Reading the game: the philosophy of Fallout 4, part 1: the Human Error dilemma

For the third article in my Reading the game series, I will dive into one of my own favorite game franchises, Bethesda’s Fallout series. Once again, I will look at it from a philosophical angle, for the simple reason that philosophy is my own field, and I want to write some good pieces about it before I take on other classes. Also, that I covered a specific game doesn’t mean I won’t cover it again. On the contrary: there are plenty of games that allow for more than one class or even science to give it a take.

Spoiler warning: this article describes some plot elements from Fallout 4 and the entire Human Error questlineDo not read below this if you plan to play this game in the future.


The Fallout series in short
If you haven’t played the game and aren’t planning to, Fallout 4 is the fourth main installment in the series about a variety of events in what used to be the United States after atomic war reduced it to a barren wasteland. A studio called Black Isle started the role-playing game (rpg) series in the 90’s with 2D-games Fallout 1 (1997), Fallout 2 (1998) and a spin-off with Fallout Tactics (2001). Later, Bethesda, the developer of the Elder Scrolls series, bought the franchise and took it to “next gen” standards with Fallout 3 in 2008, making it part first-person shooter as well as an rpg.


Fallout 4

Aside from Obsidian Entertainment’s take on the series with Fallout New Vegas (2011), fans had to wait seven years for part 4 to arrive.

This fourth installment takes place in Boston, Massachusets roughly 200 years after the bombs fell. You, the player, are one of the lucky few to be granted access to an underground vault, where you are safe from the nuclear war above ground. However, Vault-tec, the corporation that built this and others vaults, hasn’t exactly told you the details of the deal, and unknowingly, you are part of a massive experiment and are cryogenically frozen. After 200 years on ice, you wake up, discovering that all fellow (frozen) vault citizens have died, and the world above ground has turned into a dead wasteland, where it’s now survival of the fittest between man, ghoul and many new mutated species.

As if this new world wasn’t complicated enough, the Commonwealth Institute of Technology (a reference to MIT) turns out to have been active under its ruined building for all those years, and is now sending humanoid robots called synths into the wasteland for unknown reasons. The Boston Area, called “The Commonwealth”, is in constant conflict, but has a common fear in these synths, that can “blend in” through their human appearance, and are rumoured to abduct and/or kill people at random.


A human and a generation 3 synth in a hostage situation. From the outside, it is impossible to tell which is which. Image credit: NukaPedia


The Human Error moral dilemma
Fallout 4 presents plenty of ethical dilemmas, and I will probably spend some more articles on them in the future, but the one at the center of the Human Error quest in the town of Covenant is particularly interesting.

I could describe the quest in detail here, but I’ll just get to the moral problem at its core. If you want to experience the full story, I recommend you to play the game yourself (which is well worthwile in general). At the heart of the quest, you are given a choice to continue or discontinue a secret research program that develops a (doubtfully) scientific method for distinguishing synths from humans, with the goal of their extermination, but at the cost of human lives and suffering in the testing process. Covenant, the settlement in question, attracts visitors by low prices and friendly smiles, then abducts some of them and performs tests (which come down to torture), before eventually killing them to see whether they were in fact man or synth.

There are various ways to reach this point, and there are various ways to end the quest. This means that the exact nature of the moral problem (the “facts” and even the actor) differs per playthrough of the game. Some factors remain constant, though. Lead researcher Dr. Chambers stands by her research even when threatened, and the only way to stop the program is to kill her (she will not attack you, so it will not be self defense). There is the choice of killing her and the (±10) compound guards, or killing Honest Dan and having an indefinite amount of people die in the future through the research program. There is no happy ending and no way to please everybody.


Fallout 4_20151120192942

Dr. Chambers stands by her research program, even when the player threatens to kill her.


Advantages of the “in-game” moral dilemma
Even so, plenty of similar thought experiments can still be found in philosophical and even in legal literature. The thought experiment that puts torturing one person up against the saving of large amounts of lives is a particularly widely covered one. But philosophical  thought experiments such as these are often set in a hypothetical or even completely fictional world (because a situation where torturing demonstrably prevents harm does not exist), as argued for extensively by Ronnie Janoff-Bullman in her article Erroneous Assumptions: Popular Belief in the Effectiveness of Torture Interrogation. But the Human Error dilemma from Fallout 4 is placed in a specific context, with a pretext, information that might not be available to you yet, and actual direct and indirect consequences (some of which you may not anticipate). One of the appeals of the Fallout series has always been the freedom given to the player to make a unique impact on the in-game world. Fallout 2 even ended with a rundown on how the settlements on your journey had fared as a consequence of your actions (with many different possibilities, and this was in 1998!). So there is a large amount of ways to set this dilemma up, and “the moral thing to do” will differ accordingly.

