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Red Dead Redemption 2: Outlaw Cowboys in the Age of Toxic Masculinity

by December 09, 2018

What can wild west outlaw Arthur Morgan teach America’s legions of gaming young males about masculinity in our modern day? During times of existential crisis, America consistently turns to the old west in popular culture. And Red Dead Redemption 2 has arrived at a time when young men may have never been so unsure of their place in the world.

On October 26, Rockstar Games finally released its long awaited open-world, wild west themed game Red Dead Redemption 2 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. According to its parent company Take-Two Interactive, the game has enjoyed the biggest opening weekend in the history of entertainment by raking in over $725-million in revenue. By week two of the game’s launch, it had sold over 17-million copies. And Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t just a commercial hit. It has near universal critical acclaim with a 97 on Metacritic, putting it up there among the best games of our time, and it’s truly a time when we could use the distraction.

On the Surface: Men Escaping to a Simpler Time

It’s ironic that well over 17-million gamers, a majority of them likely younger males in prime working age, are playing a game set in the western United States of 1899. In Red Dead Redemption 2, players will escape into an expansive, open world through game’s protagonist Arthur Morgan, member of the Dutch Van der Linde gang. As a true outlaw of the wild west, there couldn’t be a more iconic symbol of the kind of rugged, old-fashioned masculinity that’s almost surely in decline today.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Open World

In Red Dead Redemption 2, you’re literally playing as the quintessential Marlboro man. But it’s a sad reality that the working-class Marlboro men of today are more likely to be unemployed and possibly developing dangerous opioid habits. Life’s tough for the Marlboro man of 2018. In today’s job market, he’s finding it difficult to support a family, and having to navigate the complicated, sometimes conflicting rules of rapidly changing workplace environments. Workplace testosterone just isn’t in demand like it was in 1899. Modern day Marlboro men may be feeling like they don’t belong in the new realities of the working world, with service sector jobs and ever-increasing office sensitivities and politics. It’s no wonder then, that these men are escaping into Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that hearkens back to what seems like a simpler time.

Below the Surface: Men Escaping to the Man Cave

Red Dead Redemption 2 and outlaw Arthur Morgan couldn’t have come at a more relevant time for young men in their prime working age. The workplace reality is that America is in the midst of a silent but growing crisis of males dropping out of the workforce. The current administration in Washington D.C. loves to tout high employment numbers by citing an unemployment rate that’s hovering at just below 4 percent. But national unemployment figures only mask a real problem because they don’t take into account those who are no longer considered part of the workforce – the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the total number of men either not working or even looking for work is at an all-time high. Many of these men have no college education, and with only a precious few prospects available to them, far too many are giving up.

Declining Employment Among Young MenAccording to economics Prof. Jason Furman, former Economic Advisor to President Obama, an increasing number of men have removed themselves from the labor force, and that’s not good for them or for the country. Furman said in an interview with Brookings Institute that these men are at risk for... “depression, drug use, suicide and a range of bad outcomes.” Many of these men will seek escape into the Dutch’s Van der Linde gang, spending time with the game’s colorful characters and stereotypical icons of a more traditional masculinity.

No, seriously.

A recent study by macro-economist Erik Hurst has discovered that in 2015, 17-percent of men without a Bachelor’s degree between the age of 21 and 30 are both removed from the workforce and not seeking a higher education. Before the year 2000, only 8 percent of young men without an education had dropped out of the workforce. Following half a century of total workforce growth, the 15 years since 2000 has seen the number of disengaged young men grow to levels not seen since the Great Depression, even as women’s participation in the workforce continues to grow.

According to Hurst, men turn to video games for escape:

“Analysis of data from the US Bureau of Statistics’ American Time Use Survey found that, on average, men in their 20s without a Bachelor’s degree increased their leisure time by about 4 hours per week between the early 2000s and 2015. They gained this extra time through loss of work. Of that additional 4 hours of leisure each week, 2.5 hours were spent playing video games. On average, video game use rose from 3.5 hours per week in the mid-2000s to 5.9 hours per week by 2015. A quarter of young unemployed men reported playing at least three hours per day; 10 per cent played for six hours daily.”

