Updated on Jan. 10, 2020 to include an extended version of the interview. Scroll below.
It’s been more than a year since the video game Fallout 76 was released. The game — one in a popular series created by Maryland-based Bethesda Game Studios — takes place entirely in a post-apocalyptic West Virginia. Players from around the world play together online to reclaim the land.
New research finds the game may help forge new connections between those playing it and the Mountain State.
Researcher and gamer Nick Bowman was curious how the game Fallout 76 might affect players who were not native to West Virginia.
“I started thinking to myself … myself being a transplant of West Virginia; what is it like to be a transplant to a digital West Virginia?,” Bowman said. “Where you’re spending 10-12 hours a week in [a] sort of fantasy but kind of anchored in reality West Virginia?”
Bowman, an associate professor of journalism and creative media industries at Texas Tech University, and colleagues spent three months studying more than 550 people who played Fallout 76 — the majority of whom were not native to West Virginia, about 75 to 80 percent.
“I was curious to find out if there would be a correlation between spending time in this video game and actually fostering a sense of connection for the real West Virginia that’s represented in the video game,” he said.
Bowman said due to West Virginia’s population size and the international popularity of the Fallout video game series, by probability, most of the players of Fallout 76 would likely be from outside the state.
Two weeks after the game’s launch, Bowman and his team asked the individuals participating in the study what they thought about the state, facts they knew about the state, and their overall opinion of the state.
Then, two months after the game’s launch, they asked those individuals the same questions. They found that players not native to West Virginia knew as much as players who were from West Virginia, and they were forming an emotional attachment to this digital Mountain State.
“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,” Bowman said. “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.”
The game may also help foster a different type of tourism called “digital tourism,” Bowman said.
Highlights of the study are currently on display at West Virginia University’s Appalachian Futures traveling exhibit.
Bowman and his team’s work on Fallout 76 earned a research award from the National Communication Association and is currently under review by a scientific journal that focuses on technology and human behavior. Bowman said the name of the journal is embargoed until the review process is over.