A few weeks after its release, the highly anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2 has become the subject of a series of articles from “woke” individuals who have tasked themselves on holding entertainment to task its apparent social responsibility. These individuals are well intended, but you know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. As well intended as they may be, I feel that they often get sucked into the message that it puts up blinders to the reality of the situation. In an effort to be socially conscious and speaking out against injustices they often see things that just aren’t there. It’s the same sort of mentality as a cop seeing a gun when it is really a package of Skittles.
In any case, with the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, the game has received great reviews and overwhelming praise. This, however, hasn’t stopped people from complaining about elements in the game. From animal cruelty, the level of violence, to the treatment of women.
One such article, published on the Conversation, suggests that the game promotes toxic masculinity. Written by Jessamy Henrickson and Dr. Marika Guggisberg, it suggests that the game presents a negative depiction of women and encourages players to react violently toward them.
The proof? Well the writers have only two citations, and they repeat them seven or eight times to pad out the read length. Let’s take a look at them shall we?
Rockstar Games Past Track Record
Henrickson and Guggisberg are speaking, of course, about the treatment of women in the Grand Theft Auto series. When looking at the game at face value, yeah, it doesn’t look good on the surface. Most people focus on the depiction of prostitutes in the game and other vulnerable members of society. This opinion is a hold over from the days of Grand Theft Auto III, where people got it in their minds that one of the game objectives was to have sex with prostitutes, murder them, then steal their money. It’s such a common misconception of the game that it got turned into a episode of Special Victims Unit.
This is ignoring some fundamental mechanics of the game, and thematic story telling. However, we’ll get into that later so I’m not repeating myself ad nausea.
A Garbage Person Posted Videos On YouTube
What really upset the writers over at the Conversation was the fact that some piece of shit posted some videos on YouTube that upset their sensibilities. Basically, the user didn’t like the fact that the game has a Suffrage Movement plotline. Recording their game play, this user then attacked these characters in the game. These ranged from striking the characters on the street, to feeding them to alligators in the swamp.
Because the internet is a festering cesspool that represents the worst of humanity, these videos were met with scores of positive comments from equally awful human beings who spewed anti-feminist talking points and promised to make their own videos.
The White Wash
Henrickson and Guggisberg then went on to say that Rockstar is promoting these negative behaviours, even going so far as to suggest that Rockstar games are promoting toxic masculinity. To paint the entire game with a single brush is telling of a few things:
1) The women who wrote the article have not played the game.
2) They have a preconceived idea of what is wrong with the game.
They are right about one thing though…
Attitudes toward women in the gaming community is atrocious. We’re living in a day and age where GamerGate was a thing. We live in a world where dickless man-children are Doxxing female games and female game creators because of some perceived injustice to the community. These guys are fucking losers at best, at their worst, they are ticking time bombs.
Yes, toxic masculinity is a serious problem across the board. However, to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is somehow promoting this is absurd. It speaks of people looking for scapegoats instead of addressing the real problem: human behaviour. It’s easier to blame these problems on entertainment and popular culture. Just as the “concerned parents” and religious groups that have been using this tactic since people thought Elvis’ hip movements were hypnotising kids into being DTF in the 1950s.
But let’s narrow our focus here and take a look at the game that Henrickson and Guggisberg are so critical of…
What They Miss
A Balance of History and Modern Sensibilities
The thing that any outspoken critic seems to forget about this game is that it is a period piece. It’s set during the final days of the American Frontier. A period of time where gender roles, social standards, and race relations were greatly different from our own. That’s the way things were back then. It wasn’t pretty, but those were the realities of the time period. I’m sure that, when it comes to education, Henrickson and Guggisberg wouldn’t want the history books children read from to be sugar coated. You want kids to know that history wasn’t all good times. If you are a champion of social change, you should be for an accurate depiction of history so that we can learn from the mistakes of the past.