The Van Der Linde Gang Welcomes You, Cowboy

So how does Red Dead Redemption 2 connect to the grim outlook for working men today? Rockstar Games has long mastered a clever brand of over-the-top satire through its various franchises, but especially memorable are its Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption. If Grand Theft Auto told truths about modern American culture, Red Dead Redemption speaks those same truths about American history.

In Red Dead Redemption 2, players escape from the troubles of our day into a much different time. Unlike today, in 1899 the need for unskilled labor was in abundance. Before heavy machinery, robotics and automation made manual labor redundant, farms, mines, railroads and even the law itself needed healthy young men. These jobs provided men the opportunity to work and prosper in a new world of civilization that was pushing westward. With that kind of romanticism, it’s no wonder that, today, the old west is once again reimagined in popular entertainment, making a comeback in our culture as the walls of modernity seem to be closing in.

The Old West Echoes Modern Problems

Quentin Tarantino said it best: “There’s no real film genre that better reflects the values and the problems of a given decade than the westerns made during that specific decade.

Shane, Alan LaddThe first fully formed anti-hero gunfighter, as we know them in western movies, may have been Shane, starring Alan Ladd – a movie that hit theaters across America in the mid-1950s. Recently, that iconic character reappeared in the 2017 movie Logan, Hugh Jackman’s apparent swan song as his character Wolverine. Logan director James Mangold was giving more than just a nod to the 1953 classic. Mangold has said that he set out to make a unique superhero movie in Logan, by rooting it in the classic western sensibilities and esthetics, with Wolverine as a stand-in for Shane himself. Shane was an influential hit film in the mid-1950s, the same era that gave us the McCarthy hearings and the Comics Code Authority. Both of those historical occurrences represent the era’s culture of coercive assimilation, and many found respite from these heavy times by escaping into the old west at the movies.

The western would return as the backdrop for a line of outlaw anti-heroes in spaghetti western films that appeared during the late Vietnam war era, many starring Clint Eastwood as the outlaw gunslinger. Meanwhile, romanticized depictions of the Native American cultures that originally populated the western frontier have been around since playwright John Dryden coined the phrase “noble savage” in response to the ignobility of early industrialization. 

Re-imagined visions of the wild west hang like a shadow over modern civilization, ready to speak its truths to the contemporary world whenever popular culture decides it’s time to pull on those dusty boots and ride again. And nobody knows this better than the master satirists at Rockstar Games. Part of Rockstar’s truth-in-satire displayed through Red Dead Redemption 2 is a playable, free-form masculinity that may be filling a void in the lives of many young men today.

The Toxic or Positive Masculinity of Arthur Morgan

Red Dead Redemption 2 is in the midst of a cycle that’s as old as video games themselves. Whenever a newsworthy, big-budget game is released, evangelists use the title as an opportunity to promote their own brand of contrived ideological rhetoric. Predictably, a YouTube search will net you a number of Red Dead Redemption 2 "kill compilation" videos. Refine your search to include your personal social agenda, and you’re sure to find yourself awash in graphic videos victimizing the object of your concern. As an open world game, Red Dead Redemption 2 grants players the freedom to play how they like. Yes, the game can serve as a platform for players to act out hyper-violent fantasies and victimize non-player characters to their heart’s content. As an open world game, there are no abstract moral boundaries. But isolated gameplay clips do not represent the story being told through the game.

Red Dead Redemption 2 SuffragettesIt’s unsurprising that the open aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2 attracts catastrophizing in editorials around in-game moral violations. In the era of #MeToo, claims that the game “promotes” violence against women are sure to garner writers some attention for raising a contrived controversy. The obligatory feminist editorials appearing online are written from the same template used by attorney Jack Thompson in his personal mission to put an end to fun in video games. Thompson was a reliable crusader against video game depictions of violence and sexuality since the early 2000s. Although Thompson has been disbarred from practicing law, now there are new voices of outrage ready to take up his mantle.

The sentiment that Red Dead Redemption 2 promotes a culture of toxic masculinity through violence against women is simply wrong. In fact you can see the very opposite is true if you understand something about the game’s mechanics. During any play-through of the game, the player will navigate a system of rewards and penalties that nudges the player toward a more honorable playstyle. The game actually does the opposite of promoting random killing and violence toward innocent non-player characters (NPCs), by actively punishing this behavior through both the Honor and Wanted mechanics.

