“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One…I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”
-Robert J. Oppenheimer’s memory and translation of the Bhagavad-Gita upon witnessing the first manmade uncontrolled atomic explosion.
“This is what a nuke looks like going off in Fallout 76, and it’s pretty @#%$^& epic!”
-Gamespot, after witnessing the detonation of a nuclear weapon in Fallout 76.
I’ve written about awe before. Real awe. The kind of awe that combines terror and inspiration. The flavor of awe that you feel inches before the edge of a cliff or beneath the massive star filled sky at night. The awe that tells you, mortal, that you are small, and the world is big, and you are naught but whatever an ant considers beneath themselves when measured by the eye of the cosmos.
Nuclear weapons are awesome. They’re big and terrifying and the work and scale of them is, frankly, inspirational. Even more frankly, they should inspire fear. They exist for no other reason than to turn a human being into ash and turn that ash into dust with an efficiency never before achieved. For the unlucky, the thermal output of a nuclear weapon will cook their insides. For the very unlucky, the survivors, a lifetime of radiation sickness may await them.
[pullquote]In Fallout, in Red Alert, in Call of Duty, in Crysis, we’ve been able to digitally erase life with ease and without consequence for years.[/pullquote]
The awesome nature of nuclear weapons isn’t really in question or at stake. At the very first explosion Oppenheimer realized this. His quotation of the Bhagavad-Gita demonstrates not only his penchant for the dramatic but also his understanding that he had turned rocks and metal into a force that could reduce a life to nothing in an instant. Later still, he went on to write that, “these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatements can quite extinguish the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
We have lost that knowledge.
Do not take my quotations of Oppenheimer to be a tacit support of the horrific work he’s done. Oppenheimer helped unleash an unprecedented era of fear. Who better to understand the scope and scale of the horror than Frankenstein himself? Take them as warnings, as knowledge we have learned and forgotten. This is evidenced by the slack jawed, uncritical appraisal of the ease with which we’ve been able and will continue to be able to play in nuclear scared wastelands.
In Fallout, in Red Alert, in Call of Duty, in Crysis, we’ve been able to digitally erase life with ease and without consequence for years. We’ve forgotten the inhumanity so thoroughly that we cheer with no irony or humility at being the prospect of using nuclear weapons and the beautiful way in which they are rendered.
I’m not saying “no more nukes in games” either. Instead, let’s at least pretend that we remember the horrific reality presented by nuclear weapons. A generation lived on a knife’s edge of destruction. Another, this one, might be about to do the same with an aging and untested arsenal. Another generation faced the very literal bombs and had their skin melted off yet had the misfortune of surviving, scared and sickly, outcasts in their own nation.
So sure, we can all buy and play Fallout 76. We can play war with our friends in the safety of our homes. But we should do so meekly. We should remember that there’s real power behind the pixels. As Jeff Goldblum told us, we should display some humility before nature.