistication is gone, replaced by toil and simple rewards.

These communes often bring people together who wouldn’t stand in close proximity otherwise, because of the shared fear of the Other: invading aliens, plundering bands of wild humans or, most commonly, zombies. In his door-stopper “Less than Nothing,” Zizek argues that zombies represent the ultimate fear of the human survivor: the final loss of all civilization, the complete destruction of culture, a return to the basic instinct of eating and fighting. Social collapse is bad, but it may turn to be good, the basis for a rebirth, as long as men will keep using underwear and brushing their teeth:

Are zombies not figures of pure habit, of habit at its most elementary, prior to the rise of intelligence (language, consciousness, and thinking) This is why a zombie par excellence is always someone we knew before, when he was still normally alive—the shock for a character in a zombie movie comes when they recognize the formerly friendly neighbor in the creeping figure relentlessly stalking them… At the most elementary level of human identity, we are all zombies; our “higher” and “free” human activities are dependent on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits—in this sense, being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, humanity’s inhuman or mechanical core. The shock of meeting a zombie is thus not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own humanity.

Brown cites a very intriguing, short essay about the Fallout videogame series, called “Fallout: Why Don’t We Set the World on Fire,” (1) that I copied and pasted below this post. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I will first summarize it. In the essay, the author, Jeffrey Tam, argues that “dystopian disasters are really just a fresh chance, an opportunity to simplify our existence and leave everything behind.” Brown continues:

The problem we are faced with is not a lack of utopia, because this is really what dystopic dreams are: the enjoyment of a chance to re-start in a more simplified world thinly veiled by the apparent horror of dystopic collapse. In other words, it is utopia repackaged, a kind of Hobbesian “state of nature” that is little more than a projection of what the politics of the present imagine “human nature” would look like. The problem is not that only a ream of dystopias is on offer with no utopian alternatives. It is rather that both dystopia and utopia have been appropriated to make capitalism appear to be the “only alternative” by naturalizing a timeline that runs from barbarity to capital. Such patterns aim at the unconscious ingraining of a kind of capitalist conception of history, producing an appearance of uninterruptable linearity from pastoral national serenity to dystopic wasteland. The chance to envisage changes to capitalist modernity is eradicated, leaving only dreams of tempering its destructiveness (Stardew Valley) or of starting afresh after the apocalypse (Fallout).

A key point here, Brown continues, is that videogames — unlike movies or books — allow players/consumers to experience another person’s dream from within. You’re not looking at it, or imagining it: you’re inside of that person’s dream. That makes videogames “a unique form of enjoyment in which the wishes and desires of another are experienced – perhaps momentarily and unconsciously – as the wishes and desires of the gamer’s own.” So:

It is this peculiar brand of enjoyment which can be at once the most ideologically dangerous and the most subversive, which makes such experiences central to our conceptions of enjoyment in a wider sense. Thinking first of the purely ideological side of this function, games can naturalize the enjoyment of the other, forcing the player to feel a kind of affinity between themselves and the role they play within the game when they fall into the dreamlike gamer state. This is often not as simple as direct identification with a playable character and is a more complex connection between the unconscious of the gamer and the unconscious of the game. In such moments the player increasingly feels their emotions programmed by the game’s algorithms. In this sense desire is becoming increasingly algorithmic and videogames are playing a key role in this reorganization of desire. This is a particular concern considering that increasing corporate organization of technological space means increasing potential for corporate control of desire itself.

This corporate control of desire is the price we pay for experimenting such moments, or hours, of relief when we live in a simplified without mortgages and without endless company meetings. A life in which we can dispose of unlikeable characters by simply gunning them down or chopping them off — as long as we are paying for our broadband connection.

While reading Brown, I was reminded of of the second novel of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, “The Great Fortune.” In that book, set at the start of World War II, all the British expatriates in Romania are excited when the Germans roll over France, fully comprehending that they are in deep trouble, but also that they’re facing a extreme situation in which they have lost control over their down destinies.

The psychological relief, the idea of not having to worry about jobs, rents, and who likes whom, is overwhelming, and does much to explain the incredible appeal and popularity of the survivalist genre in recent decades, in videogames, movies and TV. When news of the fall of France come, Manning’s protagonist Harriet is on the street with an acquaintance, Clarence, who turns to her in unhappy ecstasy:

Clarence smiled at Harriet, reconciled to her in the exhilaration that comes when outside events take over one’s life.