Some of the factors in the story that you may not know at the time include:

  • Everyone in the town and research compound has some back story that includes an attack on their or their family’s lives by the institute (so the program could be called an act of revenge).
  • The “person” you initially set out to rescue is in fact a synth.
  • The institute has a plan with their synths that includes the eventual improvement of the overall quality of life in “the commonwealth” (which boils down to a declaration of war on several groups of the Commonwealth which the institute considers a threat). At the time of the quest, this plan may already have been put into action (by you). But…
  • 3rd Generation synths are replicas of humans which utilize memories of their mimicked humans such that it is possible that they do not even know they are synths. They don’t share one moral character, and may even be called “persons” (able to develop their own moral character).
  • Discontinuing the program and killing the researchers makes the town hostile toward you, forcing you to either avoid it forever or kill everyone inside.*
  • Some characters (due to their low charisma) may retrieve less information per definition, and so might not be able to even reach the stage of peaceful negotiations.
  • Certain chains of in-game events may lead Covenant to accept you from the start and disable the investigator Honest Dan from spawning, so chances are high you will never find out about the compound and its research.

*unless you kill your fellow investigator and the imprisoned synth (which you don’t know to be a synth at that time).


The town of Covenant.

All in all, we have a moral dilemma that has all the complexity of a “real life” moral dilemma, but one that can be “replayed” with different actors (high or low intelligence, charisma, luck or perception can make a huge difference), different approaches and different choices, and an environment where a know-all birds eye view is available. An additional interesting factor occurs when a player has been playing the game in advance, because they will have developed a certain emotional investment in their character and will thus be more concerned with the outcome.

Use in philosophy classes
Am I suggesting you should have your philosophy classes play Fallout 4? Yes, actually I am. Dilemmas such as this one have already spawned lots of discussion about what “the moral thing to do” is. Just Google ‘fallout 4 human error’ and you’ll read from plenty of gamers who are unsure about what to do. Some act on a guiding principle for their character (usually simply ones such as their own interest, the greater good of the commonwealth, , many even explicitly overthink it, but most eventually decide on the basis of (moral) intuition. Philosophy, and specifically ethics, forces you to systematically think through moral reasoning, and can give a guide through moral dilemmas. I specifically call it “a” guide, not “the” guide, because regardless of the ethical theory, there will always be some part reserved for personal judgment. Having had this kind of training in moral thinking helps students recognize and decide on these kinds of problems in real life.

Like Deus:Ex, Fallout 4 is perfect for exemplifying utilitarianism, Kantian theory or even Aristotelian virtue ethics. Plus, the commonwealth is a good example of a Hobbesian state of nature. But for something of more practical use, here is a list of questions and assigments you could give students to get them to systematically explore the moral reasoning in the case of the Human Error quest.

  • Which moral theory or theories could be used by the citizens of Covenant to justify their research program? Give an example of an argument on the basis of this theory/one of these theories.
  • Of what moral relevance is the fact that the families of those involved were killed by synths?
  • Of what moral relevance are the results of the research done in the compound? Dr. Chambers mentions that currently, they are at 4 to 5 false positive per discovered synth. What would it mean if they managed to reach 1 false positive or even no false positives?
  • If you have too low charisma, you may be locked out of entering the compound on peace terms. Could you justify killing the compound guards without exact knowledge of what is going on inside? How?
  • If you find out what is happening inside the compound, but choose to ignore it and never visit the area again, are you still morally accountable for the deaths that occur through the research?
  • Explain the legal and the moral difference between this moral dilemma taking place in the Fallout 4 Commonwealth or in todays world (still in secret).
  • (If you have played the game in advance) Relate your decisions in this quest to earlier decisions in the game. Have you followed the same principle(s) throughout? Why (not)?

And based on my or your own assessments of this quest and the game in general, I’m sure you can come up with plenty more. If you do, I’d be glad to hear them! I had a lot of fun writing this, and I hope it will be of some use to you. Be sure to leave your feedback in the comments, and follow this blog if you’re intested in the topic!


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