The (Social) Power is Yours!

Back to the Grinding Schwartz’s Universal Human Values Wheel Of Pain. Today we begin the brand new category of “power” and confront the value of social power. It’s an interesting one in a game like Fallout 3 in similar ways to some of the others because it operates on some particular levels, some of which end up feeling quite contradictory.

A lot of it hinges on the word “social” specifically – the degree to which contemporary games successfully and carefully represent some kind of society and social situations is, still, pretty limited (maybe with exceptions like Façade and Heavy Rain). Thus, to the extent that we mean “social power” in the sense of influencing public opinion or activity, there’s surprisingly little that the avatar can do in the game, despite the fact, of course, that he/she is, in fact, the most powerful person in that world.

That said, there are at least a couple of interesting social power scenarios. The first one that springs to mind are the funny little “intrigues” that the game includes, presumably just for the sake of titillation. Thus, when you arrives in settlements like Rivet City or Megaton, you can suddenly find yourself embroiled in potential love affairs, people’s drug problems, religious disputes, and more – all of which you can have a hand in, chiefly by choosing who to talk to and what to say to them. It’s perhaps minor, but it’s a nice nod to a more social world in the game than you often have access to, thanks to your grim and weighty task.

The other major form of social power is perhaps unsurprising: the power of life and death. Given that social interactions in the game are, in reality, limited to dialogue trees and various killing-related actions, it’s natural that the “other” kind of social format is combat. And after all, it’s true that killing someone is, in a way, the kind of ultimate (anti)social gesture – you make a statement about yourself, and you radically alter everything about their “social life”. Fallout 3, unlike so many other games which involve raining down death on enemies, does provide the odd opportunity to feel the social/psychological weight of killing, as I’ve documented in regards to wiping out the slavers at Paradise Falls, for instance.

Social power in the Wasteland, then, sits squarely on either end of a spectrum of the frivolous intrigues on small social groups, to the massive power of life and death. It’s all the stuff in between that seems to have gone missing. You know, love, friendship, passion… that kind of thing.

20 April 2010
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