When it comes to depicting the prejudices of historical time periods, most video games sidestep the issue. They avoid acknowledging that these prejudices existed or don’t emphasise them.
Rockstar Games’ 2018 western Red Dead Redemption 2 was different. Two chapters of the open-world game were set in a recreation of 1890s Louisiana called Lemoyne, where Rockstar attempted to depict the systemic “Jim Crow” racism that existed during that time.
The studio, however, fell short. The racist system of Jim Crow began during the post-Civil War South and its goal was to continue the subjugation of Black Southerners due to the abolishment of slavery. Red Dead 2 takes place more than 30 years after the war, and its depiction of the era could have shown the realities of the time. Instead, it depicts it in some instances while sanitizing it in others.
The issue isn’t that the game’s take on race is entirely insensitive. The issue is that Red Dead 2’s developers didn’t seem to know how they should depict the historical racism of the Deep South. Instead of not acknowledging it or explicitly showing it, the game opts for a middle ground between these two extremes. The result is a muddled and indecisive depiction of Jim Crow.
To give an example of how Rockstar approached racial issues in the game, consider two characters who the game’s protagonist, outlaw Arthur Morgan, can meet in the Lemoyne town of Rhodes.
One is a drunken, destitute old man named Jeremiah Compson. In the game’s third chapter, Jeremiah asks Arthur to go to his foreclosed house to retrieve an old watch and a ledger. When Arthur gets the ledger, he finds that it contains lists of captured slaves. When he returns to Jeremiah, he’s understandably angry and decides to burn Jeremiah’s things in front of him while condemning the old man for being a remorseless slave catcher. The player then has a choice of leaving Jeremiah alone or murdering him. Either way, the game’s messaging for this sidequest is clear: American slavery was an evil, reprehensible system that deserved to end.
In that same town, Arthur can meet a disabled, homeless Confederate war veteran named Joe Butler. Joe spends most of his time in Rhodes panhandling. He insults the town’s residents for not helping him and for being ungrateful for his sacrifices in the Civil War (he lost a leg in battle). Unlike Jeremiah, Arthur can befriend Joe and can converse with him throughout the game. At one point, Joe helpfully warns Arthur about lawmen searching for him and the rest of his gang.
The game may present Jeremiah and Joe as two very different people who Arthur is inclined to treat differently, but the men aren’t far apart. They are two sides of the same coin. The former was a slave catcher, while the latter proudly fought to preserve slavery. And yet Arthur rightfully condemns one but can make friends with the other. In their conversations, he never condemns Joe for fighting to keep millions of Black people enslaved even though it’s shown that he finds slavery to be abhorrent.
These two encounters are examples of a pattern of the game’s contradictory and confusing depiction of American life during the segregation and racism of Jim Crow. Another example: there’s a questline where Arthur can help two escaped convicts, a white man named Sampson Black and a Black man named Wendell White. Both men were convicted for murdering a white man. The first part of the questline has Arthur taking down their wanted posters in Rhodes. He learns more about them from a conversation between a man and woman. The man thinks both men are guilty and mentions that Mr. White is a “darkie” who killed a white man. But the woman responds by saying that the charges against Mr. White were “trumped up” (likely due to his race) and Mr. Black was set up by a corrupt judge. In this instance, the game points out systemic racism of the Jim Crow-era justice system. However, this doesn’t extend to the rest of Red Dead Redemption 2.
Playing through the game, I’ve seen no literal signs of segregation in Rockstar’s version of Louisiana. I’ve found no “Whites Only” or “Coloured Only” signs in Lemoyne, and systemic segregation is barely acknowledged. This matters, because Jim Crow was a form of institutional racism. One of its most infamous symbols were those signs. If the game hadn’t implied that systemic racism existed in its version of this period, then the lack of the signs would’ve been less jarring. But the game does depict, mention, and imply systemic racism several times.
For example, in the game’s town of Rhodes, there’s a saloon that has a front entrance sign that states that the saloon services everyone. But the town and saloon are owned by the Grays, a rich plantation family that used to own slaves. This also applies to the game’s New Orleans stand-in, Saint Denis, which also doesn’t appear to have Jim Crow signs for its businesses.
