In Fallout: New Vegas, the player is assigned the seemingly peripheral task of destroying a bottle cap press machine, located at the headquarters of soda brand Sunset Sarsaparilla. With bottle caps the post-apocalyptic game’s main currency, a functional bottle cap press machine that can churn out caps on a large scale can severely devalue—and potentially upend—this system of exchange.
Bottle caps are not in widespread production in Fallout. New caps are introduced at a relatively glacial pace; that is, whenever someone pops open a bottle of Sunset Sarsaparilla or Nuka Cola. In the game’s fiction, the humble bottle cap has outlasted the coins and paper money of the pre-war days, and even new systems of money introduced by political factions.
But why bottle caps? Its prevalence in the wastelands may seem at first to only fuel the game’s kitschy and retro-futurist aesthetic. Yet according to Donna Brunero, a historian of the British Empire in Asia at the National University of Singapore, there are also historical parallels to Fallout’s use of bottle caps.
“I think it’s not surprising that you could use something like bottle caps, because if they are in short supply, then they’re perceived as being more valuable because they’re rare,” says Brunero. “It’s something that’s rare, it’s something that’s portable, it’s durable—which is important—and it’s seen as having an inherent value.”
The value in currencies
This perceived measure of value—and the other traits that make bottle caps a reliable form of currency—is why many merchants in the game are reluctant to give up their use unless necessary.
Bottle caps were originally used by Fallout merchants to trade water. Its rise as the series’ de facto currency mirrors the real-life popularity of cowry shells as a means of payment across Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Middle East and even parts of Europe, which persisted till the 20th century.
Like bottle caps, cowry shells are a scarce resource that’s durable, portable and quickly identifiable—the basis of all good currencies—and has even been recognized as legal tender across these regions.
“[Cowry shells are] used because they were rare in nature, [and] it’s not something that everybody will find a lot of. So they’re something that […] really were treasured items that were being traded. Relatively scarce, but they can be found across a lot of trade networks,” Brunero explains.
Then there’s the use of other natural resources as well, with minerals such as silver and gold being made into coins. Brunero points to the Spanish dollar, silver coins that were minted during the Spanish colonization of the Americas following the discovery of massive silver deposits in Mexico and modern day Bolivia.
For Fallout enthusiasts, this may sound familiar. During the events of Fallout 2, the New California Republic introduced gold coins following the discovery of gold mines. These gold coins eventually dominated the West Coast, with bottle caps even becoming obsolete in these parts.
But faith in this system of currency faltered when these very gold mines were raided by an opposing faction, the Brotherhood of Steel, to the point where new coins couldn’t be minted—which was when bottle caps became in vogue in these parts again.
Mirroring real-life trade routes
In Fallout’s narrative, bottle caps could be found, and were adopted across America’s post-apocalyptic states precisely because of trade, and particularly that of water. After all, currencies and commodities have long travelled across continents, much less states, along various trade routes.
Take the aforementioned Spanish dollar, which eventually became widely used as the world’s first international currency. “With that,” says Brunero, “you have the use of the Spanish silver [and] so the minting of coins. Spanish silver flows into Asia and all around the world.”
“The Manila galleon trade would be an example of that,” adds Brunero, referring to the trade route that brought goods like spices and porcelain to the Americas, and introduced the Spanish dollar to the Philippines and Asia.
The Silk Road has been and remains another network of trade routes spanning the globe, introducing China’s exports to the West. “You can think about what we call the Silk Road, [and] the trade across central Eurasia, connecting Asia and Europe. It’s centuries and centuries that you have these trade routes, and what moves [through them] are commodities like silk and spices.”
Of course, there’s a socio-political slant to a concept as fundamental and commonplace as currency. “[Currency] can bring societies together because it gives them a common point of reference to give gifts and to exchange things, so that’s quite important, and that in some ways can be used to perpetuate state power,” explains Brunero.
“I think it’s something you can fit within the dynamics of a game, if the game is about amassing certain strength or followers. You can say that currency is another way that you do that, because if you are part of their network or their system, then you [have to] operate in the same way.”
In politically fraught environments where little trust and consensus can be established about the perceived value of the currency, hyperinflation may happen. This is also reflected in the eventual re-adoption of bottle caps among Fallout merchants.
It explains why even a faction in Fallout as unpopular as the authoritarian Caesar’s Legion sought to enforce their own currency across their lands. Although not widespread, the currency was accepted as money across Fallout’s Mojave Desert in areas outside of the Legion’s influence, despite the faction’s lack of alliances with other major groups.
That’s because of the relative security that Caesar’s dictatorship brought to merchants that traded in their own lands, with the faction’s legionaries relentlessly patrolling the trade roads. It’s a stability that the New California Republic, the federation that’s most ideologically opposed to the Legion, found immensely difficult to maintain.
“Maybe it’s a reflection of how we are thinking about trading environments that are volatile that [leads] you to want something that you feel you can rely on,” says Brunero, “that you feel most people will accept, or that there’s a measure of trust in this particular form of currency.”
Not so fictional
It’s clear that what informs Fallout’s narrative stretches beyond mere imagination. At least some part of its fictional economy is inspired by the history of trade and commerce. If one day we face the wrath of dystopian dictatorships, or corporate greed reduces our world to an apocalyptic husk, Brunero believes that we will probably still rely on a similar type of currency to facilitate trading and bartering.
Depending on what’s left in that world, it may not be bottle caps, but a resource of similar value, size and scarcity. “Fallout, through the bottle caps, [follows much] historical precedence for using these types of objects,” says Brunero.
“Maybe it’s not surprising if you’re looking at a new world that’s being created [where] they want to start with something very foundational, which is a rare item: a bottle cap, or otherwise, that can be traded.”