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

There is a fissure in the discourse around video games, which has become as divisive as our politics. And it’s only getting worse.

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In the final months of 2018, Rockstar Games has absorbed the full force of video game culture’s radicalization. It’s an awesome force. It’s an awful force. It’s modern politics.

Rockstar Games publishes a few exceptionally popular titles, including Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, and Red Dead Redemption. In October — two weeks before the long-anticipated release of Red Dead Redemption 2 — Vulture profiled the Rockstar founders, Sam and Dan Houser, two incredibly successful brothers. The Housers gave a rare glimpse into the workplace culture at Rockstar Games, a studio spanning 11 offices across three continents. Unwittingly, Dan Houser described a brutal, exploitative workplace. “We were working 100-hour weeks,” he said about the last several months of development for Red Dead Redemption 2. Quickly, games journalists seized on the quote as a distress signal about the working conditions at Rockstar Games. The backlash formed, and so Dan Houser issued a statement. “No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard,” Houser told Kotaku news editor Jason Schreier, who has written all about the video game industry’s brutal machinery in a book called Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. “I believe we go to great lengths to run a business that cares about its people, and to make the company a great place for them to work,” Houser continued. Three days later, Rockstar encouraged its employees to speak freely about their experiences working at the company. But it was too late for anyone to “correct” the narrative. The labor concerns about Rockstar Games colored every review, including our own, and all other critical discussion about the game.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a video game as much as it’s a monument to “crunch,” the industry shorthand for describing the months of sleepless, unpaid overtime often required to ship a big-budget video game on time. The video-game industry has always been a tough business, plagued by burnout and bankruptcies. But activists and critics have only recently advanced unionization efforts, hardball reporting about games studios, and premium critique. Suddenly, there’s this great pressure for the gaming industry to professionalize — to grow up.

But Red Dead Redemption 2 is already hosting a second, reactionary meditation on the politics of immaturity. In the game, the player controls Arthur Morgan, a bounty hunter stalking through a rural frontier. The vast setting spans five fictionalized U.S. territories, all based on Louisiana, Texas, and the Western frontier circa 1900. Accordingly, the game includes contemporary factions such as carpetbaggers, redeemers, and suffragettes. But remember, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a shooter, and Arthur Morgan is a bounty hunter, so the player interacts with society primarily through violence. The player can kill armed Ku Klux Klan members meeting deep in the woods. Alternatively, the player can attack an unarmed suffragette protester in a town square. Indeed, the YouTube user Shirrako, a popular games streamer, murdered an “annoying feminist” protester in elaborate fashion. In Shirrako’s video — which now has more than 1.5 million views — Arthur Morgan punches the woman and then, as she flees, pursues her on horseback; he then hog-ties the woman, drags her from the back of his horse at high speed, rolls the woman into an alligator’s jaws, and then, finally, stomps her crushed skull into the dirt. Eventually, a few lawmen arrive, their guns blazing, to punish Arthur Morgan for the player’s brutality. In another video, “What Happens If You Bring Black Man to KKK?” Shirrako kidnaps a black character and dumps him at the feet of a Klan gathering. The artificial intelligence doesn’t allow for the racialized confrontation that a viewer might expect; awkwardly, the Klansmen ignore Arthur Morgan and the helpless black man. Instead — in accordance with their script — the Klansmen manage to light themselves on fire.

The violence is common in Red Dead Redemption, in Rockstar titles, and in video games, generally. Most famously, the Grand Theft Auto games are a laboratory for deadly force; those games turn casualties into bloopers. On Saturday, Shirrako posted a sequel to “Annoying Feminist Fed to Alligator.” In the new video, Arthur Morgan attacks the suffragette with a machete, but then the suffragette beats Arthur Morgan into a blackout. Shirrako titled the video, “Revenge of Annoying Feminist,” suggesting an unaligned, equal-opportunity outlook on provocation. Red Dead Redemption is an open-world video game, and hey, it’s a free country. Online, Shirrako’s defenders — inevitably conservatives, such as RedState columnist Brandon Morse — interpret all criticisms of behavior and game design as opposition to freedom entirely. These are the people you’ll hear moaning about social justice warriors. “For them,” Morse wrote, “the pile of pixels that represents a feminist was a message that needed to be solidified in the game without the possibility of molestation from the player. Not even in Shirrako’s private moments, on his private channel, should he have been allowed to do what he did.”

This post-Gamergate discourse has changed what it even means to “politicize” a game, a studio, the journalists who cover them, and, finally, the player. It’s no longer the classic haggling, between gamers and nongamers, over violence in video games, nor is it necessarily the trending concern about political connotations that video games mismanage or repress. Now, instead of fighting external political threats, gamers fight among themselves. There are left-wing gamers dominating news websites and podcasts, and right-wing gamers dominating YouTube and Reddit, and they are soft-locked into a cold war with each other. It can seem as if there’s no intellectual spectrum, only the political extremes: right-wing trolls on the one end, lofty leftists in opposition. These two factions don’t form, or even share, a single discourse; the right-wing gamers have led too many harassment campaigns to allow for a conventional dynamic between left and right thinkers. The right-wing Gamergate subreddit obsesses over supposedly left-wing games journalism, such as coverage of Shirrako, with a passion that more reasonable gamers would typically reserve for the video games themselves. They are clearly interested in games journalism, including games criticism; and yet they read it all from a great, alienated distance. In the 2010s, the politicization of video games has made games criticism more thoughtful, complex, and aggressive; but it’s also turned fandom into modern warfare.

In May 2010, Rockstar Games released the original Red Dead Redemption. The major reviews were all about graphics, mechanics, gameplay variety, and save states: simpler times. In the eight years since, the West has only gotten wilder.