Hello and welcome to the inaugural edition of Free to Play. No, this doesn’t cover games in the “free-to-play” sense, but instead covers political topics in games from a libertarian perspective. The name is a bad play on the seminal work of capitalist libertarian literature “Free To Choose” by Milton Friedman, the greatest economist the United States ever produced. I will try to keep this series as even-keeled as possible, but it is politics-based so expect bias to show. The only positions I will ever demean in this series will be those that deliberately misrepresent other positions, e.g., claiming free market capitalists support bailouts – No. We. Do. Not. To start, I thought I’d take a look at a game that includes many references to libertarian thought, Fallout New Vegas.
The ending of Fallout New Vegas (FNV) is essentially four different endings depending upon how the player chooses to advance the story. This is interesting because as others have pointed out, the endings essentially mirror the four points of the Nolan Chart. If you are unfamiliar with the Nolan Chart, please visit its official site for a much more in-depth description. For the sake of clarity here, I will give a quick rundown.
The Nolan Chart was developed by political theorist David Nolan who also lead the founding of the American Libertarian Party. He had tired of trying to describe libertarianism in the limited Left-Right dichotomy that dominates American politics. To this end, he fashioned a system which he originally named the Nolan Chart. The chart is often represented as a square with the vertices facing in the four cardinal directions, each direction representing a totally different view of both liberties and the size/scope of the State. If you ever get a link to something like “World’s Smallest Political Quiz” then you will likely find your answers scored and plotted upon the Nolan Chart. A quick digression: State here means what many would call a country or nation; the United States is called such because the founding fathers envisioned each state experimenting with their own laws to be “laboratories of liberty” while the federal government only covered national defense against foreign powers. End digression.
Returning to the chart, the x-axis represents economic freedom; what we call free market capitalism, and the y-axis represents personal freedom, or individual liberty. The libertarian is north, which represents the highest scores for both individual and economic liberty. The opposite end is the statist, who believes that the State should dictate the actions of all individuals. This is essentially communism and socialism taken to their logical ends. The left and right represent exactly what we would call “left and right” politically: “liberal” and conservative. I say liberal in quotation marks as the US is the only country that doesn’t use liberal to refer to classical liberals, i.e. libertarians instead of what Europeans would call social democrats. The left is excellent on social issues, but abysmal on economic liberty, while the right does the opposite. Now remember that the chart is, by definition, simplifying things so individuals in any of the directions may have a higher score in either axis than the textbook example of their corner.
Right now I’m going to pause and state in bold words SPOILERS AHEAD. This will detail the various endings of FNV, so there really can be no way I can avoid at least some spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Let’s start with the the classic left-right paradigm. I’ll begin with the left. This direction is represented in the endings by the victory of the New California Republic, or NCR. The NCR represents what the Fallout universe calls “old world beliefs,” which we would call liberal democracy. They believe in elected government beholden to the people, government funding, and social welfare for the citizens. The downside is rampant corruption of both government officials and by outside forces such as the Van Graffs.
We don’t actually see much of the mechanisms of the NCR government, as it’s based in California and the game takes place mostly in Nevada. For all of its faults, the citizens in the main area of the NCR actually have a life more like the US before the nuclear war. The NCR’s belief in developing infrastructure means that most of the NCR has easy access to food, water, and electricity, which is scarce in many parts of what used to be the United States.
The game shows appreciation for what the liberals stand for, but seems to have little faith that they work well in practice. The NCR has a deep-seated belief in “spreading democracy” à la neoconservatism, but that is not inherently a conservative trait as evidenced by Barack Obama. The NCR does treat its citizens very well but many characters in the game despise its expansionist policies. It is perhaps a commentary on modern day liberalism that the NCR does talk a good game about what it believes, but it often fails to deliver and its economic policies have greatly devalued its currency.
The opposite direction in the Nolan Chart is conservatism, as illustrated by Caesar’s Legion. As the name implies, they emulate the Legion of the Roman Empire as ruled by a man who calls himself Caesar. Interestingly, many in the legion actually pronounce Caesar as the Latin speakers would – Kai Sawr instead of Sea Zur. The Legion actually crucifies anyone who opposes their draconian rules of life, or who try to obstruct the legion or disobey a command. Beyond this, the legion actively practices slavery, and women are often shown to be held as being inferior to men.
Despite all these flaws, characters mention how safe the Legion territory is because very few will dare attack the Legion knowing they will be killed, (even they have to be hunted down first). The Legion actually gives citizens an allowance of food, water, and electricity while allowing them to mostly live out their lives as they choose. The Legion also bans most forms of technology, save for conventional firearms and an Autodoc which Caesar uses to treat his brain tumor.
I’m almost certain the gun love is a reference to the right’s defense of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees the citizens the right to personally own firearms. While the Legion is truly represented as a force of evil, it is pointed out that the citizens sleep safely. While some traders, such as Rose of Sharon Cassidy do no business with the Legion due to their practice of slavery, many traders do because traders are guaranteed safety when working with the Legion.
