RDR2- a true picture of the Wild West?

FIFA. Grand Theft Auto. The Last of Us. 

Red Dead Redemption.

Four of the biggest gaming series to have been created- each accumulating several accolades, praise and appreciation since their introduction into the gaming world. However, the Red Dead Redemption (RDR) series is set in a world where the days of cowboys and robbers were waning and civilisation was about to take root in society. In particular, Red Dead Redemption 2 showed a world which many have attempted to depict, but never did in such detail. They showed a side of ‘cowboys’ we never thought we would see. We see the several themes being highlighted throughout including selfishness and unity of humanity. Signs of selfishness can be seen across the antagonists in the game, whilst signs of humanity are illustrated when the game reaches its climax. Very few books, TV shows, games or movies have depicted this side of humanity- with Lord of the Flies being potentially the most notable mention. RDR2, having been released for a while now, will always be a unique game.

What is it about?

For those who have not played/heard about the game produced by Rockstar Games, here is a very brief description. A group of outlaws in late 19th century America are in a constant battle with many foes in an ever-changing landscape where the age of civilisation is rising. The main focus is on Arthur Morgan, a loyal member of the Van der Linde gang- spearheaded by the notorious Dutch Van der Linde. Their main aim is survival, hoping to eventually disappear from all the trouble that clouds them, but there are several obstacles throughout the game and eventually, the group falls apart- with some dying, some leaving and others fighting for their lives. There are several members of this group- each of whom we get to know more. RDR2 is the second game in the franchise, but is the prequel of RDR- where the protagonist is John Marston- a member of the group. It is an open-world game, so we (as the player) are free to move around. The imagery, storyline and quality have won many people over, but also the finer details it illustrates about society.

Wild West days numbered

“The West was seen as a sense of adventure, of opportunity, of escape”- an “imagined landscape of promise” as said by historian Karen Jones on an HistoryExtra Podcast.

The days of robbing, roaming and being chased down by government officials was a less common matter around the early 20th century. People were starting to settle into a very stable life. The Wild West was a day of open grazing of cattle, uncertainty and unclaimed lands. However, due to several factors, these days were numbered. One was the invention of barbed wire which was invented in 1874, by Joseph Glidden. A very simple design- two wires tied up with spiky points at intervals. This replaced wooden fences, which were easily destroyable. The wired fences allowed stability, protection and land being claimed by a single owner or family. Throughout the game, we see a mixture of barbed wire and wooden fences. Now, criminal activity was made harder for gangs to carry out. 

The ‘American Frontier’ was the ‘border’ distinguishing the areas of the settled Europeans from the lands of the indigenous- with the Europeans living to the East of this ever-advancing border towards the West. The border was metaphorical; there was no physical border but instead, it was determined by the density of the population on either side- with the more dense area towards the East. The disappearance of the American Frontier became the second reason for the end of the Wild West. Over time, the indigenous people were gradually being pushed back to the West side of the nation- while the ‘New America’ was being established on the East Side. In the 1890 Census, it was apparent that this frontier was no longer visible and meant the end for it. In the 1910 Census, the divide was much less clear than in previous years. Considering the year the game was set in 1899, this makes sense that the group of outlaws are frightened of what will happen in this new era of change- the lifestyle they used to live wouldn’t be feasible anymore. Arthur Morgan refers to the world changing throughout- “We’re thieves, in a world that don’t want us no more” or even “But it weren’t us who changed”- the idea of not being wanted is heavily emphasised. It can also be seen when they visit the city of Saint Denis- Dutch and a few others are trying to make light of this ‘daunting’ place and the gamer can see from their body language and how the characters look at the city in disgust.

This style of living ‘freely’ waned at the same time places of civilisations grew. Throughout the game, we see many established towns (and cities)- Valentine, Strawberry, Rhodes and the more established Saint-Denis. A majority of the towns had secure farming areas and almost all the areas had train networks. It came per the Homestead Act– which granted land to anyone allowing them to do whatever they wanted to within their land (provided they never revolted against the government). Although taken advantage of by many, land being purchased by homesteaders was an issue- it proved expensive for several to buy all the equipment required. In the game we even see John Marston having to go to the bank to ask for a loan for some land, though he is hesitant as repaying it would be troublesome. Regardless, this Act proved to be successful at the turn of the 20th century.

Regarding the train/railroad sector, this was the second-largest employer (after the agricultural sector), with its expansion being extremely rapid in the second half of the 19th century. For people to move around freely over long distances in short periods represented a time of change from stagecoaches and horses. In the game, we are allowed to travel in all of these formats, but it was the norm to take a train for long-distance journeys. It was also more dangerous to travel via horse, as you are out in the open and always have to be in anticipation of being robbed.

Struggles of humanity

The group members we encounter in the game are the typical cowboys– Native American, African-American, Mexican and other American origins. We see discrimination rife in the game- to several groups. In the game, Lenny, an African-American, mentioned his troubles with racism at one point and is surprised to have been settled into the group. The late 19th century saw the American Civil War, which started based on slavery- primarily to do with those of African-American origins. At one point, we even see the KKK performing a ceremony in the game. The KKK were notorious (but lacking a coherent structure), having rooted post-civil war from White Supremacists from the South. Due to the fact in the South, there was a minority of black people, attacks were not of a large scale- though one of the more vicious attacks was in 1871, South Carolina when they lynched eight black prisoners.  However, by 1876, the South of America was under the control of the state- thus, the more subdued racism faced by those of African origins.

