Free Choice (To Kill Feminists) in Red Dead Redemption 2
Last week, Youtuber Shirrako uploaded a series of videos centered around torturing a Suffragette character in Red Dead Redemption 2. In the videos, with titles like “Beating Up Annoying Feminist” and “Annoying Feminist Fed to Pigs,” Shirrako found inventive ways to torment the campaigner for women’s votes, including throwing her down mine shafts and feeding her to alligators, to the delight of commenters.
After attention initially came to the videos, Youtube took down Shirrako’s channel for breaking their terms and conditions. Soon afterwards, they reinstated it, stating that, after investigation, they had decided the videos were not against Youtube’s rules. The “annoying feminist” videos now come with warnings about graphic violence, but are otherwise untouched. Shirrako celebrated his victory by uploading RDR2 gems such as “Deporting a Mexican” and “Beating Up Chinese Man.”
Notably, Youtube took down the videos for their depiction of “graphic violence,” an apparent first against violent gaming videos. Perhaps it’s in light of this unintended precedent that Youtube decided to reinstate the videos, insisting that violence in a video game is not enough to break the site’s rules. Gaming videos are a staple of Youtube content, and if video game murder is banned, suddenly a string of games from Hitman to Fortnite become off limits.
But I don’t think anyone can really believe the problem here is simply “graphic violence.” As has been discussed on many gaming sites, including Eurogamer, the videos aren’t about seeing how much the game lets you torment random NPCs. They’re explicitly about glorifying in violence and abuse towards individuals because of their gender or race.
Even without the “sticking it to the feminists” title, targeting a Suffragette is not subtle. It’s not a modern-day couching of words, saying that once women faced inequality, but everything is fine now. It’s literally saying that women are annoying for wanting basic rights and deserve to be gruesomely punished for demanding them, even in the context of the 19th century.
Maybe the Youtuber and his fans don’t see it that way. Maybe it’s a joke. Just trolling, and naming something for views. But it’s pretty clear that many viewers do take it seriously, and Shirrako and Youtube are profiting off their gleeful hate.
Player choice is one of Red Dead Redemption’s central tenets. Players become absorbed in this open world, and can do whatever they choose inside it. The game is realistic, to the point of having to groom your horse and shave your beard, and players are meant to feel like they can approach this Wild West in any way they desire. You can kill anyone who isn’t story essential, no matter how difficult it might make your life as a player. And this is doubly true in Youtube gaming, where half the entertainment is often playing in ways that the designers never imagined or intended, from nude Jarl punching to pacifist Fortnite. But, in the words of Ellen Rose from Youtube channel OutsideXtra, “Why murder a women’s rights activist NPC in RDR2, when you can pat your horse for 50 hours straight?”
And traditionally, open world games have had limits, due to technological restrictions or forethought from the developers about how they definitely don’t want people to play. No, you can’t kill random civilians. Or you can kill civilians, but dogs and horses are safe, so you can’t kill one accidentally and feel bad (I’m sorry, Phobos, for that time I acccidentally rode you off a cliff onto a lit brazier and set you on fire. I’m glad you respawned safe and sound). And child NPCs are almost always invulnerable, because who wants to be the game that lets people murder kids?
But as the possibilities of game development, and competition in the open world marketplace, grow, those limits have been vanishing, bit by bit. Developers don’t want players to lose even a tiny bit of immersion, even if that means breaking certain expectations, like not allowing your horse to magically teleport to your side, no matter how frustrating the loss of that ability might be. At least in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, my tragically dead horse Phobos respawned. If your horse dies in Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s dead, forever.
For a lot of players, this means accidentally causing carnage, and feeling terrible about hurting those random bits of code that look like a cat. For some, it means the freedom to be an asshole like they wouldn’t be in real life, or to get revenge against that damn shopkeeper who was rude to you just because you’re a Khajeet. But there are people who delight in violence, especially against “uppity” minorities and oppressed groups, and open world games provide an opportunity for them to live out their hate without facing any real-world repercussions.
And honestly, I don’t think games designers can do much to prevent this. Game designers cannot protect everyone people might potentially target out of hate without destroying the entire open world concept. They could anticipate that bigoted players might target a Suffragette and make her invulnerable to make a point, but they certainly don’t have to. For some players to get into reckless shootouts in Red Dead Redemption 2 and feel bad because that innocent bystander got hurt, someone else has to be able to target her specifically, and if a game protects female NPCs, Mexican NPCs, Chinese NPCs… either they have to have a much less diverse cast, or the whole concept of the game falls apart.
But Youtube adds another layer to the issue. Once a video is uploaded, it’s no longer a private player messing about. It’s broadcast. It’s planned. It has a message. Is this the worst thing on Youtube? Hell no. But it’s a small piece of a landscape that normalises hate.
Yes, part of the fun of Youtube is seeing other players attempt things you wouldn’t do yourself, and then seeing how wonderful wrong it all goes for them. But platforms like Youtube need to take responsibility for tone and context, in a way that they seem ill-equipped, or simply unwilling, to do. There’s a difference between killing a random NPC, or even killing an NPC because of something they did to your character, and killing or tormenting an NPC due to their race or gender or demands for basic human rights like votes for women.
And this is especially troubling when you consider that the alt-right have started calling people they disagree with NPCs. The implication, of course, is that “SJWs” are as robotic and unthinking as the characters you come across in games. But if people revel in the torturing and killing of literal NPCs for their radical views on issues such as “women should be able to vote,” and then call real world individuals NPCs for also espousing those views, that becomes a fuzzy line of non-empathy and violent imaginings that has genuine, real-world consequences.
The fault doesn’t lie with Red Dead Redemption 2. They could potentially have prevented this specific incident with more forethought, but in the end, they only provide the sandbox. And the problem isn’t with Youtube showing graphic violence in video games either. It’s an intersection of hate, intolerance and free will in video games that is difficult to prevent. But this isn’t “just video games”. Suffragettes faced intense violence 100 years ago, and people still have violent thoughts about them today. Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 allow people to reveal this true selves as a “joke,” without fear of consequences. We have a responsibility to make it clear that, even in video game form, these messages are not OK.