As a reference to the monetarist policies of Milton Friedman who exerted considerable influence on conservative titan Ronald Reagan, the Legion actually has the strongest currency in the game, worth more than even the legendary bottlecaps.
At the bottom of the Nolan Chart is the statist, which is represented by the ruler of New Vegas, Mr. House. Though he is kept alive by medical stasis and only communicates via electronic screens, he rules all of New Vegas and much of the Mojave with a iron fist. With his vast army of Securitron robots which eventually get upgraded to having freaking rocket launchers and flamethrowers, he dictates exactly what happens in New Vegas.
You could argue that Mr. House has the right to rule New Vegas, as he was the reason why almost no nukes landed in the area, but he still is effectively an authoritarian dictator. Even with all that, as long as you follow the rules that Mr. House has dictated, you get to live a very comfortable life among quite possibly, the last remnants of old world glory. The Vegas strip is well-preserved and the casinos are still open and run by various gangs that style themselves after either 50s mobsters or old world gentry.
The citizens under House’s rule are also safe from the various gangs outside the Strip thanks to House’s Securitrons, while even the NCR accedes that House rules New Vegas, as evidenced by their official embassy on the Strip. House does plan to expand his territory, but thanks to his near immortality, he’s not in any rush. All of the economic transactions in the Strip happen under House’s auspices while any threat to his rule is removed with harsh effectiveness. This is essentially how modern day China operates, despite their “communist” label. The state actively participates in free market capitalism yet dictates the lives of the citizens while harshly stamping out any dissent.
Finally we come to the libertarian ending, the Wild Card. This will be discussed more in-depth, as the ending is essentially three in one. The basis is that the Courier, the player character, takes House out of the game and then his or her actions throughout the game dictate how the Mojave develops post-House. If the Courier takes time to help out the various factions of the Mojave while maintaining the Securitrons’ defensive capabilities to defend the area, then the Mojave becomes a free utopia of great wealth and comfort.
This is essentially stating that limited-government libertarianism makes the Mojave flourish. In the interest of honestly I’ll firmly state I am not anarchist, but minarchist, so this position appeals to my beliefs. The people are free to mostly live as they choose, with the Securitrons of the Courier keeping the peace throughout the Mojave. The title of the final mission in this arc is epically titled “No Gods, No Masters,” which is a reference to the Objectivism developed by infamous author Ayn Rand. It’s probably the most interesting final mission in the game, as essentially all the factions in the game follow the Courier against the Legion in the Second Battle of Hoover Dam. After all is said and done, the various factions peacefully return to their own areas and the Mojave is finally quiet.
The second option in the Wild Card ending was discussed in the section on Mr. House, as essentially the Courier takes over House’s position and runs things exactly as House would have. I see no reason to go further into detail on that, so let’s look to the third option.
In the third Wild Card ending, the actions of the Courier result in a lawless, violent Mojave with no protections for anyone. As the Mojave slips into anarchy, what little safety anyone had is gone with gangs like the Fiends running rampant. This is an obvious commentary on anarchist philosophy as the classic question, “Who protects the rights of the people?” comes to full bear.
The people are totally defenseless, there is no protection of any rights whatsoever, and violence takes over the Mojave. You could draw a direct parallel to failed states such as Somalia, in that there are various “governments” claiming areas of control that inevitably result in warfare, death and destruction across the land. The lack of a stronger force that keeps the other, less scrupulous groups in check destroys what made New Vegas so much different from other areas as shown in the Fallout series. The NCR may technically still survive as the Mojave was simply the frontier of the NCR with their California base of power still apparently untouched.
All in all, the varied endings of FNV depict a wide range of possible end results of political philosophies, while being one of the very few objects in any media to make a distinction between the minarchist and anarchist strains of libertarianism, which far many people fail to do. The sheer fact that so many people sarcastically call Somalia a libertarian “paradise” is indicative of this misunderstanding.
FNV is also one of the very few games to feature a positive portrayal of any kind of libertarianism, as shown in the first option under the Wild Card ending. A small state that only exists to defend rights while allowing the people to live their lives freely opens up the Mojave to a new golden age that helps all of its residents.
Though I believe the developers were commenting that this was the best option, the other endings show that some positives exist for all the options, which is great. Too many games, movies, etc. instantly assume that anyone adherent to a philosophy they disagree with must be an extremist with no desirable qualities, but FNV fairly shows the pros and cons of different political leanings through all of its endings. There is no truly fairy-tale happy ending, but some are far more happy than others.
FNV offers gamers a detailed look at the the directions of the Nolan Chart without going into hyperbole. Each idea is explored in depth in its respective story arc, and the game attempts to show the actual results such actions would have. It’s a fantastic game, and I believe anyone who plays it will see it is more than just a commentary on politics. In the end, though, all endings must go through war.