“Red Dead Redemption” as a modern-day American Pastoral

My research topic will be the depiction of the American Pastoral landscape in the open-world video game Red Dead Redemption. Through my research, I will link the writings of American pastoralists such as Thoreau and Emerson with the aforementioned modern day interpretation of the masculine, “wild west” landscape, exploring topics of gender, colonialist thought, and man’s relation with nature (among other issues)

My research questions are as follows:

  1. How does Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston’s exile from the city of Blackwater into the frontier land relate to Garrard’s assertion that American pastorals depict a “protagonist [who] leaves civilization for an encounter with non-human nature?”
  2. Can a literary ancestry of a video game such as Red Dead Redemption be traced? Or are its roots as a functional representation of the American Pastoral trope found in the mediums of film and legends?
  3. What are some ideological characteristics found in the writings of Thoreau and Emerson that are also found in the story line of Red Dead Redemption? How do these characteristics function within the game’s narrative?
  4. Are works of Red Dead Redemption’s medium as significant as works of literature with regards to their ability to be examined through the ecocritical lens? Can they (specifically, can Red Dead Redemption) be evaluated as a means of helping us identify and solve environmental issues?

Thesis: The highly acclaimed video game Red Dead Redemption represents a modern day iteration of the American Pastoral trope, and presents many of the same ideas that are found in the 19th century writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through the medium of an interactive digital narrative, Red Dead Redemption effectively transports the gamer into a time period when the American West was just beginning to develop. Using a series of missions and tasks in its storyline, the game forces the protagonist to develop a close (if not glorified) relationship with nature in the style of Thoreau himself as he searches for personal redemption.

Significance: I believe the topic is worth researching because it examines the common modern medium of video games, and delves into the messages that they are capable of conveying to gamers. The dialogue and narratives of these games are becoming increasingly complex and laden with literary undertones and rich plot lines with cultural implications, a phenomenon that I find both interesting and pertinent. I also think it is worthwhile to trace the ideological lineage of this particular game’s content back to its Pastoral roots.

Description of Research: So far, I have used the “Pastoral” chapter of Garrard’s Ecocriticism as a jumping-off point for my research. As far as secondary 19th-century texts go, I have reread some parts of Walden as well as some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings and I intend to incorporate those into my paper as well. I have also used Google Scholar’s database to search for scholarly articles on the medium of video games (and on Red Dead Redemption specifically, of course). I plan on making use of the Smathers library database too. If possible, I’d like to synthesize into my paper the writings Tom Bissell, in particular those found in his book Extra Lives (a nonfiction piece on the cultural importance of video games in the 21st century).

Working Bibliography:

Bissell, Tom. Extra Lives, Why Video Games Matter. Vintage Books, 2012.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Henry David Thoreau. Nature And Walking. Beacon Pr, 1994.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. Routlegde, 2004. 33-58.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden And Civil Disobedience. Createspace, 2010.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kbudd on October 27, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I have to be honest, I never thought analyzing Red Dead was possible, but you seem to be on the right track. You could also analyze how harsh the environment was in the 19th century west. Since it was the early stages of westward expansion, it was a tough environment where problems were solved with the gun. You could discuss how the land had no boundaries and tie this into Thoreau’s writings.

    • Posted by kbudd on October 27, 2011 at 3:31 pm

      I forgot to add a question:

      Does the game allow for a realistic interpretation of 19th western culture?

  2. Posted by bhough on October 27, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    I really like what you are thinking about writing for your final paper. I think that juxtaposing 19th century literature with a modern day video game could prove very interesting.

    4.Are works of Red Dead Redemption’s medium as significant as works of literature with regards to their ability to be examined through the ecocritical lens? Can they (specifically, can Red Dead Redemption) be evaluated as a means of helping us identify and solve environmental issues?

    This question of yours was very intriguing to me. Another route I think you could go into with this topic would be the violence seen in today’s video games. I have never played Red Dead Redemption before, but I know that generally its a very violent genre. You could (most likely) look into animal death, and human death as well- what are the implications of loss of life, as opposed to how life is treated in different 19th century texts?

  3. Posted by thelorist on October 27, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    I really like the idea of analyzing something like “Red Dead Redemption”, not only because of the medium, which, I feel, is largely ignored as a legitimate form of artistic and literary discussion, but also because the game sets, as you’ve said, an interesting setting that begs some important questions, such as the matter of a protagonist leaving civilized America for the wilderness. As you know already said, John Marston does not exactly encounter an untamed wilderness, but rather New Austin in the throes of c.1911 expansion, and the dying days of the once “Wild West” and “American frontier”.

