Cowboys weren’t all just gruff, white dudes.
Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010, instantly became a classic. But while trying to evoke the best parts of an age old genre, the open world Western failed to address some of video games’ worst habits. Rockstar’s sequel, however, looks like it’s already set up to make a positive difference.
Rockstar has always pushed the limits of gaming with absurdity, bravado, and parodic social commentary. They inflate real world social issues to a point that’s comical, and then bury them with snappy dialogue and hyper violence. The first Red Dead Redemption strayed away from that standard and took a more serious perspective – and it worked. It was a gritty, gunslinging, genre-defining game that aced the feel of being a gruff, white cowboy at the end of the chaotic Wild West. The time-altering Dead Eye mechanic and powerful plot combined to create an unforgettable world of dusty desperados – a world that felt like a genuine video game realization of classic Hollywood Westerns.
It’s a great game, but it also forgot about many historically accurate but glossed-over experiences of the time, including racism, slavery, and the importance of black people in the late 19th century.
Unrepresented marginalized experiences are ripe with unexplored stories.
If Red Dead Redemption 2 unpacks the virtually untapped realm of black experiences in the Wild West, it would be a feat above and beyond the playgrounds and compelling narratives Rockstar already excels at.
The romantic version of the West, often featuring only white people, and stereotypes of Native American, and hispanic people have dominated pop culture. Those Wild West tropes have festered in pop culture for years making people think that all cowboys were white men, a belief that’s unquestionably false. Historians agree that black people made up around ¼ of all cowboys, but in Red Dead Redemption 1, the only black characters were bounties that you hunted down or NPCs with forgettable one-liners. It’s unfortunate and uncomfortably common that black people are cast aside in a culture they helped create.
Encouragingly, we know Red Dead Redemption 2 will feature at least a few prominent black characters, including perhaps most notably Lenny, a member of Dutch van der Linde’s infamous gang. Lenny’s quick spotlight in the teaser and gameplay trailers gave us a glimpse of what could possibly be proper racial representation. We aren’t completely sure how much of an impact he’ll have on the narrative, but the sheer fact that he’s a named part of the main motley crew gives some hope.
Stories by the Fire
Like the countless times in the building of America, black contributions during the age of cowboys weren’t properly documented. It’s disheartening that many of the stories about the black cowboy have been lost in time due to ignorance, bigotry, and racism. It’s even more depressing that the stories that are available are still barely ever told. Can you think of a black cowboy in pop culture that isn’t Django from Django Unchained or that guy from Holes? It’s hard! Historically, we’ve preferred to tell the same old gritty, white stories, starring the same old Clint Eastwood-looking dudes, sprinkled with the same old tasteless stereotypes. It’s outdated and boring, and we desperately need something original.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place 12 years before the original game. The Wild West during that time was full of elements we would think were reprehensible now that hurt countless groups – most specifically the drastic mistreatment of Native Americans, women, and African-Americans. Atrocities took place, and they are scarcely ever acknowledged.
Recently, Rockstar released several character cards diving into the personalities and backgrounds of some of RDR2’s key figures. Lenny’s has him posted up with a shotgun saying, “Living free out here, like this… I wouldn’t have it any other way.” This quote is a hint to Lenny’s past, and could be a reference to slavery. If so, it’d be an interesting and accurate move. Many of the black people in America during the Wild West were born slaves, escaped, and then made a new life as cowboys, miners, lawmen, saloon keepers, editors, farmers, and more. The fact that you could possibly be playing alongside a liberated slave and experiencing their context is incredible, and a major stride into the stories we don’t see often.
We need more of that. Imagine a video game realization of African-Americans like Ned Huddleston, A.K.A. the “Calico Cowboy” – a black man born a slave who eventually became a well-known stunt rider, gang member, and bronco buster with unparalleled rodeo skills. Or playing as the rough and tough Stagecoach Mary, the black woman who was the fastest mail courier in the west and is said to have broken the most people’s noses in central Montana, according to her local newspaper. What if Red Dead Redemption 2’s Lenny was a fictionalization of Nat Love, one of the most famous black sharpshooting cowboys? He was one of the few people talented enough to live the full life of a cowboy and then archive all of his escapades in an autobiography. That’s just a small taste of the plethora of black trailblazer tales Rockstar could riff off of and adapt into the digital world.
Paving a New Path
Video games shine when they tell untold stories in new ways and take chances. Battlefield 1’s dedication to personal stories and human tragedy honed into a history that’s often glossed over and glorified. In doing so, Battlefield 1’s campaign created a fascinating path that strayed away from the annual military shooter’s repetitive style. DICE shook up the standard shooter way of storytelling, and from what we’ve seen of Battlefield V, it looks like they’re going to try that again. We need more modern developers and publishers to try out unexpressed narratives because the stories that’ll come out of them will be refreshing and stimulating. And unrepresented marginalized experiences are ripe with unexplored stories that are normally ignored in favor of retelling the typical white male tale.
These are important narratives that we need to see.
Few triple-A games are bold enough to mention the constant discrimination and marginalization black people endure across the globe (save for Mafia III or Watch Dogs 2). But Rockstar has the influence, tools, and, I believe, the courage to change that. Red Dead Redemption 2 is primed to help normalize conversations about race in games. The Wild West was a racially-charged, erratic environment. It was also one of the primary outlets for black people to escape slavery during the time. They adapted to the rustic lifestyle all while being demeaned, degraded, and discredited. Even in a post-slavery society, racism was still highly prevalent. Abolishing laws doesn’t instantly change minds. African-American cowboys had to do far more than their white counterparts to get just a shred of recognition. From doing the grunt work on cattle drives to the dirtiest jobs on the ranch, all of that effort went towards recognition that wasn’t even guaranteed to go down in history.
These are unique stories of the mistreatment that real people faced, and the perseverance they had to have to push through it all. They’re important narratives that showcase problems that echo into our modern society, and we need to see them. Since Rockstar has already proven their ability to tell insightful tales underneath their wacky brand of nonsensical action, it wouldn’t be that outlandish for them to take another step in the right direction and address the racial tensions of the Wild West in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Red Dead Redemption was a remarkable experience and I reminisce about the satisfying gameplay, vast open world, and weighty stories often. But I can never shake how demoralizing it was not seeing a single black person in the game that meant anything to the plot. People call black cowboys “the forgotten man of the West” because of how often they get cheated out of history and popular culture. Since Red Dead is a series that is, at its core, about redemption, it would be extremely fitting for Rockstar to recognize the absence of those stories as a missed opportunity, acknowledge the significance African-Americans had in the Wild West, and feature some cool black cowboys with sensational stories.
Funké Joseph is a Freelance Writer for IGN who likes cowboys, making jokes, and watching way too many sitcoms. Follow him on Twitter.