Ten minutes into the game’s snow-whipped, western world of weary cowboys, disintegrating crime gangs and staggering audiovisual design, Red Dead Redemption 2 had me in its thrall.
Rockstar’s latest blockbuster game is so captivating, and its powers of visual, narrative and interactive stimulation so habit-forming, that criticism of the potential the game allows for violence against women – an allowance being taken advantage of with glee by some users – has registered with sharpness proportional to its own extraordinary detail.
Motherboard reported this week that Red Dead Redemption 2’s inclusion of suffragette non-player characters in its turn-of-the-last-century setting has met an equal and opposite reaction online. Gamers have exploited the moral freedom granted to the player’s free-roaming character, the outlaw Arthur Morgan, to shoot and beat these female characters, to throw them down mineshafts and feed them to alligators. Something of a competition has emerged on YouTube, with some videos uploaded to the theme of “kill annoying feminist” ratcheting up millions of hits.
The criticism revisits controversy attached to Red Dead’s studio developers, Rockstar Games, whose breakout hit was the notorious Grand Theft Auto. Again, the moral freedom afforded to the player-character was the capacity to kill any of the other characters. In the game’s most recent iteration, GTA V, gamers indulged a particularly visceral misogyny when uploading videos of female sex-worker characters; after the purchase of their services, the women were beaten and murdered, and their corpses looted too.
We are not confronting new moral territory here. How the freedom to commit acts of violence within games is punished or rewarded is an implicit tactical – and moral – challenge central to the gameplay of an overwhelming number of titles, and always has been. On flights, I still play a Rogue-like ASCII game from the MS-DOS era, 1994’s cultish Ancient Domains of Mystery, which allows player-characters to not only kill their enemies, but also to eat them. Feasting on the dead body of the peaceful female Oracle in the game yields a tasty points boost to your Learning and Mana scores. But it also dooms and corrupts the character, impacting the algorithms that affect the character’s capacity for victory, and closing doors on potential story events.
So it is with Red Dead Redemption 2, where these chosen acts do negatively affect character capacity in the game.
The difference between ADOM and Red Dead Redemption 2, of course, is the level of detail; while uploading YouTube videos of keyboard characters attacking one another is possible, it’s not that interesting. The toxic misogyny of gamer subcultures dominated by male, white-centric shitheads brands itself with the visual explicitness of these cruelties.
Context is important. The political world today is one in which we are awake to the ubiquity of real-world harassment and violence against women – a violence self-justified within the aggressive GamerGate movements, which did so much to furnish the communication channels and communities of what evolved into the neo-fascist “alt-right”. Researching the suffragette-bashing videos for this article, the next video suggested by YouTube was one of the far-right’s favourite anti-feminists, the thoroughly creepy Jordan Peterson. The context here, too, is a post-MeToo sensibility, in which cultural awareness is finally catching on to the causal relationship between the seemingly neutral objectification of women in our cultural products, to the dangerous objectification of us in real life.
There have been calls for these games to prohibit the capacity of players to inflict violence against women, as the game already prohibits acts of harm against children.
This appeals on an instinctive level, but to do so I think is a missed opportunity for games to powerfully instruct adult moral behaviour. Literary critic Georg Lukács advocated this transformational capacity in his 1938 essay Realism in the Balance, arguing that if “objective reality is reflected, then it becomes of crucial importance for it to grasp that reality as it truly is, and not merely to confine itself to reproducing whatever manifests itself immediately and on the surface.”
Like life, the game doesn’t oblige you to perform acts of immoral violence, even when it provides you the opportunity to do so. We can’t stop people from committing violent immoral acts in real life merely by announcing the institution of the law; we do so through that law’s intersection with punishment and reward systems, and social values – how heartening to learn that one of the YouTube video’s creators has been punished with a ban for feeding the suffragette to the alligators.
Games on the scale of Red Dead Redemption 2 – which took $750 million in sales on its opening weekend and is in current play by millions of people – may deploy the evident skill of their team into providing contexts that encourage not only moral behaviour but social instruction.
Punishments and rewards can be more explicit; they can and should go further.
Isolated, angry teenage boys (and the vaster numbers of their more dangerous adult counterparts) could certainly use a play-centric environment to enfranchise them in notions and skills of talking to women as people, not objects – and the rewards of pleasure and de-isolation therein.
• Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist