Dan Cox | @videlais | #crcon16 #D3

'Maybe I was a woman!': Race and gender performance of the Super Mutants from the Fallout series

Dan Cox - Old Dominion University

Before I go too far, I want to explain the layout of these visual slides as part of starting to address reading accessibility concerns. Going "down" (or swiping down on a mobile device) will show the corresponding text for the slide. This extra information will contain additional details, links out to sources, and the text, more or less, of what I am saying as I am saying it. However, as I'll note, I also tend to improvise as I talk, so I may depart from this text a great deal.

Fallout


Spanning nearly 20 years of sequels and other in-universe games, the Fallout series resolves around a set of narratives contrasting two central premises: nostalgia and survival. Based in a post-apocalyptic world where the always-feared global nuclear war of the Cold War era came to past, many of the games have players emerging from generational bunkers called Vaults where they have survived for decades into various parts of the United States.


Through exploring what has become of the ruins, players must balance their own survival in a wasteland with the larger goals of saving their own people and the region at the cost of gaining individual power.

Super Mutant


Introduced in the first Fallout game in 1997, Super Mutants have remained a constant enemy across the series. Created through the narrative plot point of exposure to the 'forced evolution virus' (FEV), the Super Mutants have become a symbol for technological extremes over time.


Super Mutants, upon exposure to FEV and other, eventual explanations, lose all secondary sexual characteristics. Their bodies become more resilient at the cost of losing intelligence and becoming 'primitive' — with everything problematic that entails. Their voices become deeper. They converge into sameness as their skin color becomes green and their height and weight equalizes. Super Mutants, summed–up in a single word, are this: ubiquity.

(Yet, they aren't.)

"ruin imagery comes to be associated with societal subversion and freedom from social constraint"
(Watts, 2011, p. 149)


Fallout 3 and overwhelming whiteness

In "Ruin, Gender, and Digital Games", Watts (2011) makes the case that ruin imagery, and specifically as it applies to digital games, opens the doors to identity subversion. Linking the breaking down of society structures with the viewing of broken and destroyed buildings, Watts (2011) connects the ability of game spaces to allow for freedom of expressions and the ways that ruin in its various connotations can open the space for gender and racial identity expressions.

However, as I point to the way Watts (2011) opens this space to discuss how games contain positive interpretations of race and gender, I also want to spend a moment on Fallout 3 and the work done by Higgin (2012) on 'gamic race' and the way menus and introductions set up sites of resistance for player identity expression.

Opening on a scene of a woman giving birth, the scene shifts to the father examining a scientific panel to determine the biological sex and racial identity of the player. For a moment, in fact, and the only time in the game that it happens in Fallout 3, the player is the father, "calling forth" the identity of the player and, in turn, layering on constraints. In giving a list of possible racial identities, the list is cut short to a limited, non-Asian set. Because, within the narrative of the series, China lunched nuclear weapons at the United States, Asian identities are contained and, in fact, eliminated as a possible initial 'race' option in Fallout 3.


"I was thinking. And it hurt! Hurt my head. But I remember things, from before. I think I knew a woman. Or maybe I was a woman! Aah! It hurts!"

(Fallout 3; emphasis added)

Returning the concept of the father "calling forth" an identity, I invoke Judith Butler's (1990) work on gender and identity performativity here to return to the concept of a game space as one in which, as defined by enculturated mechanics and assumed gender binaries, can be resisted and 'played' as alternative interpretations. To do this, I move away from the way in which games begin with characters as cyphers, open, often hallow and stereotypical entities, and look at, instead, the Super Mutants as a source of inspiration and resistance.

The quote on the screen comes from something that can be overheard when hidden near Super Mutants in Fallout 3. Because Super Mutants often attack on sight, hearing them converse with each other can be difficult. However, if a player can stealth up to a group of them, this is one of things that can be overheard. And, as used as a form of inspiration of sorts, the idea of the performance and 'recovery' of self-identity can be seen in two examples I will highlight quickly.

Tabitha

Tabitha is a Super Mutant in Fallout: New Vegas, a game set in the American southwest. As the host of a radio show, she has staked out a role in the region of the game and can even be confronted, if wanted. Yet, in listening to her show, phrases like "true eyes" (glasses) and "head of true hair" (wig) from various segments. Despite being changed by the exposure to FEV, she lives a self-proclaimed, self–assumed identity that she determines, resisting the same "calling forth" from the masculine force of the science that mutated her.

Marcus

Marcus is a Super Mutant who appears across multiple games, often helping the player or sending her on quests. First showing up as the Sheriff of a town in Fallout 2, Marcus' fate is affected by the decisions made across games and has moved to different places to run into the player again in different American regions.

Remaining Analysis:

The Problem of Masculine Power

The Issue of Monstrous-Feminine

Sources

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Fallout. (1997). Interplay Entertainment.

Fallout 3. (2008). Bethesda Game Studios. Bethsaida Softworks.

Sources (Cont.)

Fallout 4. (2015). Bethesda Game Studios. Bethsaida Softworks.

Higgin, T. (2012). "Fallout 3's Curious System of Race." Gaming the System. Retrieved from: http://www.tannerhiggin.com/2012/01/fallout-3s-curious-system-of-race/

Watts, E. (2011). "Ruin, Gender, and Digital Games." Women's Studies Quarterly 39: 247-65