However, this is a video game, and not a history book, so to maintain a wide appeal you need to make some concessions that meet with the sensibilities of today. If one were to play RDR2 you would know that it is a game that tries to strike a balance with historical accuracy and what is acceptable by the standards of today. Although this game takes place in a fictional America with some wildly varied regional ecosystems, it is more-or-less true to the history of the age in which it takes place.
The game actually makes some progressive representations in the game. Things you’d notice if you spent five minutes actually playing the game…
As a game that takes place after the Civil War, racial tensions are visible throughout the game. However, neither the character you portray, or the gang they run with are racist. In fact, they are quite inclusive, with black, Native, and mixed race individuals among the group. Your character also doesn’t suffer racists very well, often giving racist characters a good beating if the situation dictates. The players in this game often take the side of marginalised people. Part of the plot involves the characters working with a local tribe who is being blackballed by the army who represent an oil interest.
The game also features random encounters by the KKK, and their depiction in the game is the exact opposite of flattering. They’re depicted as bumbling idiots with no clear agenda, grasping onto an out dated ideology. They’re idiots and sometimes they accidentally light themselves on fire. If Rockstar isn’t clear enough on their stand-point on racism, you can kill Klan members with impunity. This is literally the only time your player can get away with murder, but I’ll get into that in a moment.
Not Perfect, but a Favourable Depiction of Women
As I mentioned above, Red Dead Redemption 2 tries to strike a balance between history and modern social standards. It is difficult balancing act, especially when it comes to the depiction of women in the game.
On the One Hand….
The game is filled with dutiful house wives, surly prostitutes, and damsels in distress that require rescuing from the backs of horses. Their usual attire is the stifling modesty of the era with ankle length dresses, downcast gazes, and being forced to stay home and do chores. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got prostitutes that lurk in the background of bars waiting for eager customers.
One of the main characters in the game is a woman named Sadie Adler, whose husband was murdered by a rival gang. She wants to do more for the gang, but is constantly told to stay behind and that it is too dangerous for her because she is a woman.
On the Other Hand…
The game also focuses on the the struggles that women made for equality. Making the Suffrage Movement integral to the plot. For those of you not up on your history, the Suffrage Movement was an organised movement that fought for a woman’s right to vote. This is not just some background event that you can observe happening, there are actually in-game missions about the movement. They are also in the positive, in that you are helping the movement by keeping the peace during their protests. In fact, there aren’t any missions where you actively fight against the Suffrage Movement. Those who are against the movement are depicted as backward thinking moron deserving of scorn. In fact, you beat up a number of these idiots for counter-protesting.
While there are prostitutes in the game, they and their profession are treated with respect — at least as far as the games main characters are concerned. You cannot purchase the services of a prostitute in the game, even though they proposition you. There are no missions to harm, abuse, or demean prostitutes. In fact, any missions or side quests involving prostitutes usually involve you helping them, such as disposing the body of a violent John and cleaning up the mess.
In the game, the character can also pay for baths and you can pay a little extra for a “deluxe bath”. The steamiest thing about this moment is getting your hair washed. The most thrilling thing you can do in these moments is engage in respectful small talk.
What I’m saying here is that if this game had a High Plains Drifter moment, the main character would ask consent before dragging a woman into the barn. What I mean is that while the game depicts the struggles women faced in that era, at least the main characters treat them with respect, if not equals.
Which brings us back to Sadie Adler, whose character arc takes her from the mourning widow to an ass kicking bounty hunter who can take care of herself. She is a character that constantly shatters the social standards and boundaries at the time. She starts wearing pants, learning how to shoot, and can hold her own in a gunfight.
Spoiler alert: During the big climatic moment when the big enemy has you penned down? Sadie saves your ass. The only disappointing thing about this character is the fact that you can’t play as Sadie Adler. Which is very disappointing. Aside from that, here is a powerful woman who avenges the death of her family, and finds herself in a world where women are treated as second class citizens. She doesn’t take shit from no man, and she is her own boss.