“There’s no real film genre that better reflects the values and the problems of a given decade than the westerns made during that specific decade.” - Quentin Tarantino

As for representations of women, there are a variety of important female NPC characters throughout the game’s story. The game even contains a representation of female suffragette activists. In-game, players can choose to help, hinder or just ignore a suffrage demonstration. However, the game incentivizes the player to complete a mission where he assists the suffragettes to a positive outcome. As far as NPC characters go, the suffragettes themselves are strong and colorful characters expressing their desire to participate in American democracy through Rockstar’s unique style of humorous, intelligently written dialogue. It’s not only uncharitable, but it’s dishonest to pretend that the suffragette mission was anything but respectful of the game’s brush with its era’s personifications of the feminist movement. Rachel Kaser at TheNextWeb.com says it best, killing the suffragette says more about you than it does about Rockstar.

Players who choose a path of hostility toward NPCs are treated to a host of consequences for those actions. So, to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 promotes violations of any commonly held sense of morality is to willfully ignore the story that Rockstar Games is telling. And Within the context of its story, Red Dead Redemption 2 truly has something to say about masculinity, and it’s worth taking note in any era.

In our time, so much of our popular culture models behavior to boys that would teach them to equate the abstract concept of manhood with superficial strength. This strength is often expressed through the power of monetary wealth, or an ability to harm or kill others. Obviously, being a violent video game starring a wild west outlaw, there are benefits to possessing all of the above. But the game also sets a more nuanced example of manliness. It also presents the player with the less popular masculine virtues of hard work and reliability.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Pacing and Story

Red Dead Redemption 2 ScreenshotIn contrast to the frenetic pace of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption 2 slows the player down to tell a different kind of story. Through slowing down the game’s pace in comparison to the GTA titles, it automatically makes this game more reflective, giving you more time to think about what you’re doing. The pacing also forces the player to drink in the game’s expansive, beautiful world. This is definitely not, as some game critics of this game and its predecessor have called it, simply GTA with horses.

Player’s are treated to natural beauty with varied landscapes largely undisturbed by human development or the recognizable texture mapping that tends to hinder the immersion of digitally rendered landscapes in other open world games. Ride your horse to the edge of a mountain and gaze across a valley and you’re treated to a postcard view that will surely go down in gaming history.

Like other Rockstar games, it is an open world, but there are tangible consequences to in-game actions through the game’s Honor mechanic. Players are incentivized to play as an honorable version of outlaw gunslinger, Arthur Morgan.

A More Honorable Arthur Morgan

Playable protagonist, Arthur Morgan is rewarded for accumulating honor points and punished for reductions. One easy way to gain honor is to simply do chores around the camp, such as chopping wood for campfires or moving hay bales to feed the horses. The rewards for carrying a high honor includes discounts at the general store, and also more and better quality health tonics the player can scavenge from the dead. Within the virtual old west environment, the player is welcome to behave as a dishonorable low-down, dirty cuss. But the honor rewards will not be forthcoming. In fact, inciting violence and unjustified killing will treat the player to another behavioral balance mechanic – Wanted. Being wanted by the law is a curse in the game that denies access to basic resources and can make you the target of deadly attacks from the law.

Postcard View in Red Dead Redemption 2

Clean Your Room, Change The World

The game’s messages around manhood are at times subtle, often expressed through the game’s voice acting during interactions with NPCs. You control these interactions through a series of preset options letting the player choose which option suits their play-style. One preset response, Defuse, lets you attempt to defuse a confrontation with an NPC that has an axe to grind with Arthur. Another, Greet, has Arthur Morgan delivering a friendly tip of the hat and a the salutation of the day. One of the more interesting conversational interaction options lets the player engage in the tried, true and very male-oriented practice of deploying Antagonize. Antagonize results in Arthur insulting or calling out other characters.

