Content Warning: This post contains discussion of violence against women.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open world video game set on the American frontier with an almost subversive dedication to detail and realism. Since the events of the game take place in 1899, 20 years before women in the United States got the right to vote, it features suffragettes, women activists who fought for the right to vote in public elections. Given that Red Dead Redemption 2 is the biggest video game of the year and that much of video game culture is ensconced in blatant misogyny, it's not surprising but still upsetting that some players are delighted that the game lets them beat, abuse, and kill these characters.
Specifically, there's a suffragette in Saint Denis, the game’s analogue for New Orleans, who is campaigning for her right to vote. She stands on a public street with a sign and sash and loudly proclaims, "Let me vote." One of the main reasons Red Dead Redemption 2 is such an interesting game is that it allows the player to approach and resolve situations in a variety of ways. Players can shoot, rob, talk to, and beat up almost any character they see, which at times leads to surprising outcomes. It's this same design that allowed a YouTuber going by the handle Shirrako to upload a video of himself walking up to that suffragette and punching her unconscious. The video, titled "Red Dead Redemption 2 - Beating Up Annoying Feminist," was uploaded on October 28 and currently has 1.2 million views.
Shirrako, perhaps because they saw how popular the video became, quickly followed it up with a video of them trying to feed the suffragette to an alligator and another of them lassoing and leaving her on the train tracks to get hit by a train.
The comments on these videos, as you might expect, are horrible. Some users think it's hilarious, others say that this is what every feminist deserves, while others complain about how alimony laws favor women and echo other "men's rights" talking points.
"I killed that lady too," user Joker Productions, a channel with over 120,000 subscribers, wrote. "Every time I went to the tailor right there I had to listen to her yapping. Got fed up so I took her to lunch… except the only thing served was buckshot. "
"You could take this small portion of the game, stretch it to full AAA game length, charge me $60 for it, and I'd pre-order it with a season pass," a user named Silly Goose wrote.
I asked Shirrako why they think the video blew up, and about the comments it's been getting.
"I know you're probably expecting some political answer but the truth is it was simply a funny moment from one of my streams which I've decided to upload as a separate video," they said. "Not sure if it was intentional by Rockstar Games but the NPC is made to be rather annoying, when you try to shop for clothing in the game, your dialogue with the shop keeper keeps being interrupted by her shouting, so I simply wanted to shop in peace, I'm sure that as a gamer you're familiar with these annoying NPC situations."
Shirrako said that most people are aware the video is a joke, and that he's aware that others have posted toxic comments, while others are deeply offended by the video.
"I mean obviously I don't agree with the sexist comments, but there is not much I can do about them, I don't like censoring people's opinions, regardless if I like them or not," they said.
Developer Rockstar Games has always had to deal with controversy around the kind of things players are able to do in its open, intricate worlds. Grand Theft Auto III, the first 3D game in the series and a blueprint for the entire open world style of game so dominant in the industry today, was infamous for letting players sleep with sex workers and killing them after to take their money back.
That doesn't mean Rockstar Games endorses that type of behavior, nor that Red Dead Redemption 2 endorses punching feminists, but it's worth thinking about what these open worlds allow players to do, why, and how they correspond with what's happening in the real world.
It's important to note that despite Red Dead Redemption 2 giving players a lot of choice in how they approach situations and many activities to partake in (hunting, poker, fishing), it doesn't literally let them do anything, nor does it let them avoid certain actions. Arthur Morgan, the protagonist and player character, can't just retire and become a school teacher on some remote frontier town. The player can't decide, for example, to roleplay the game as an aspiring pianist. It's a game about outlaws, and players can decide if they want to be kind-hearted, conflicted outlaws or outright psychopaths, but they're going to be robbing and shooting people either way.
This means that despite any thoughts that Rockstar Games might have about Shirrako’s video, the ability to punch and kill a suffragette in Red Dead Redemption 2 is something that the studio deliberately chose to put into the game. Players can't, as far as I can tell, sleep with sex workers, even when they offer their services. Rockstar Games also chose not to include the ability to kill children in Red Dead Redemption 2, despite it being unrealistic. These are conscious choices about what limitations to put on the player.
It's also important to note that the suffragette is not portrayed in a neutral manner. Rockstar Games makes choices here as well. Since Red Dead Redemption 2 allows players to explore the world in whatever order they want, I first encountered the suffragettes in a totally different part of the world. It was in a small southern town called Rhodes, where a plantation owner’s grandson had a forbidden love with the daughter of a rival family. His love interest was a suffragette, and he wanted me to tag along with her during a protest to make sure she wouldn't get hurt. That's a legitimate and historically accurate concern, as suffragettes were publicly beaten, sexually assaulted, imprisoned, and force fed.
I thought it was an interesting backdrop for a mission, and that it was smart for Rockstar Games to highlight some of the horrifying inequalities that defined the American frontier just as much as cowboy hats and six shooters, but I also felt that it was mostly included for flavor. It didn't say that the suffragettes were good or bad, just that they existed.
How are players supposed to feel about this? Do players think that the suffragette in Saint Denis is annoying because that's the baggage they bring to the game, or is she portrayed unsympathetically?
When players approach the suffragette in Saint Denis and she asks Arthur what he thinks about women's suffrage and their right to vote, he says, "Sure, why not." He follows that up with, "Anyone dumb enough to vote, I say go for it," which is the level of sophistication and political commentary I would expect from a developer whose debut Grand Theft Auto was celebrated for having a fart button.
I haven't finished it yet, but I doubt that Red Dead Redemption 2 has anything profound to say about women's rights, and I doubt that it is advocating that type of behavior, in-game. I only know that it allows it, while not allowing other things.
I don't think video games alone can be blamed for real-world violence, but they are a part of our cultural infrastructure that allows someone to roleplay as an anti-feminist murderer (a very real, ongoing problem in the real world), upload a video of it to YouTube for profit, and allow others to use that video as a jumping off point to discuss how much they hate women in the real world.
Update: This article has been updated with comments from Shirrako, the YouTuber who uploaded the video.