Modern Day Parallels
The game uses the backdrop of the American Frontier to make commentary about today’s society. As I mentioned earlier, those who are against the Suffrage Movement are depicted of idiots. The mission in question draws parallels to social justice issues of today. During the demonstration a counter-protester tells the women that they shouldn’t get the right to vote because the country was created by “The Founding Fathers, not the Founding Mothers”. Putting this on par with today’s equally absurd “It’s not Adam and Steve” arguments of today. The parallel being drawn here is that the Suffrage Movement of the early 1900s was a struggle on par to the rights of the LGTBQ community. For those keeping score at home, women did win their right to vote, so I think you can understand the implied position Rockstar is taking on LGTBQ rights.
The game depicts that those in position of power are corrupt and evil individuals that have the full protection from the government and the law, giving them the right to do whatever they please. Another parallel of the world we live in today. Likewise, those who support these power players are depicted as morons, idiots, or lunatics. Alternative facts and conspiracy theories are tackled in one fell swoop when you run into a mad scientist who suggests that dental hygiene will make animals turn gay.
In a game that is set in an era of false morality, where prejudice was the rule of the day, and human rights and decency were often trampled on, Red Dead Redemption 2 presents the opinion that what what is considered the “norm” is outdated, and those who purvey them are beneath our contempt and should be spat in our face.
Actions and Consequences
The central motivation of the game is that you and your gang are bound by a code of honor. There is a clear line on who the game developers think were on the right side of history in this game. That said, the game is an open world where players are pretty much free to do whatever they choose.
However, with independent action, there are consequences. The characters actions affect their reputation and karma is a bitch. Yes, you can go up and punch one of the supporters of the Suffrage Movement, but that’s not an in game mission. You have to make a conscious effort to do it. In the offending video in question, the player strikes a woman in the town of Saint Denis, a large city with busy streets. In striking the woman in broad day light, on a busy street results in eye witnesses looking for the authorities to arrest you because you just committed assault. The cops then try to arrest you, and if you don’t surrender they shoot to kill.
So even if a player chooses to do something that is morally reprehensible, there are consequences to those actions if you get caught, just like in real life. It doesn’t just stop there. The game has some hard line moral codes that you must follow or suffer the consequences. Kill a horse? You’re wanted for animal cruelty. Let an animal suffer until it dies? You lose karma. Use dynamite to blow up fish? That’s a no-no as well. Bump into too many people? Public disturbance. You kill anyone and you’re wanted for murder. Well, unless it’s a Klan member. You even get in trouble for killing rival gang members.
What is this Game Really Promoting?
Well for one thing, I don’t think it is promoting toxic masculinity. I don’t think it is promoting anything. It speaks a lot about the inequities between the common person and those of the power elite. If anything, it promotes the fact that even the most down trodden has standards and a moral code. Most importantly, it says that your actions have consequences and if you’re a dick to people, you’re eventually going to get your comeuppance.
The game doesn’t force you to do bad things, like attacking women. There’s nothing to stop you from doing it, but there are consequences if you do. Just like in real life. Those videos posted on YouTube don’t say anything negative of Rockstar Games, or Red Dead Redemption 2. It speaks a lot about how much of a piece of crap the person who posted them is.
Are their videos reprehensible? Absolutely. Are they a demonstration of toxic masculinity? 100%! Is the game responsible? Not even one bit. So lets stop scapegoating it away. Yes, there are systemic problems that need to be addressed and fixed, but to heap it all on a game is absurd. YouTubers like Shirrako had these ugly ideas in their head before RDR2 came out, and unless they change their way of thinking, they’ll find other ways to act out their sick fantasies.
While we need to change the narrative, it should not be done at the expense of creativity, innovation, and our desire to be entertained.
I’ll admit that I don’t have a single clue how to fix the problem of toxic masculinity in the gaming community (frankly, I hate multiplayer and am a gaming recluse) but there is certainly better ways of handling the problem than blaming it on a single video game or company. Even one with the track record that Rockstar Games has, especially since this game is trying to elevate the company above the controversies of the past and changing the more problematic elements of their games.