Like the practice’s real-world counterpart, antagonizing a friend or a member of your gang can result in a humorous interaction where Arthur Morgan deals an insult or references less than honorable recent behavior of your target. There’s psychology and evolutionary biology behind the uniquely male practice of insulting or roasting close friends. Insults can be a means of affirming a pecking order, but when it occurs among in-group equals, psychologists suggest that it might be a means of testing the weaknesses of allies whose strength you may rely on.

But either way, expressed as playful teasing among equals, hurling insults and responding with verbal burns serves as a testing ground and communicates a variety of complex social queues that is proven to deepen bonds among men. Sadly, real-world antagonisms are in decline as more-and-more of our interactions with fellow humans occurs through screens rather than face-to-face. It’s a serious loss of intimacy and humanity – even if that intimacy consists of a quick-witted putdown, it conveys valuable information within the group. 

Red Dead Redemption 2’s Antagonize interaction gets this, and through it, the game provides interesting, often humorous dialogue. But as in real life, antagonizing friends generally carries lower stakes; antagonize a stranger, and you’re liable to be in for a fight, sometimes to the death. The mechanics behind how you behave in-game has consequences throughout the world in which Arthur Morgan exists. It’s the most detailed example of the “open world” responding to your player-character’s reputation in any game yet. Overuse the Antagonize option and the fisticuffs that results, and you’ll develop a negative reputation throughout the game-world and even strangers are likely to say they heard of you and treat you in a way that’s consistent with your behavior.

Red Dead Redemption 2: A Game of Moments

Campfire Red Dead Redemption 2Once the player becomes attuned to the game’s slower pace, what emerges about Red Dead Redemption 2 are the moments. The open world encourages curiosity and exploration of its vast slice of the American west. The player is treated to a variety of biomes across the map, including snowy mountains, country meadows, swamps and desert. But the game’s slower pace can change on a dime. As you lazily make your way on horseback down a dusty trail, you’re liable to be bushwhacked by a rival gang that’s out for your blood and in that instant you’ll find yourself fighting for your life. In those moments, Arthur’s death animation could be seconds away. Only quick reflexes, with a little help from Dead Eye, the game’s version of bullet time, borrowed from the Mad Max series, will save you. Dead Eye slows down time allowing the player to pick precise shots at what would amount to superhuman speeds, solidifying your reputation as one of the great gunfighters. Combat is extremely satisfying in the game, especially when you’re treated to a cinematic “kill cam” animation of your final shot. The type of kill cam animation you receive is dependent on the honor level of your Arthur Morgan. Being gifted with the more gory kill cam cinematic is one small incentive to play Arthur as pure evil. But an evil Arthur would make for a more difficult play-through overall.

Through peak graphics for this generation’s consoles, well-written dialogue and voice acting, Rockstar has made the memorable moments in this game truly special. You may find yourself resting by the campfire listening to Lenny talk about his father, a former slave that once gifted him a pocket watch. Many of those special moments occur over long rides to the next mission during chit-chat on horseback. Those moments are what makes the game feel alive with deep NPC characters that are busy living full lives all around you. What Red Dead Redemption 2 lacks in the snappy, precision controls of a first-person shooter, it makes up for in richly detailed characters with personalities and priceless conversations.

Conclusion: What We Can Learn About Being Better Men From Red Dead Redemption 2

XBOX-Vs-PS4Not long after loading the game on my PS4, I went on a quest to learn what social conditions the game might be speaking to in our current decade. As Tarantino said, westerns speak to our time, and gaming gets to explore its subject matter far more deeply than film. After covering some troubling trends around the working-class of today’s American west, we learned that many younger men are seeking escape by stepping into the boots of old west outlaw, Arthur Morgan.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a work of art, painting characters in a lifelike world of unprecedented depth, complete with persistent consequences for the actions of the protagonist that you control. To play this game is to develop a relationship with its world and with Arthur Morgan himself. Arthur's life in Red Dead Redemption 2's open world is full of small choices made one at a time, adding up to how the world responds back to Arthur. Complaints that the game teaches males a violent stereotype of masculinity miss the point of the game's Honor mechanic and the expansive story being told. I think spending some time escaping into a world as Arthur Morgan isn’t such a bad idea for younger men in difficult times after all. Despite his outlaw nature, Arthur can teach us all some valuable lessons about being a more honorable, responsible individual regardless of our gender.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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