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Geography lessons through monster slaying

Fallout graphic

Written by Jake Stump
Illustrated by Austin Isinghood/Feature photo courtesy Bethesda Softworks

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You can learn a thing or two about West Virginia history and geography while pulverizing ghouls and monsters in a virtual post-apocalyptic world.

Nick Bowman, Jaime Banks and Christine Rittenour in the West Virginia University Department of Communication Studies wanted to know gamers’ perceptions of West Virginia from playing 2018’s highly-anticipated role-playing shoot-’em- up “Fallout 76.”


They surveyed more than 700 players to see how the game’s depictions of West Virginia — in addition to their own personal gameplay experiences — influenced what they thought about the Mountain State and its people.


“Fallout 76” — a prequel to the highly popular Fallout series — takes place in West Virginia, reduced to a nuclear wasteland in the year 2102. Each gamer must help re-colonize America, and it begins when they emerge as a survivor from Vault 76, a fallout shelter buried in the hills of West Virginia.

Christine card


“When people played the game, they ended up knowing more about the state than before they started playing,” Bowman said. “They recognized things from the state and wanted to know more, which led them to Google and Wikipedia. Some even requested more information from the Tourism Office and are planning to visit West Virginia.”


Of the survey respondents, only 22 percent live in West Virginia. Because there are no game-driven characters in “Fallout 76” (other than robots and creatures of folklore), every player controls an avatar that is a West Virginian.


The first part of the survey, conducted before the respondents played the game, revealed a mix of positive and negative perceptions of the state. One gamer wrote, “I know you are nice people, but that’s not what I’ve been taught.”

Jamie card


“People talked about mountains and mentioned ‘beauty’ a lot,” Rittenour said. “They used words like ‘sacred’ as if it was a mystical place. But then there were plenty of negatives. Hillbilly jokes. Incest references. ‘Simple and not bright.’ They thought West Virginians had outdated views.”


There were even jokes linking the game’s critically-panned reviews, bugs and prolonged download times to West Virginia.


“They’d joke, ‘Of course the game is broken. It takes place in West Virginia,’” Bowman said.

But once they dug into the game, their views started to shift.


“At first, the general perception of West Virginians was that they are more warm than they are competent,” Rittenour said. “But after playing the game and interacting with other players online, they perceived more competence than warmth.”


One of the questions asked in the survey after the game’s release was if they could name a specific West Virginia place by name. By then, most respondents could name Charleston, Morgantown, the Mothman Museum, Flatwoods, the Greenbrier, Grafton, the New River Gorge, the State Capitol, Camden Park amusement park in Huntington and Harpers Ferry.

Nick card


“Fifty percent of people actively sought out additional information about the state after playing,” Bowman said.

 

“Fallout 76” also drew heavily upon West Virginia folklore, which drove players to find out more about the state. In the game, players can encounter the Mothman, the Flatwoods Monster and the Beast of Grafton, among other creepy creatures standing in the way of rebuilding America.


“People are really into the monsters and fables because they’d never heard of some of these before,” Banks said. The trio’s initial findings also point at nostalgia as a driving factor for playing the game among West Virginians who left the state.


“Nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion,” Bowman said. “You can’t recreate it. It’s like that time you scraped your knee and your parents helped you up and got you ice cream. But sometimes when you have that ice cream, it triggers a nostalgic feeling. Our data is suggesting that ‘Fallout 76’ provides expats a chance to revisit West Virginia, and providing those bittersweet memories of their home state.”

Quotes from the survey responses include:
“The Greenbrier Hotel — the whole bunker part infatuated me, so I watched an hour of history on the bunker.”
“I talked to my grandmother who was born inWest Virginia and lived there as a little girl about the game and locations. She got really excited about it.”
“I’m going to be visiting places in the game in the coming year. My son and I are planning to travel to various areas.”

Researchers followed up with players in January for the final phase to see if their views progressed. They’re currently analyzing the data and will write and present their findings throughout the year at various conferences and workshops, including one with the WVU Humanities Center, which supported the study.


“We can’t say everyone’s going to move to West Virginia tomorrow, but we know there’s a heck of a lot more people who know more about the state than they used to,” Bowman said. “They seem to have better perceptions of the state as a result.”


“In media over the years, West Virginians have been stereotyped as being backwards and uneducated,” Banks said. “But ‘Fallout 76’ seems to flip that script. They built this fallout shelter and survived. Now they’re the saviors of humanity.”