Discriminating against the Body Electric: Fallout’s Synths as a Metaphor for Institutionalized Racism

I’ve been a huge Fallout fan for almost two decades now, reveling not only in its lore and gameplay but also its humorous yet (usually) thoughtful treatment of social issues. The post-apocalyptic genre lends itself to this in a unique way. By incorporating sci-fi and fantasy elements, these stories can deal with fairly abstract concepts. By grounding their narratives in a world steeped in dirt, decay, and the conflict between the social contract and raw survival, the best examples of the genre are often able to address these issues in an accessible (and fun) manner.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid playing/watching/reading about Fallout 4, here’s a bit of background before we dive in. Set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Boston in the year 2287, the story of Fallout 4 revolves heavily around synths. Synths are synthetic people, made from human DNA, indistinguishable from humans, and created to serve as a labor class for the manipulative and technologically advanced Institute. They are inspired by, if not directly based on, Blade Runner’s replicants. In one way or another, all the major factions involved in the game’s central plot have an interest in what the synths represent and what is to become of them.

Synth in production, looks human to me

A generation 3 synth in production

On the surface, the parallels to western slavery are pretty clear. The synths are a race of people viewed as “human-like” by their masters and used as free labor to maintain the status quo for a leisure class. They are given virtually no rights and are seen as little more than machines. While their masters take pains to prevent them from being killed or seriously harmed, this is mostly due to the expense involved in replacing them rather than any real concern for their well-being. There is also an underground group seeking to liberate them. This group calls itself the Railroad and is a direct reference to the real-life Underground Railroad, being referred to as such even within the world of the game.

The idea that synths are meant to represent slavery as a human institution was clear to me from the get-go. But in addition to this central metaphor, the treatment of synths and their place in the game’s civilization goes much deeper. There are parallels to infamous examples of racial and cultural discrimination throughout human history, as well as constant remarks by NPCs that the synths are infiltrating their communities and plotting terrible things. Fear that a synth might be living next door, might kill you in your sleep, and might poison the town’s drinking water is a near constant. While some of this is certainly due to the shadowy operations of their human masters, the synth race has become synonymous with deceit, violence, and threats to civilization itself. Sound familiar? This demonization and scapegoating of an entire class of people is common to most examples of real-life discrimination, and synths are a consistent metaphor for that in Fallout 4.

One of the most common fears expressed by the game’s NPCs is that a synth may “replace” someone close to you. While this is very literal (think pod people) it’s also used as a metaphor for xenophobic paranoia. There is occasionally some parallel to automation leading to job loss, but the fear of being “replaced” isn’t normally used in Fallout the same way that we discuss that question. Rather, this fear is treated in the same way many talk about immigrants taking citizens’ jobs or Black Americans taking jobs formerly held by white Americans after the end of slavery. It’s fear that social and economic progress will be set back by a “human-like” race that will undermine it with their very presence.

 “Not human, human like. A great distinction.”

—Father (Director of the Institute)

The paranoia about replacement is frequently used to illustrate a fear that a new group of people are “taking over” and slowly changing the culture of those who came before. Any time someone you know starts to act differently by expressing different views, showing different mannerisms, disagreeing with you more than they used to, remembering things differently than you, or even suddenly having different dietary tastes, they are potentially at risk of being called a synth and being ostracized or killed.

The fact that there are actually “sleeper agents” placed within many communities to gather intelligence and engage in sabotage only exacerbates this fear. That paranoia is exploited both by the group that sends them to engage in violence (the Institute), and by groups seeking to root them out (the Brotherhood of Steel). In the case of the former, it is used to make it harder for runaway synths to find safe harbor; in the case of the latter, they don’t just want to uncover these sleepers—they want to eradicate all synths. As I play (and replay) FO4, I can’t help but draw parallels to real-life groups like IS who exploit the paranoia of violence to make it more difficult for Muslims to integrate into Western society as well as to the violent extremist groups exploiting that same paranoia by seeking to expel all Muslims or worse. As is the case in real life, most free synths hate these groups as much as anyone else and just want to live their lives in peace.

Another thing about synths… most of them are light skinned. The effect of this is to separate the idea of racism from visible markers like skin color. The only way to tell if someone is a synth is to do a postmortem exam on their brain. That does not stop people from devising various pseudo-scientific ways of detecting them. The Nazi regime did this as well. They used everything from measurements of skin tone and hair type to phrenology as ways to “prove” someone was Jewish and bolster their claims of genetic superiority. The fact that these methods had no scientific merit was irrelevant; the goal was to find some outward physical characteristic that could be correlated to someone’s race and designated as inferior. The use of these same methods on Fallout’s synths perfectly illustrates their fallacy, as synths are visually identical to humans in every way.

“If you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh, if you poison us do we not die?”

