Fallout 4, Prison Architecture, and Michel Foucault

Today marks the release of Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4. As with the release of all of Bethesda’s massive open world RPGs the release of Fallout 4 is an event in the gaming community. When I say “event” I mean this is a day hardcore gamers have had marked on their calendars since Fallout 4’s announcement at E3 in June. This is a day people call in sick from work so that they can stay home all day and play. Even releasing another game the same day as Fallout 4 is thought to be financial suicide.

Bethesda’s two biggest game franchises, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls are in league of their own in gaming. With these franchises, Bethesda has established themselves as the masters of designing game worlds that are second to none when it comes to size, detail, and immersion. For my money, I prefer the Elder Scrolls series, I have logged a collective play time of over 500 hours in the last two games in the Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion and Skyrim. These games place gamers in a high fantasy setting filled with swords, magic, and lush outdoor environments. The Elder Scrolls games excel at creating environments that I want to inhabit. Fallout 4 does an equally impressive job of creating an immersive and detailed world, the difference, I don’t want to inhabit the world of Fallout 4. This isn’t a criticism of the game, quite the opposite actually. The Fallout games are set in a post-apocolypitic future in which a war with China resulted in nuclear fallout. The game environment is not meant to be aesthetically pleasing, the world is destroyed, dirty, and dangerous; in Fallout 4 you don’t stop to smell the roses, you simply try to survive.

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Much of Fallout 4’s world is a barren inhospitable wasteland

Looking at Fallout 4 through the lens of design presents an interesting question, how does one design something that is purposefully unpleasant? I have always been fascinated with prison architecture. For me, an important aspect of architecture is creating spaces that compel and enhance the program (or function) of the building and serve the people that use it. For example, a school is meant to educate students and should be designed in a manner that best enhances that purpose. Yet consider, what is the purpose of a prison? To isolate? To punish? When the function of a building is inherently negative, how does one use architecture to enhance that function? This was a question that had always puzzled me, architecture is a good thing, its art for crying out loud! Why and how would you design art to punish someone?

The answer to this question, like most things, came to me in grad school when I was introduced to Michel Foucault. Foucault, a french philosopher, is such a seminal writer that I would wager almost any grad student studying theory has read him. One of his most influential books, Discipline and Punish tackles the very question of prison design. Foucault references the Panopticon, a building type designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century.  The basic principle of the Panopticon is a design that allows all inmates to be observed by a single watchmen without knowing whether or not they are being observed. Obviously, it is impossible for a single guard to constantly observe all the inmates at once but the Panopticon is intended as a means of controlling the psyche of the inmate as much as their physical body. If an inmate cannot tell when they are being observed they cannot tell when they aren’t being observed either. This creates a situation where eventually the inmate feels as though they must always be compliant for fear of the unknown gaze. While a true panopticon has never been built or implemented it has had an influence on how prisons are designed. Remember when I said architecture is meant to enhance the purpose of the building for the people who use it? Well turns out in the case of prisons the people the architecture is serving is not the inmates, it’s the guards. Prisons are first and foremost designed with observation in mind. The building needs to have certain site lines that make surveillance easier while eliminating blind spots where possible illicit activity could occur. While this does not have the same psychological effects as the Panopticon, it ensures that the guards can be as efficient as possible while controlling the behavior of the inmates.

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Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

So how does this all relate to Fallout 4? Well it struck me today while playing that Bethesda has essentially created a world that functions in the exact opposite manner of the Panopticon. While inmates live in constant fear of observation, the world of Fallout 4 is desolate. The game intentionally isolates both characters in the world and the player precisely because it has an effect on their actions. While the ever present gaze of the Panopticon ensures docility, the isolation and loneliness of a world like Fallout 4 highlights exactly what can happen to people when no one is watching. The game is populated with bandits, thieves, cannibals, and murders all operating under anonymity and away from the any sort of authority.

So if prison architecture serves the guards, who does the design of a game like Fallout 4 serve? This inhospitable world removes authority and consciousness and allows players to do as they wish without restraint. Fallout 4 is first and foremost a game that allows the player to do as they wish and by isolating them in a desolate world free from discipline and punishment it puts the player in an environment outside of the establishment of laws and consequences that prevails in the post-apocalypse. In this sense, the design of Fallout 4 as an ugly, dirty, and dangerous world serves the manner in which Bethesda wants the player to operate, as someone who is free to take whatever actions they wish without the judgment of a societal moral compass.

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