Fort-Da: War Games, Survivalism, and Futility

While religious framing was the initial reaction to the Bomb, war games and survivalism represent further attempts at normalization and integration of the Real via “a narrative of management in place of excess and awe” (p. 57). Ultimately, both war games – attempts to simulate various outcomes of a real nuclear war – and survivalism – the fantasy of living through a nuclear war and building a better society from a purer starting point – are futile in their ostensible goals. War games which simulate nuclear wars are not only unable to account for all variables, but they also have no empirical data on which to be based; ultimately, war games are simply entertaining. Survivalist communities, which bond over their shared commitment to preparing to survive the apocalypse and rebuild a better world, are “hybrid human and electronic networks,” heavily reliant on technology, which contradicts the common survivalist fear “of the collapse of technological society” (p. 100).

In both instances, Freud’s fort-da experiment provides an explanation; repetition is how humans reach for unfulfillable desires. War games are ultimately fantasies of mastery over that which cannot be mastered – this leads to such games being enjoyable. In the discussion of a specific nuclear war game, First Strike, Matheson picks up the criticism of the concealment thesis. First Strike is an app designed for a wide audience, with the goal of deterring nuclear war by laying bare its horrors in front of the common people. Despite the game’s clear surface message, it was designed as a game, meaning it drew people in and encouraged them to keep playing – for many, the game produced a type of guilty pleasure, showing that the horror of nuclear war also produces a strange kind of fascination in people.

Survivalism works in a similar way, though Matheson introduces the concept of myth to explain the origins of survivalist communities: through media about nuclear apocalypse survival (Matheson specifically examines novels), a myth (a constellation of metaphors which “influence behavior and belief”) promises access to the Real via adherence to the rituals of the myth (pp. 105-7). These rituals involve “prepping” – the idea is that those who “prep” well enough will be able to survive the nuclear apocalypse and thus gain access to the purity promised by the Real, on which the survivalists will then rebuild society to their own taste. Survivalism is like war games, however, on the ground that the practice is futile – not only are survivalist prepping plans “obviously flawed,” but the communities (and even dating sites, as Matheson explores in detail) that are built on the myth of survival rely heavily on the very types of electronic communication that they supposedly fear. These community-sustaining communication methods will not survive any sort of actual apocalypse.

In both cases, war games and survivalism, the point is to feign order and control over the disturbance of the Symbolic order caused by the Bomb. War games provide players with a sense of control over the Real of nuclear war itself, while survivalism knits communities of survivalists together and gives them a myth which “brings some sense of order to the world rent by the schism of the Bomb at Trinity and allows its subjects to enjoy the thought of urban destruction as an opportunity for renewal” (pp. 118-9). While the survivalist communities and their activities may at first glance seem far from the initial reaction toward the Bomb – religious and theological language – both expressions are ultimately attempts to provide some level of control to that which is uncontrollable. The talk about the destruction of urban centers, moreover, leads this review into its final main section, which covers chapter 3.