    I think it’s important that you’re considering gender and that your main thesis revolves around the American pastoral trope. This leads me to a question you could consider:

    Q: “How does the character Bonnie MacFarlane invert the traditional concept of the American cowboy AND the frontierswoman?” (I felt Bonnie had a strong presence in the game and could be an interesting character aside from John to draw some attention to. John’s wife — Abigail, if I remember correctly? — could also be a useful female character to discuss).

    • Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm

      This is a really useful comment. I think the question you posed is great–it elaborates on an angle of my (intended) project that I haven’t really examined in depth yet. I definitely won’t forget about Bonnie and Abigail in my research. Thank you for your insights.

  4. Posted by kwalley on October 28, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    This topic is certainly thinking outside the box and it will be interesting to see where it takes your paper. I find your fourth question very interesting because one would never think that a video game could have as significant an impact as literature, but that is the world we live in today! Another question to consider might be:

    7. Does the intended audience of a video game influence its historical accuracy as well as the educational context of it? Can a video game be seen as a legitimate supplement to education?

  5. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 28, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    I believe that, as mentioned by my colleague “thelorist”, the question of gender is of vital importance in an analysis of this Rockstar classic as it pertains to the myth of the West. Yes, it is true that MacFarlane does represent an important part of such a conceptualization yet I feel it is also important to take into account that the other side of the coin is represented by his existence as this hyper-masculine hero that must protect his family (this is especially true in the finale of the John character where it is necessary for him to sacrifice himself to save his family). Plus, I’m not entirely sure but I believe part of the story is that his wife used to be a prostitute, so that might also be worth considering.

    8.) I feel an important question is whether or not this has any literary basis at all or is it based entirely on the myth of the west derived from popular culture and Clint Eastwood movies? This of course does not make it invalid for analysis but, quite the contrary, it might be interesting to trace as if by some sort of family tree the dissemination of different tropes through time.

  6. First of all, I love the game and I love that you are making this into a topic
    Something to explore would be how John Marston uses the environment.
    9) Does John Marstons use of the animals represent an over-use of the animals?. The hunting aspect of the game allows the player to kill as many animals as they want and sell them for a profit.

  7. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 28, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    While I have not played Red Dead Redemption, I think it has a value in being analyzed (and am curious if replay value will diminish with your extensive research). I think Q4 is your most interesting question. Video games are increasingly interactive and offer rich environments and dialogue, which often must be advised by historians and experts.

    Q10 – To what is extent is the language used for the in-game dialogue appropriate for the time period? Is the view of nature one that would be held by the characters of the time, or are their attitudes more reflective of a modern understanding of the environment?

  8. Posted by bharta1 on October 28, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Very cool, just like graphic novels and comics, video games tend to get marginalized, yet they are becoming extremely powerful mediums for narratives and deserve study! I played the game a long time ago but do not remember much of it at all. However there are some good questions above and another one I would as is:

    “By being more interactive medium or having a more interactive hypermedia i.e. actual changes in realtime due to player, does this more involved level of interplay deliver a feeling of already attained nature because of its direct translation of hand/eye and avatar mobility, or what are the effects of this on video game gamers?”

    Also, “do these new ways of view nature use a pastoral ecology, portraying nature as a harmonious entity?”

  9. I think this is a very interesting question because you are incorporating a video game which is a popular form of entertainment and tying it to something we are studying in class, which makes it very relevant.
    Another question: In the popular games, such as Call of Duty or Halo, how is nature portrayed? Is nature even regarded as important or is it constantly destroyed?

  10. Reading this topic it immediately made me think of what videogames are compared to literature. There is a visual element which is infinitely more stimulating to, and less dependant on, the viewer. This is to say that instead of a verbal explanation of a shrub or a tree, the audience in a video game is given a tree. In this game in particular, the player is given nearly free reign over a region in the west. But, all of the imagery is being filtered through the artists and program writers. This is not to say that literature doesnt, to an extent, do the same thing. I just think it is harder to express reflexivity, be self aware as a subjective expressive form, when you are world building. Does the generation of a separate reality within the game differ from literary accounts of nature, to what extent is the author and game-maker world building?

  11. This is a really interesting topic. All of your questions are strong ones, though I am especially interested in 4 and 8. 4 is a significance-focused question that ties into our course’s main topic, and I think you can (and should) make an argument re: how this game values nature and its influence on the player. 8 is important because you should consider historical accuracy vs. myth, and why we are still so invested in historical myths of the American West (if you deem this game to fall into that category).

    To add another angle, I think you have an opportunity to do something interesting with nature and technology here, since players are experiencing simulated, technologically constructed nature; they virtually tame a horse rather than doing so in what most of us would consider reality, for example. I will leave it up to you how you may (or may not) want to use the words “natural” and “artificial” in this context, but the dualism should be a consideration. You may also want to read and consider Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” in regard to this topic. There’s probably some cool eco-philosophical stuff on “virtual” or “artificial” nature as well.

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