However, this came at a time when Native Americans were facing increasing issues of their own- and this is highlighted increasingly towards the latter part of the game. In America, as time went by, the Native Americans were forced to reside in reservation plants after having been forced off their lands. Sadly, wars and diseases brought devastation to several Native groups- both of which we see in the game affecting the tribe members. The forceful removal was officially enacted in 1830- under the Indian Removal Act– where the lands of the Native residence were desirable to the white American, so under the command of President Andrew Jackson at the time, they had to move west. Several tribes complied, but some were not compliant meaning force was used. 

The government were so keen to get rid of the indigenous people from those lands that they even tried to kill bison herds, who were vital to the natives in their daily lives- for food, shelter and spiritual reasons: 

“The US army (made) a deliberate move to get rid of these (bison) herds because the indigenous people subsist so totally on them”- Karen Jones on an HistoryExtra Podcast.

The Trail of Tears was the name given to this suffering the indigenous people faced throughout the decade. Some people were forcefully marched in manacles, with some people walking across nine states. Around 15% of the people who set out died along their journey west. The troubles that occurred partly amplified due to the opposing opinions people had in the different tribes. For example, the Seminole tribe leaders agreed with the government for the tribe to leave, but tribe members opposed this- this caused the government to be enraged and for even a war to break out (Second Seminole War in 1835-42). In RDR2, we see opposing factions breaking out in the Native American tribe we encounter- even between father and son. Factions such as these played into the hand of the US government, as it meant it would be easier to deal with a broken group, instead of a full group of spirited Natives who would be willing to fight.

Crime in America represented fairly in RDR2?

A game based on cowboy gang life will always likely exaggerate crime compared to what reality was. The typical robberies were stagecoaches, trains and even occasionally banks. The last stagecoach robbery in the Wild West recorded was in 1916- dubbed the Jarbidge Stage Robbery, whilst the last ‘classic’ train robbery was in 1937. By the early 20th century, crime rates weren’t as excessive compared to earlier days, when they would be considered extremely high nowadays.

To see the extent of this, we would have to delve into some of the research undertaken before. Randolph Roth uncovered that homicide rates in the Wild West for periods were very high and that it was extremely dangerous for the people living in those areas. The data uncovered looked at several states, counties, mining towns, cattle towns and certain Native areas. Looking at some of the data, we can see some very striking results. For example, in the cattle town Dodge City (in Kansas), between 1876 and 1885, an adult faced a 1 in 61 chance of being murdered. Or for an adult in the mining town of Bannack (in Montana), they faced a 1 in 36 chance between 1862-1864. For a Native American, it was high in certain areas- in Arizona, it was roughly 1 in 20 in 1870. It is also believed that Native American deaths were under-recorded for this census year. Deaths don’t paint the whole picture of how violent the Wild West was- but these numbers would be concerning for anyone these days. These numbers would need to be compared to the East of America. If looking at homicide rates in New York City for almost the whole 19th century, it was less than 15 per 100,000 people- which is almost negligible. Or even plantation plants in Georgia, which was around 30 per 100,000 people over the century- as high as some of the lowest rates in the West. So crime seemed to have been relatively much higher- whether, to an extreme extent, it is hard to judge.

Throughout the game, we see (extremely) high levels of crime- from robberies of several different kinds to rustling, to fights or even on an extreme measure, murder. The area of  America the game is set in contains a mixture of European settled areas, Native American lands and a lot of little towns. We can see law enforcement is stronger in the cities and in the European settled areas- with crime tending to be more prevalent in areas away from these areas.

What have we found…

A game that has won over 20 big awards, being nominated for 50, having sold over 35 million copies, one of the best open-world games and one of the best games to have ever been produced. It showed a side of the Wild West that many gaming producers and movie directors have tried, and failed. Rockstar Games picked a fragile time for the specified groups of people (as outlined throughout), depicting the struggles America faced in this unstable time. This included an American Civil War, wars with Native Americans, recessions and the influxes of immigrants. 

What has set RDR2 apart from the other Wild West games and movies prior to this, is the minimalist depiction for everything in the game- the animals we interact with, the changes in the environment with wild changes in microclimates. Or even simply, just the people we meet- a beggar, town chief or an outlaw. The game covers a variety of topics- and can be seen throughout this article with the facts and data provided, it has shown a quite realistic illustration of how America could have been 120 years ago. There are some further matters that have not been discussed, such as the clash between science and religion or inventions coming to the forefront of society, but they’re represented in the game. Some parts have been exaggerated in the game- more violent acts carried out by the group of outlaws than we may normally think- but this is to be expected considering the storyline of the game. Cowboys weren’t always the violent type in reality- a majority were content living a peaceful life with a labour job. However, there were several notorious gangs loitering around the lands- as can, again, be seen in the game.

But, what has gripped many millions to this game is the ability to explore for themselves what the world is like- and that hasn’t generally been in Wild West games prior to this.

Red Dead Redemption 2 was, is and will always be a masterpiece.

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