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Following 25 years of Great War, nuclear weapons were deployed on 23 October 2077 that reduced the United States to a fragmented and fractured wasteland. Twenty five years later, the citizens of Vault 76—the best and brightest minds in America—emerged from the landscape of West Virginia on “Reclamation Day.” Their task? To leave the vault and rebuild America.

Fallout 76 (Bethesda Studios, 2018) is a video game that puts players in the shoes of these post-nuclear pioneers: West Virginians asked to forge America’s future. In 2102, West Virginians are not portrayed as backwards and uneducated but rather, heroes entrusted to go first and chart the future for a nation burned and broken.

Our research followed over 500 of these digital pioneers for three months. Among our findings included the development of a “sense of place”—a meaningful and emotional connection with the artifacts and places portrayed in the game. Players, including many non-native West Virginians, reported an increased knowledge and recognition of West Virginia locations, as well as a deeper understanding of the state’s culture and folklore. As with many other video games, Fallout 76 provided players with “lived” experiences that transcended the on- screen action.


Perched just outside a former Responder’s Camp, a group of players relax from the grind of survival in a post-nuclear landscape to enjoy two decidedly Appalachian musical instruments: a banjo, and a steel guitar. Within Fallout 76 as in real life, playing music allows players to relax and rejuvenate themselves. In game, being “Well Tuned” (the result of playing music for at least 30 seconds) allows players to more quickly recover action points necessary to engage their surroundings. Music breaks also allow players a chance to reflect on the world around them—here, broken mining and natural resource extraction equipment as a reminder of an industrial past no longer functioning. A former way of life in fossil fuels has disappeared, but another way of life in the musical culture of Appalachia remains and sustains.


Point Pleasant, West Virginia, plays hosts to flocks of tourists interested in paranormal and cryptozoological creatures such as the Mothman. The Mothman Museum houses numerous artifacts associated with a creature largely known not to exist but also, produce enough residual curiosity (and the occasional “sighting”) so as never to be discounted: the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge is often attributed to the creature. In Fallout 76, a visit to the Mothman Museum provides players with (now shattered) display cases full of Mothman memorabilia, posters, magazines, and even a view of the still-destroyed Silver Bridge. At the foot of a silver statue in the center of town sits one more prize: Mothman eggs that provide much-need sustenance in an environment where food is scare. That is, if players are willing to chance disturbing the Mothman himself. At times peaceful or vengeful, Mothman both fascinates and terrifies the survivors of Vault 76.


The nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated to the modern world the true destructive power of the Atomic Age. The Cold War between the United States and the United Soviet States of Russia furthered fear of nuclear attack, and motivated nations around the world to prepare preventative measures, such as the construction of nuclear-proof vaults such as those installed at the Greenbrier Country Club in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. In Fallout 76, nuclear weapons are responsible for the world’s near-destruction, and players regularly encounter nuclear radiation as well as aggressive human and non-human creatures deeply mutated by nuclear fallout—reminders of the fragility of the same landscape that they are meant to inherit and protect. Paradoxically, nuclear arms are common-place in the game as a powerful and effective offensive weapon, and the photo reminds us that for some players, it really is just a video game.


For generations, West Virginia has been a cradle of economic activity for the fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuels such as coal are the economic backbone of the state, leading to high-playing jobs in a region with few industries supporting economic growth. Mining jobs are also highly controversial: unsafe working conditions and an unstable energy market are common concerns, as are technological advancements that allow for greater coal production from fewer coal miners. Mines are robust economic engines, but come at a heavy environmental cost, including air, water, and land pollution as well as habitat and landscape destruction. Indeed, in Fallout 76, players encounter remnants of these concerns, including scorched environments from mines such as Big Bertha that continue to burn their coal supplies unchecked, picket signs from labor unrest between miners and owners, and areas of the environment as affected by dubious coal mining as they are from nuclear fallout.


Video games, Fallout 76, West Virginia, Appalachia