A pristine whitetail buck, backlit by a golden sun, ringed with kaleidoscopic flares of fractured light. This is the recurring dream of Arthur Morgan, protagonist of Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), and one of countless symbolic images the video game leans heavily upon during its long-winded evocation of the latter years of the American West. He is one of a misfit gang of outlaws, guided by Dutch van der Linde, a messianic leader who bemoans the forces of government, social and industrial expansion, while pointing always to the freedom of the West, or failing that, the unspoiled lands of the Caribbean and Australia. The game charts the gang’s decay into self-interest, madness and greed while asking the player to play Arthur’s role of a man who might find some small redemption from a life of violence.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is laden with narrative symbolism then, that of America the wilderness, the colonial violence visited upon it, the smokestacks of industrial encroachment and the mournful flutes of native suffering. Characters are encouraged to be a ‘man’ or be a ‘good man’ interchangeably, while they act as distant fathers, silent lovers and, of course, killers. The player, as Arthur, shuffles heavily through these encounters, good humoured but predictably serious, stoic to the last. As they guide him along, players might notice among the ticking dollar counter, health and stamina bars and steady updates of objectives and tasks that fringe the screen, an icon of a cowboy along with a plus or minus, popping up on the right. This is the game’s ‘honour system’, marking the player (and Arthur’s) actions along a numerical bar that stretches from dishonourable red at one end to honourable white at the other.
This system is perhaps the clearest evocation of what it means for Red Dead Redemption 2 to take the form of a game, as opposed to a film or a novel, and how it represents a representational crisis within that form. Games hinge on, as McKenzie Wark puts it in their 2007 book Gamer Theory, ‘a relationship between appearances and algorithm’ where symbolic imagery is assigned arbitrary values within a wider numerical system. While games like Red Dead Redemption 2 pride themselves on the ‘realism’ of their representations, and the powerful proficiency of their visual and technical recreation of the world, they remain unnatural, predicated on an algorithmic system which ‘assigns, if not meaning, if not veracity, if not necessity, then at least a score to representations.’ There is nothing within a game without a corresponding set of values and properties that dictate its exact behaviour and nature within the world. The player is no different, and their honour is a particularly transparent representation of that.
This honour system is most often tested by the random encounters with strangers the game throws in the player’s path. A man riding with a hog-tied woman on the back of his horse, a snakebite victim, an escaped criminal, each is presented to the player with the clarity of a lecture on absolute moral philosophy, and is graded at the outcome by that little cowboy icon with its Pavlovian chime. If the game itself is a numerical system tied to a symbolic one, then these encounters are its most bizarrely transparent realization. Some are self-evident: shooting a man in the back and saving his captive is honourable; some are not: looting a body is dishonourable if they are the victim of an accident, but not if they are a criminal you have shot (it goes without saying that any criminal of any kind is tarred with the same marker in the game’s code, and therefore fit for execution of any kind). Meanwhile, when undertaking one of the missions necessary to progress the story, your honour will remain untouched: which is for the best, as the game will ask you to kill hundreds of lawmen, and many hundreds more from rival gangs. For these acts, honour is suspended.
It’s clear then that the game’s honour system is not a moral judgement, but a symbolic one. Not all acts of harm are equal, or even comparable. Violence is not violence, but a symbol of violence. For example: you can kill a male aggressor in any way you see fit and your honour will remain untouched, but kill a single unarmed woman and you will see it rapidly fall. And when combined with symbols the game liberally spreads across its world, things become even more granular. Many players, for example, have shared footage of them violently interrupting the occasional Ku Klux Klan rallies that appear in the world with sticks of dynamite, firearms, or just a machete. As the player kills a Klansman, that white cowboy icon appears at the side of the screen, showing an uptick in honour.
Of course, there is no violence in games, only the representation of violence. There is no moral judgement to be made on a player’s acts, as there is no physical harm, no assault, no death. But that does not mean that videogame violence is without meaning, in fact it reveals the opposite: it is nothing but meaning. In Gamer Theory, Wark astutely points this out when writing about the human simulations of The Sims video game series: ‘They are images. They are images in a world that appears as a vast accumulation of images. Hence the pleasure in destroying images, to demonstrate again and again their worthlessness. They can mean anything and nothing.’ That widely shared footage of KKK members being killed in Red Dead Redemption 2 is exactly that, the symbolic destruction of an image. Videogame violence, like any other action in a game, has no inherent values, no ‘natural’ state, only the symbolic and arbitrary ones we assign. Because of this, however, its purely symbolic manifestations can carry incredible power.
