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Red Dead Redemption: killing political trust?

Note: this post contains spoilers; although research suggests this doesn’t actually spoil anything.

Red Dead Redemption is a great game; it has sold well, and been critically lauded. But Red Dead Redemption is also an intensely political game. It is about personal freedom, and individuals’ relationships with the state: as a consequence it raises big questions about the future of trust in politics. Given the generally low regard with which citizens already hold politicians, as some of my previous work has shown, this effect may be important.

The game is set in the American West, just after the turn of the twentieth century. Most people are honest and hard working, live in small, isolated settlements: as a result they simply don’t have a day-to-day relationship with the federal government. In contrast, the few characters who work for the federal government, or who are politicians, are devious, venal, and vengeful: they lie, cheat, and steal.

Such a portrayal would be interesting in its own right – as part of the generally negative depiction of politics in the popular media. But Red Dead Redemption takes this kind of representation to new heights.

The main character in Red Dead Redemption, the one you play for almost all of the 30+ hour game, is John Marston. John, much like the other non-political characters, is a simple, straight-talker. He is a reformed outlaw, having settled down with a wife and begun a family. The corrupt state governor however learns of John’s past and has federal law enforcement agents kidnap his wife and son to force him to hunt down and kill members of his old gang. John’s success will allow the governor to run for re-election on a ‘crime reduction’ platform.

After John has killed all his former friends, he once again settles back on his ranch, having been reunited with his family. John has apparently won redemption for his crimes. Yet, in the penultimate scene in the game, a government-backed posse attacks the ranch and while John saves his wife and child, he dies.

In others words: the character you have played for the equivalent of a day or more – a hard-working man who just wanted to live in peace and provide a good life for his family – is murdered because the state cannot tolerate freedom or happiness.

Does this matter? After all, it’s just a game. I think it does, because it demonstrates the insidious nature of such a negative view of political authority. But Red Dead Redemption not only arguably reflects opinion; it probably also shapes them, with the portrayal of the political class evident in the game acting as strategically framed political information – information with a built-in bias. And this sort of information does have an effect elsewhere, acting to increase political cynicism (at least among those with relatively little political knowledge). Worse, in Red Dead Redemption the information comes from a source the gamer plays for hours at a stretch, far in excess of the length of a news bulletin.

Research has not yet caught up with the constantly evolving medium of computer games, and so we are left to speculate exactly what effect a single game can have. It is however an area that should be watched closely.

Jonathan Rose

Published inArt, Fiction & Politics

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