Leaving the Vault: Townie-Gownie Relations in a Mutie-Normie Roleplaying Game

By Melvin Li

The year is 2161. It has been close to a century since the United States, Soviet Union, China, and other global powers have extinguished almost all life on Earth after a two hour nuclear exchange on October 23, 2077. North America is a lifeless, radiated desert filled with bands of bloodthirsty raiders and hordes of ravenous mutants. The most dangerous threat in the American wasteland, Super Mutants, or Muties, are green mutated humans who stand over 10 feet tall and have access to mini guns, plasma rifles, flamethrowers, and more lovely goodies as they scour the land in search of un-mutated humans, or Normies, to convert. The only places where pre-war America is known to continue are the vaults—hi-tech underground shelters filled with the descendants of those privileged enough to escape nuclear destruction. Then one day on December 5, Vault 13 is unsealed in the ruins of southern California and a 20-year-old man steps into the sunlight for the first time in his life.

Art by Melvin Li

This, as many of you geeky gamers out there know, is an approximate summary of the beginning of Fallout. Now what does a 1997 turn-based role-playing game featuring races called “Muties” and “Normies” have to do with you? More than you might think, especially if you’re currently enrolled in a university or have graduated from one. You don’t have to be an English major to notice the striking parallels between the Fallout setting and popular media tropes of rambunctious, ivory tower party animals facing off against tired townies who just want to sleep. As college enrollment rates continue to rise and as the costs of getting a college education continue to grow alongside worsening American wealth inequality, the age-old relationship between townies and their academic “gownie” companions will only become more important as time passes. I won’t bore you with an in-depth analysis of a video game plot line, but all college students, particularly those in nationally renowned college towns such as Ithaca, have much to learn from town-gown relations and the story of Vault 13.

The word “townie” used to refer to native, lifelong residents of a town as opposed to university students and circus workers, and dates back to 1827. Yet the notion of a divide between revered, sacred, and scholarly knowledge and the ordinary, uneducated masses dates back to the foundation of Plato’s Academy—the first institution of higher learning in the western world— in 387 BCE outside the city walls of Athens. Though the Academy was an exclusive institution and was not open to the public, it did not charge membership fees during Plato’s time—in contrast to the notorious tuition hikes of American colleges today. The world’s first university was founded in Bologna centuries later, in 1088, and drew reference to the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium for “community of teachers and scholars.” “Community,” the rough translation of universitas, seems a very innocuous term, but beneath this benign label a whole new can of worms was opened—a close-knit in-group of scholars and their students was created in opposition to the non-academics who made up the vast majority of the world’s population. With the birth of the first universities came the birth of the first metaphorical vaults, made of paper, ink, and a whole lot of ivory.

Whereas the vaults in Fallout were physical shelters separating a tiny portion of the American population from a horrifying world filled with radiation and ravenous mutants, the world’s first universities were only bubbles in an ideological sense. No rural, isolated campuses protected 12th century university scholars and students from the rest of the world. In Fallout terms, the first vaults in Europe were all open. Life in medieval universities would seem very alien to the modern day campus yuppie. Walter Rüegg’s first volume of A History of the University in Europe paints a picture of a time when universities were not physical locations but simply collections of scholars and students. With no physical campuses, classes were held wherever there was room, such as in local homes, churches, or buildings rented from the host town. As there were no dorms and other facilities, students and faculty all lodged in taverns or whatever local housing was available. All of this meant that instead of complete isolation between 12th century townies and gownies, they were in fact often in very close contact with each other and forced to share the same restricted space. If you think that the stereotypical Ugg-wearing, latte-drinking, Macbook-using, black leggings-boasting, Under Armour-beanie sporting millennial college student attracts attention in downtown Ithaca, try being a foreign-born, Latin-speaking, clerical student in full robes instead.

The idea of a 12th century university student struggling to write a paper in Latin while crammed into an upstairs room of a dirty and noisy inn is very funny but not farfetched. Conflict between students and their neighbors was often inevitable in such frustratingly close proximities. Although there were few physical barriers between medieval townies and gownies, the fact that medieval universities were funded mostly by the Catholic Church and were subject to Canon law meant that students and scholars had little use for their hosts’ towns and laws. In those days, the idea of a rent war was something akin to a university threatening to rent lecture halls at a different location, causing the current landlord to lose money—a far cry from college town landlords competing for the most profits from students today.

The Western-style university, envisioned as sanctuaries for holy knowledge and those who teach it, has a long history of conflict with the harsh realities of the outside world. One of the most violent explosions of town-gown tensions occurred during the St. Scholastica Day Riot at Oxford University on February 10, 1355. Two scholars at the Swyndolnestok Tavern didn’t enjoy the wine they were served and beat up the taverner. When the mayor of Oxford asked the chancellor of the University to arrest the scholars, over 200 students rallied around their instructors and helped them assault the mayor and drive away locals who defended him. In retaliation, local townspeople stormed the University on the following day and attacked exercising scholars with bows and arrows. The locals later sacked 14 lecture halls, scalping scholars, carrying off books and other exotic treasures, and temporarily driving the rest of the University out of town. For the 63 scholars and 30 locals killed, little was done to improve town-gown relations at Oxford. King Edward III sided with the University, and a restored charter granted scholars immunity from any crimes they had committed during the two-day riot. The Mayor of Oxford and his councilors were ordered to observe an annual penance on February 10 and march bareheaded through the streets, paying a fine of one penny per scholar killed to the University. This ritual was repeated until 1825, when the mayor refused to take part.

We have obviously come a long way from the days of scholar scalping and legal impunity for students. The age-old tensions between class-attending and paper-writing college students and their real world neighbors, however, shows no sign of disappearing, although it has improved dramatically since the Middle Ages. Town-gown relations, at least in theory, are beneficial for both parties—the university receives services and resources from the town while the town receives profit and renown because of the university’s presence. Yet ideological and cultural differences between townies and gownies, as well as many other factors including student-driven gentrification or “studentification,” often continue to be sources of tension between colleges and their local communities. All over the world, all through history, the university has mostly remained the same: a select group of highly specialized individuals who often hold significantly different views of the world than those not sealed away in them. Sounds awfully like a group of technologically advanced vault-dwellers who mean well by trying to prepare for the future but really have no idea what the wasteland is like outside of pre-war commercials and holotapes.

Art by Fauna Mahootian

In Fallout, the point of the game is to go home to Vault 13—to return to the paradise you were forced to leave, to reenter the shelter you spent your whole life in. After over a year of quests, including finding a new water purification chip for your vault and destroying the source of the deadly Super Mutants, you are able to do just that. But in one of the greatest endings in video game history, you are not allowed back into the vault you just saved. You left the vault with a pistol and a knife, and you came back with power armor and a turbo plasma rifle. In a year of outside travels, you have learned more about the world than you had in a lifetime of vault training and simulations. You have learned much, too much in fact, and by eliminating all threats to Vault 13 you have become the greatest threat to it. You are a hero…and you have to leave. As we gownies all prepare to leave our universities and college towns one day, we should keep in mind that many of life’s greatest prizes wait for us outside the vault.

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