There is no better evidence of this than a now infamous series of videos of a suffragette, within Red Dead Redemption 2, being punched, lassoed, killed by an alligator and stamped on by a player. The videos, the first titled ‘Red Dead Redemption 2 – Beating up annoying feminist’ and its sequel ‘Annoying Feminist Fed To Alligator’, have become a focal point, with over 3 million views between both videos and reporting on the footage (and the users’s subsequent ban by YouTube) appearing within mainstream media. Whether viewed as symbolic of a deeply regressive streak within games and those who play them, or an inherent by-product of the ‘freedom’ of game worlds, the videos are an apt encapsulation of the symbolic nature of even the most ‘realistic’ games.
‘Annoying Feminist Fed To Alligator’ depicts what is a broken and disjointed set of interactions, as systems struggle to keep up with the player’s actions – the player’s many attempts to lasso the character, the suffragette fleeing and then stopping, seemingly stuck on a wall, and the titular eating by the alligator simply being the animal lunging through the woman, the two models clipping through one another in a comical, jerky fashion. Then there’s the fidelity of the punch that throws the woman’s glasses from her head, and the quality of the light in the bayou swamp to which the player takes their victim, both which seem like striking background accents to the clumsy ‘action’. With all this considered, the popularity of both videos seems unlikely. Evidently, among thousands of similar bits of footage, they were chosen for their symbolic quality, the title of the video, the violence of the act. It has been argued that the initial video depicts nothing more than the player enacting one possible action in a game which remains blameless. Yet the honour system suggests otherwise.
At one point in the game, the player can optionally help an old drunk get back his belongings from a house he was evicted from. While there, they discover the man was a slave-catcher, hunting escapees from nearby plantations. On returning to him, the game takes over, showing Arthur throwing the man’s belongings into his campfire as he weeps. Control is then returned to the player, as they stand over the man, allowing them to do what they will. Kill the man, in any way at all, and the honour icon will appear, showing the player that this murder was the honourable act. It is distinctly evident from moments such as this that Red Dead Redemption 2 wants the player to engage with the symbolic nature of the violence they commit. It’s this eagerness to encourage or dissuade actions based on their symbolic, not moral value, that cuts to the heart of the game’s values. Think of the dreams of deer, which if you are dishonourable turn into dreams of wolves, and the tired clichés of bad men with good hearts. In the final section of Arthur’s story, he receives a letter from an old lover, stating ‘there is a good man within you, but he is wrestling with a giant’, which is then repeated in a sepia-toned, warm-hearted riding scene.
This is all within a narrative in which, even without the player choosing to do so, Arthur kills hundreds of men, often shrugging at the time, unsure if he is doing the right thing. For the game, this violence is non-existent, we never see the characters suffering from the trauma of witnessing such large-scale murder, and it does not move the honour needle – it represents nothing. Only a handful of acts of violence are given the symbolic power. At one point, Arthur even bemoans Dutch murdering a gang-leader by drowning (in ‘cold blood’ as he phrases it), moments after personally shooting 30 or so of his men. This disjunction is business as usual for many videogames, as violence is their most common form of challenge, and power their most prevalent reward. But in Red Dead Redemption 2 this inconsistency doesn’t seem to point to carelessness or ignorance on the part of the game's writer and makers, but instead as an engagement with violence as symbolism and nothing else.
There is no moral component to this argument, as I have already stated, but to treat symbols as neutral is a wilfully ignorant act. When those symbols are attached to values, arbitrary or not, we are given systems which can never be thought to be neutral, open or free. In the first video which ignited the controversy, ‘Red Dead Redemption 2 – Beating up annoying feminist’, Arthur is asked by the suffragette what he thinks of women voting. He replies: ‘anyone dumb enough to want to vote I say go for it’. She is disappointed: ‘Oh a cynic, how sad for you’. And then strangely, despite talking to the rugged-looking, 36-year-old Arthur Morgan, the suffragette adds, ‘I do hope you grow out of it young man’. She seems to be speaking past Arthur in fact, to video game publisher Rockstar’s assumed young male audience looking at the screen, mimicking the lecturing attitude perceived to be a feminist hallmark. The label ‘cynic’ has been levelled at developers Rockstar many times over, for their misanthropic worlds laced with aimless satire. That they put these words in this woman’s mouth feels more than just coincidental: there is power in play here. This is not a single character then, but a symbol, and when a symbol speaks it speaks for all the values that might be assigned to it.
Red Dead Redemption 2, and the vastly expensive, detailed and overwrought games like it, rarely take responsibility for these symbols. And yet they operate in a world built from them, derived from them. When the visual depiction and physical animation of a woman being eaten by an alligator fails, it does not annul the representation it provides. Such an act may, as Wark suggests, be born of meaningless play, of the pleasure of destroying an image, any image, just to see how it responds. But to create the system that provides that image will never be a neutral act, and until this is recognized, games will continue to idle in a landscape of tired and cynical symbolism, trotted out to trigger the required response.
Main image: Red Dead Redemption 2, 2018, still. Courtesy: Rockstar Games