—Shakespeare (From The Merchant of Venice)

Beyond arbitrary physical tests, there are also instances of interrogations being conducted with supposedly objective but deeply flawed methods of determining the truth of their answers. The Fallout settlement of Covenant, for example, uses a test called S.A.F.E. to determine if someone is a synth. Like many of the Gestapo’s interrogations, it is entirely subjective but treated as having a basis in science. While Fallout 4 treats S.A.F.E. as a clear reference to Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff test, the questions posed are identical to those in Fallout 3’s G.O.A.T. That test is described as totally meaningless by the people conducting it, who assign roles based on labor needs and community biases rather than results from the test.

Synths look like us, they act like us, they think and feel like us, but they’re somehow seen as different; inferior and scary. They represent “the other”, and various desperate methods are used to justify their use as a scapegoat for anything terrible.

Most of the synths we see are white. Two of the most significant synth characters, however, are Black. One is named Glory, a “heavy” for the Railroad who puts her life on the line to save synths from their bondage. The other is X6-88, a “courser” for the Institute who puts his life on the line to recapture synths and strip away their newfound identities. In both cases, the skin color of synths is irrelevant (as it is for most humans in the Fallout universe); what they are is the issue, not how they look. Because the thing with institutionalized racism is that the nature of the group being persecuted isn’t really the problem; the fact that they’re different is all that matters to their oppressors. They are seen as inferior, as outsiders, as “human like”.

Glory, ass kicking poster child of a liberated synth

Glory “the ass kicking poster child of a liberated synth.” (credit: Sweedishjazz via Wikimedia Commons)

But more than their genetics or their appearance, their cultural identities are a point of contention for those that hate them. It’s not only a matter of what they are, it’s what they represent.

Within the Institute synths are given designations along the lines of droids in Star Wars. It’s “L7-92”, not “Brooks.” The notion that a synth has the right to self-identity outside the constructs of the culture they serve is deemed unacceptable. This is not only reminiscent of the concept of “slave names” in colonial America, but it’s also reminiscent of the way people often discriminate against names that sound foreign. While some synths, like Glory, choose their new names as a point of pride, many have no idea what they want to be called and have “nicknames” assigned to them. This is similar to how many immigrants will take “American names” or be given them by people refusing to learn their birth names. The assigning of a new moniker to avoid the tedious “that’s so hard to pronounce” conversations that inevitably arise from having a name that doesn’t jibe with local customs is a common one. In addition to Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants, many Black Americans choose to take (or give their children) names that draw their etymology from African roots. They are American citizens going back many generations, but are often ridiculed for this and treated with suspicion. President Barack Obama, for example, had a massive group of people trying to prove that he was not a natural born citizen, regularly over-pronouncing his name as a way to sell their baseless claims. While there is no doubt that President Obama is a natural born citizen, these tactics were used as a means of de-legitimizing him and a great many bought into it based largely on his name.

This also draws strong parallels to transphobic discrimination, where identity is imposed by people who insist that they have the right to determine other people’s identity for them, often insisting on continuing to use someone’s “dead name”. Synths are also regularly told they’re just confused about who and what they are and the first question many humans ask about them is “can they have sex?” This isn’t made a central issue in most discussion of synths, but it comes up frequently enough that I took it as an intentional allusion. There is, in addition, some strong similarity to discriminatory attitudes against asexual people in more than one instance when synth sexuality is examined, but I digress.

This denial leads synths to not only adopt new names but in many cases to adopt entirely new identities. It is common for runaway synths to have a procedure called a mind wipe performed. This completely erases their memory and replaces it with a constructed identity that leads these synths to believe they have always been human. While often they live their new lives the same way anyone else in the wasteland would, many often “break” under the strain. The difficulty their psyche faces in pretending to be something they’re not in order to be free of prejudice is too much to process and they become violent. This perpetuates the cycle of fear endemic of institutionalized discrimination.

I could go on for pages about how synths as a race are blamed for the faults of humanity itself, as many real-life groups have been and continue to be, but by now I think the point is clear. Whenever we treat an entire class of people as a homogeneous and threatening other, we set the stage for widespread hatred and violence. No matter if it’s a race, a religion, a gender, a sexual orientation, or whatever else, until we realize that people are just people, humanity cannot move forward. Even in an irradiated post-apocalyptic world.

Lastly, before anyone says it, this is a role playing game I’m discussing. Playing as an operative for the Institute or a knight for the Brotherhood of Steel is often quite fun. I mean, they have teleporters and airships! Sometimes being bad in a game like Fallout can be a rich and valuable experience, and I don’t mean to strip away that enjoyment and replace it with guilt. But as you hunt mirelurks or clean up the streets of Goodneighbor as the Silver Shroud, perhaps occasionally stop and, as I have, consider that in the real world there are no synths. There are only humans and the systems we create to pit us against each other. Remember that and maybe reflect a bit on unconscious bias, then give Nick Valentine a hug for me.

Okay, time to head back to the Commonwealth!

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