At most, segregation is hinted at in the game, and the same can be said of Red Dead 2’s depiction of racial violence against Black people.
For example, Arthur can randomly find KKK members burning down a cross, yet players can never encounter the racially motivated lynchings that occurred at the time. Oddly enough, the game does repeatedly acknowledge racial violence against Native Americans with a late game subplot involving a tribe retaliating against the U.S. Army. There’s also an abandoned Army fort that was used to imprison Native Americans.
There are several other examples of Red Dead 2’s contradictory presentation of Jim Crow, but the most significant one is Arthur Morgan’s weirdly inconsistent knowledge of racism. When his gang moves to Lemoyne to escape the law, his half-Black, half-Native American friend Charles Smith expresses surprise that the gang’s leader, Dutch, is willing to move them to the South despite his progressive views on race. Being a white guy who grew up in 1860s America, Arthur doesn’t need to ask Charles about why he feels this way. He knows that the South discriminates against Black people.
But then in a later story mission, Arthur expresses surprise when another Black gang member, Lenny, tells him about how differently he’s treated in Lemoyne compared to other places. Similarly, Arthur also shows his obliviousness about race when one of the gang’s caretakers, a Black woman named Tilly, can tell him about how afraid she is of living in the South. Arthur responds by saying that Lemoyne “seems as good a place as any to get chased by the law.” Tilly then has to point out to Arthur that she is a Black person. Arthur finally understands what she’s trying to say and promises that he’ll keep her safe.
Now, one could argue that due to growing up with Dutch and not being from the South, Arthur is just ignorant about Jim Crow racism. The problem with this argument is that it implies only the South was systemically racist towards Black people at this time and not America as a whole.
So, one has to wonder about why Rockstar decided to write Arthur like this. I contacted Rockstar with questions about Red Dead 2’s depiction of Jim Crow-era racism but unfortunately the studio declined to make its developers available for an interview.
For me, the way Arthur was written came across as confusing. It felt like Rockstar couldn’t decide if he should be a man of his time or someone who’s naive about its prejudices. I don’t think Arthur should’ve been a racist, but having characters explain concepts to him such as, “Black people experience racism in the South” hindered his believability as a character in the game’s 1890s setting.
It may have been controversial to have people play as a white character in a more realistically rendered version of the Jim Crow era, since the player would have benefited from a segregated, racist system. But Red Dead 2 didn’t have to have a white protagonist. One of its major themes is how the West is changing due the American government taking more and more control of the region. So, wouldn’t the game have worked better with a non-white character such as the game’s half-Black, half-Native American character Charles Smith? Maybe Red Dead 2 could have depicted this era more honestly, since the player would be resisting it as part of the oppressed class, instead of playing as someone for whom the system was made.
The most disappointing part about all of this is that Red Dead 2 didn’t have to be this way. In 2016, Rockstar’s sister studio, Hangar 13, launched Mafia 3, an open world action game set in the Jim Crow-era South. In that game, players take control of Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam War veteran who sets out to get revenge against the Italian mob for betraying his black mob family.
Unlike Red Dead 2, which waffled with its depiction of the Jim Crow South, Mafia 3 attempted to depict the era more honestly. White characters regularly use the n-word. There are segregated businesses. The police are suspicious of Lincoln, regardless of whether he’s committed a crime or not. There’s also an in-game mechanic where players can more easily commit crimes in Black neighbourhoods than in white ones due to how racist the cops are towards the city’s Black community.
Mafia III proved that a mainstream game could take place in this era and depict its racism without taking a bunch of half-measures.
I understand that to some people, games are supposed to be escapism. After all, one of my favourite games of last year was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and I would’ve hated it if the game restricted its optional female protagonist, Kassandra, from participating in certain missions due to the sexism of Greece in 429 BC. But, unlike Red Dead 2, Odyssey barely tried to depict that aspect of Greek society in the first place.
If game developers are going to set their games in potentially controversial time periods, they should decide how that time period will be depicted and then commit to it. Trying to thread the needle and taking Rockstar’s approach for Red Dead Redemption 2 just results in a depiction of history that comes across as confusing rather than insightful.
Isaac Monterose is a freelance games writer based in New York City
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