January 31, 2018

How the West Was Woke: ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ and Gaming’s Iron Curtain

Despite the critical success of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, the game has become a new contested battleground for political discussion between American voices on the left and right. The Ringer goes in-depth on the social implications of the hit game.

Rockstar Games and Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar Games is an American video game publisher based out of New York. In addition to Red Dead Redemption 2, the third entry in the Red Dead series, the publisher is arguably most well known for its Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series of video games where players are given largely free reign in an immersive open-world setting based on fictionalized American cities and States.

The Red Dead series differs in that it’s themed after the Wild West and spans five fictitious American states. Red Dead Redemption 2 has the player controlling bounty hunter Arthur Morgan. It was almost universally praised for its artistic merits in terms of storytelling, immersive world and graphical depiction of the period, with parallels with real American history and society.

Shirakko and the Left-Right Split
Controversy erupted when popular YouTube streamer Shirrako posted several videos of him elaborately murdering an in-game suffragette, including the words “annoying feminist” in the title. In a similar video, however, the suffragette retaliates and knocks a machete-armed Arthur out cold. Another likewise provocative video called “What Happens If You Bring Black Man to the KKK,” had Arthur kidnap a black man and throw him at the feet of a KKK gathering in the woods. Against all expectations of realism, the Klansmen do nothing, ignore the man and—as expected of AI in any Rockstar game, however stably coded it might be—manage to light themselves on fire.

Naturally, much of the Internet decried Shirrako’s actions in the videos because of their intentionally provocative content while others vehemently defended Shirrako on the grounds that he, as a player of an open-world fictitious game, should be allowed to play it as he pleases. Long story short, the game has since become one of the more prominent examples of a game being used as fodder for a dubiously meaningful political debate centered around the defense/threatening of freedom and free speech; not far off from current American political debates waged on the Internet.

Justin Charity, who wrote the original article, laments that gone are the days where the debate was limited to gamers versus a non-gamer society on topics like the depiction of violence and sex in video games. Instead, video games have been drawn into divisive left-right arguments with no sign of—or desire for—compromise or middle ground.

Gamer & Non-Gamer Claims to the Narrative
I’ve always treated “newer” media such as movies, animation and video games as potentially rich and worthy of discussion as any literature or other art form. But because of the innate interactive aspect that makes them unique as an art, I’ve always been on the side that sees it and its works (including its creators) as unjustly targeted for the actions of its audience/users.

There is a concern the medium becomes a new theater in a larger online war of ideologies, but at the same time, video games and mass-market geekdom have never been more prominent or normalized in mainstream culture. That’s encouraging because it means ownership over the greater developing narrative of “video games as art form” stays firmly in the hands of a growing audience of people who actually care about the art—and less those of Internet trolls who don’t own their politics enough to step away from their keyboards.

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