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Why claims Red Dead Redemption 2 encourages violence against women are wrong

A contrived ideological rhetoric has surfaced surrounding violence against women in Red Dead Redemption 2 based on YouTube videos posted online.

Writers from The Conversation have used a single video depicting YouTuber “Shirrako” punching a suffragette in the face to admonish the gaming industry as a whole for its apparent harmful attitude towards sexism and violence against women.

This individual’s video isn’t any more emblematic of the gaming industry’s attitude towards women than Hassan Khalif Shire Ali’s stabbing attack in Melbourne is emblematic of Muslim attitudes towards Australian citizens.

A single outlier doesn’t make a rule. More than 2.5 billion people play video games worldwide. Are we really so narrow-minded to suggest that such “videos and behaviours are quite common” as Jessamy Henricksen and Marika Guggisberg write?

Shirrako and the like are the vocal minority in a vast sea of average gamers that play their games, complete their missions and have fun grooming their horses.

Shirrako’s other Red Dead Redemption 2 videos sound like Donald Trump policies rather than video game walkthroughs, with titles like “Deporting A Mexican”, “What Happens If You Bring Black Man To KKK?” and “Annoying Feminist Fed To Alligator”.

Like a micro-scale Alex Jones or Ben Shapiro, Shirrako is one of the many internet personalities who finds fame – and a following – through uploading inflammatory videos that engage specific societal subcultures.

As for the vile comment sections of the videos, Kimberly Matheson and Mark Zanna’s 1988 paper, The impact of computer-mediated communication on self-awareness, found that online anonymity increases disinhibition, which refers to a general disregard for social conventions as well as impulsivity and risk assessment. Online anonymity encourages individuals to behave outside societal standards in ways that they wouldn’t dare to in real life.

We see the positive and negative implications of this constantly: from the online confessions of sexually abused women during the #metoo movement, to alt-right Twitter trolls spreading Pepe the Frog memes and revelling in the cultural discord.

And make no mistake, we are living in one of the most politically and socially divisive periods of the modern epoch. One just has to glance at Twitter or YouTube – which are leading platforms for the alt-right – to see terms like “identity politics”, “toxic masculinity” and “biological gender differences” that are at the forefront of public debate on both sides of the ideological coin.

Sadie and John fight side by side

John Marsden and Sadie Adler fighting side by side in Red Dead Redemption 2 (Image: Rockstar Games)

Over 100 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing was used as a tool for Nazi Germany’s evolutionary humanist doctrine. In tandem with his sister, the Nazis stretched quotes and teachings to fuel their ideological battle, even though Nietzsche was against nationalism and anti-semitism and identified as a Polish Jew.

Until recently, Nietzsche was blamed as an instrumental figure in the rise of Nazi Germany. So, similarly, can Red Dead Redemption 2 – a work of art – be blamed for being appropriated as a tool for this anti-feminist dogma? Of course not.

In the game, you play as Arthur Morgan, an old-fashioned outlaw and member of the Van der Linde gang in the dying days of the Wild West era. The game is true to its 1899 setting, though influenced more by Spaghetti Westerns and dime novels than historical fact.

You can exchange stories with a barman in a saloon, talk your way out of trouble with the local law, hijack a train, or take a relaxing bath at a hotel. While there is an overarching narrative with cutscenes and pre-defined interactions, the vivid world and unprecedented player agency is the drawcard of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 and any other Rockstar game.

This freedom allows players to commit a variety of moral and immoral actions. You may choose to lovingly care for your horse, or shoot it in the back of the head. Maybe you’ll pat the dog that greets you as you approach a stranger’s home, or you might choose to kick it in the head and proceed to murder his owner. And yes, you may choose to wave to the feminist suffragette; or you may choose to king hit her.

The key term here is choice. You can play Red Dead Redemption 2 like a Wild West Thanatos, or you can keep your moral compass on the straight and narrow by being a compassionate and kind member of society. Whether you want to be a Robin Hood or Vlad the Impaler, the choice is yours. Just as it is in real life.

I played through the entire 65+ hour story without even realising that you could hit a woman, and I’m sure my experience is analogous to that of millions of other players. The most horrific moment of my play-through came when I accidentally sent a flying left hook into my horse’s jaw. Our bond still hasn’t fully recovered.

Arthur and his horse in red dead redemption

Reluctant thief or savage killer? The choice is yours. (Image: Rockstar Games)

Yes, the game allows you to hit a suffragette, feed her to an alligator or set a man on fire if you so choose, but it certainly doesn’t encourage or revel in such acts. To propagate such an idea is nothing but pure ignorance and dishonesty in pursuit of an ideological agenda.

What other answer can there be? Barely an eyelid is batted at the literal thousands of men murdered throughout the main narrative of Red Dead Redemption 2, but rogue acts of violence against women enacted by a minority outside the game’s main narrative, and it’s suddenly a “reflection on outdated sexist behaviours and attitudes”. Please.

The game bends over backwards to do the exact opposite. Female characters are strong and capable and when they aren’t, it is a reflection of historical accuracy, not toxic masculinity. As part of the narrative written by Rockstar Games, Arthur is supportive of the suffragette movement. Anything that says otherwise is not a reflection of the video game, it’s a reflection of the players making those choices.

Violence against women is a very real problem and a major welfare issue. In Australia, one in six women over 15 years of age have been physically or sexually abused by their cohabiting partner and 38 per cent of worldwide murders of women are committed by a male partner.

These statistics are horrific and domestic violence is an endemic issue that desperately needs a solution. However, it is not encouraged by Red Dead Redemption 2 or the broader video game industry. Suggesting so gives far too much voice to a vocal minority of players who engage in such behaviour.

Dutch is the villain in Red Dead 2

Dutch hanging around the camp with a female companion. (Image: Rockstar Games)

A few days ago Riot Games announced Neeko, the first openly gay champion to be added to League of Legends, one of the most popular video games in the world. Just under two years ago, Blizzard revealed that Tracer, a female character from Overwatch, was a lesbian.

Both games centre around teams fighting and killing other players. Going on the thinking of the Red Dead Redemption 2 backlash, both of these games encourage violence against women. The ridiculousness of this position requires no explanation.

In Red Dead Redemption 2, as in life, your actions reflect your own morality. Society – or Rockstar Games – can only set up the rules: it is your moral choice whether you want to abide by them or break them.

If a pitiful excuse of a man beats a woman, atheists don’t blame the Big Bang for creating the universe and Christians don’t blame God. While we may understand that his actions were influenced by a variety of socio-cultural circumstances and genetic predispositions, we as a society blame the individual for his abhorrent behaviour.

In the same way, Red Dead Redemption 2 or Rockstar Games cannot be blamed for the way players behave inside its virtual sandbox – the onus falls on the individual. Those who choose to behave despicably are the Dutch Van Der Lindes, the Micahs, the O’driscolls of the world.

They’re not the heroes. They’re the bad guys.

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Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

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