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Gaming Metro and Fallout: Illustrations of a Post-Apocalyptic Economy

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Humanity will always find a way to build a market. The market is the cornerstone of all civilization, and it has been for a length of time far predating known history. For as long as there have been civilized people, those people have had surplus items to trade, and they expected something in return.


But, how will humanity fare in a world where today's economy simply vanishes in the blink of an eye? Surprisingly well, if gaming is to be believed. Metro and Fallout are two fantastic post-apocalyptic franchises, and they both include surprisingly realistic systems of currency (aside from Fallout 3). Dare I say, you could even look at them side by side, and see a complete economic history in microcosm.


But, only if we skip a step. This first step, of course, is that of barter. Barter is the direct exchange of goods with no medium of exchange. Ergo, it would be akin to trading a Chinese Assault Rifle for a Brahmin without involving caps. Barter is a very primitive form of economy, and is flawed in that it relies on the farmer with the Brahmin wanting a Chinese Assault Rifle. If he wanted anything else, like say, a crate of purified water, then you and your rifle would be out of luck. It doesn't matter if the Brahmin, the rifle, and the crate of water were all worth the same thing, the farmer will still only trade for what can benefit him.


This step is not featured in the above games, mostly because it isn't very fun to play with, however, it is greatly implied to have existed. This is especially true when you consider Metro's exceptional job at illustrating step 2.


The Commodity is an item that is very widely traded due primarily to its own inherent value as a product, and naturally becomes a currency of its own through frequent bartering. In Metro, this would be the Pre-War 5.45x39mm Military Grade Round, or MGR for short. The MGR was introduced into the economy from day 1, when soldiers took shelter inside of the metro tunnels alongside everybody else, bringing their weaponry with them. As time went on, people saw need to defend themselves from the horrors of post-apocalyptic Moscow, and that meant not only acquiring a gun, but finding something to feed it. That was the MGR. The splendid stopping power of the bullet proved incredibly effective against mutants and bandits alike, and so, demand rose.


Scavengers could scour the surface and find a great many of these rounds, but they could never find the technology to create them. So, when they would return to the tunnels, they would trade the rounds for food, water, shelter, and various... creature comforts... because they knew that any settlement would accept them. Everybody needs to defend themselves. And because everybody grew to accept the MGR in a trade, it became far more useful as a medium of exchange than they were even as ammunition. So much so that bootleg ammunition became a thriving industry because people didn't want to waste their life savings on mutants. Wastelanders (the player included) ceased to put MGRs in their guns because they knew that they were far more valuable than the cheapo ammo. They were preserved because, even though they had far more stopping power than the bootleg bullets, they had a role far more valuable to the rebuilding of humanity. They were the first currency in our rebuilding world.


Step three takes us more than a hundred years into the future, into the Californian wastes of Fallout 1, where the humble bottle cap has become America's currency of choice. How? Because Fallout takes place loooooong after commodities are an effective medium of exchange.


The use of caps as money originated from a city called The Hub. The Hub was a settlement built around a desert oasis that came to the logical conclusion that Wastelanders are going to get really damn thirsty. And so, they started selling water, lots of it, until they came to the inevitable problem that large amounts of water were difficult to transport, especially if one were to use it as money. To get around this, they introduced bottle caps as a Representative Currency.


Representative Currency is not a useful commodity in itself, rather, it is an IOU for a set amount of a useful commodity, and can be freely exchanged whenever the owner desires. Everyone in the core region would need to stop by the hub to trade for food, weapons, armor, and of course, water, but they couldn't just lug 20 gallons of the stuff from vendor to vendor as they browsed their wares. Thus, the bottle cap was born. The bottle cap was introduced as having a set value representative of a certain amount of water. So, traders could trade 40 bottle caps for X amount of water one day, come back in two years, and find that X amount of water is still worth 40 bottle caps. Therefore, trading for caps was practically the same as trading for water, except it was far more durable and far easier to transport.


If you spill a bag of caps on the ground, you can pick them up. If you spill a bag of water on the ground, it's gone. Caps provided numerous advantages to simply trading with water, and as such, eventually grew such acceptance that people no longer cared that they were exchangeable for water.


The NCR, when they took root in the region, saw fit to introduce a more traditional form of representative currency in the form of NCR Dollars, a government-sponsored currency backed in this case by the NCR's gold reserves.


This, tragically, takes us to our fourth and final stage in a currency's evolution.


NCR money was initially very widely accepted, even replacing bottle caps in most instances. This was, however, short lived. Less than 40 years into the NCR Dollar's golden age, a war with the Brotherhood of Steel ended up destroying the NCR's gold reserves. The notes, while not immediately worthless due to their existing market value, became critically devalued. The $1 coins featured in Fallout 2 were phased out in favor of $5, $20, and $100 paper bills backed by absolutely nothing but positive thinking. When currency is backed only by market value alone, with no inherent value as an item, this fragile type of money is known as Fiat Currency. The now fiat NCR money dropped in value rapidly, to the point that it took $2.50 to equal just one cap by 2281. To put this into perspective, a bottle of Nuka Cola had a market value of $3 NCR in 2241 (Fallout 2). 40 years later (in Fallout: New Vegas), a Nuka Cola is valued at 20 caps before markup, or a whopping $50 for a single bottle of soda.


NCR money, lacking a standard, became utterly worthless, thus ending our journey from brahmin, to bullets, to bottle caps, to big bucks. You may have found yourself learning something as you read through this topic, or maybe you just enjoyed reading about video games. Either way, I have had way too much fun writing this topic, and am interested to know what you all think.


Are Metro and Fallout effective illustrations of a growing post-nuclear economy? What do you think we'll be using for money after Armageddon? Is there a game I missed that effectively portrays a realistic barter economy? Let me know.

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