Jeffrey Tam essay is off the grid now that Existentialgamer.com was shut down, but I could find it thanks to the Internet’s Wayback Machine, here. You can read it below:

“I don’t want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart. Believe me, in my heart I have but one desire, and that one is you—no other will do.”
-The Ink Spots, ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’

I first heard these lyrics on the radio in Fallout 3 as I was walking through the haunting wastelands of D.C. They continued ringing in my ears when trekking the deserts of post-apocalyptic Nevada in Fallout: New Vegas. As I walked cautiously down the ruined alleyways of Boston in Fallout 4, I heard them again. They even remained with me outside of the gaming experience, much like the themes of the Fallout series, lingering in my mind and challenging me to think about the failures of my own attempted escapism through video games.

In short, I used to play Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas because real life sucked—I had no girlfriend or sex life, was deriving no satisfaction from school or work, had no motivation, and was basically making no ‘progress’ at all. I found solace in the charred wastelands left behind by the atomic bombs that fell in 2077—in a way the game embodied my fantasy of setting my own life on fire and watching it burn to the ground. I suppose we’ve all experienced frustration, rage, and the impulse to destroy the world as we know it; Fallout seems to offer us a chance to start completely over. Dystopian disasters are really just a fresh chance, an opportunity to simplify our existence and leave everything behind.

But does Fallout successfully allow us to escape our real world?

Having now played the games extensively, I would argue that the post-apocalyptic landscapes of the modern Fallout series remain uncomfortably similar to the world I seek to escape. Almost all the main quests and side-quests revolve around morality, economic problems, post-apocalyptic politics, and familiar power struggles. The pivotal characters of these narratives include reimagined versions of historical figures like Julius Caesar, various American presidents, and the figureheads of high-tech companies; other inhabitants of the wasteland—the masses—are weighed down by the huge political and economic influence of these aforementioned few. Social interactions are shaped by these power-structures designed by the 1%, and the player very quickly finds themselves cast into a surprisingly binary morality system.

I can’t help but play Fallout as a morally decent character, choosing mostly the ‘good’ dialogue options and turning down countless mission rewards because I think the hobos I’ve helped need those bottle caps more than I do. I unconsciously repeat the same decisions I make in reality; decisions endorsed by society and my own moral compass. One might think that taking the opposite route would free the player from this constricting system, but that isn’t the case. Watching the ‘villainous’ walkthroughs of the modern Fallout games on YouTube, I was struck by how many of these players seemed driven by their very real need to live out the repressed, sinister part of their consciousness kept so tightly under wraps in their everyday lives. Speaking of how some poetry seems ‘free’ compared to more ‘limited’ forms, E. E. Cummings once said, “Freedom is only freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.” Being ‘free’ to follow your evil desires and live out your repressed fantasies only seems that way when compared to something else which seems ’limited’—e.g. our boring, morality-driven choices in reality.

Escapism in Fallout, then, is not what it seems.

One thing is for certain: our need for ‘progress’ trumps our need to set the world on fire. In the virtual wasteland as in reality, a ‘level’ or ‘life’ must be present for us to progress and earn achievements. In Fallout this is represented very literally by the integration of ‘experience points’ and the ability to ‘finish’ quests, but in real life I would point to our quests for ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ as possible equivalents. Rare are the players who launch a modern Falloutgame to experience absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, a world in which people exist in a limbo-like state without progress or change.

In the end, this isn’t such a bad thing. Once we accept (however begrudgingly) that the real world must remain somewhat intact for us to experience satisfaction in our games (even if they are post-apocalyptically themed) we can ditch the pessimistic model of ‘escape’ and see gaming as something entirely other: a fun activity that can help us loosen up and give our existences—and what we do with them—an additional layer of meaning. As human beings, if we don’t like how our lives are going, it’s usually possible to change them. We don’t have to escape reality for a few hours just to return and resume being miserable—we can keep levelling up once we put the controller down.

  1.  Formerly found at http://existentialgamer.com/fallout-set-world-on-fire, but not anymore.


About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Essays, Ethics, Zizekiana and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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