The joys of Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world are in its details. You must eat, you must bathe, you must shave, you must clean your guns. Minor characters all have elaborate routines, suggestions of a life beyond the player. Even background scenery demands attention. This onerous devotion to a rewarding cowboy fantasy birthed a culture that expects that developers Rockstar Games have accounted for nearly anything the player might do within its digital borders. Red Dead also takes place in 1899 — three years after the Supreme Court legalized racial segregation, midway through the presidency of a man who fought in the Civil War — which means, for some fans, era-specific racism becomes a part of the experience.
To play Red Dead Redemption 2 is to test the boundaries of what is possible within its elaborate simulation. One YouTuber in particular, Shirrako, has a channel full of taboo situations that he concocts for the viewing pleasure of his audience (like feeding an in-game feminist to a virtual alligator). But by far, his most popular video is “What Happens If You Bring Black Man To KKK?”, a three-minute Red Dead Redemption 2 clip that has been viewed over 8 million times. As it turns out, nothing happens.
“The KKK video was an idea many viewers wanted me to test,” Shirrako told The Verge. The top comment on the footage, which has 11,000 upvotes, bemoans that Rockstar didn’t account for a player forcing a black man and a KKK member to meet. After all, the spectator says, Red Dead Redemption is so detailed that it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume Rockstar might have hidden something special for curious players. What to make of that expectation? Is the cowboy fantasy inextricably linked with racism for players, even in this digital world? Should it be in a game?
In its 20-year history, Rockstar Games has garnered prestige for lavish playhouses where players can run amok, social mores be damned. Beyond the mechanical possibility spaces Rockstar expertly devises, its games are known for their social commentary and serious narratives. While not explicitly about race, Red Dead Redemption 2 does brush up against the subject. Your in-game posse has black characters in it, and you meet racists who are portrayed in a poor light. These are portions of the game that Rockstar has near-total authorship of, allowing it to express specific politics at the player. But in the multiplayer segment of Red Dead 2, the tenor of the land is dictated by the players.
Fans can customize their own black characters, which is an exciting option for many players — that is, until they actually go out into the world and interact with other people. According to many fans I’ve spoken to, Red Dead Redemption 2 fosters a particularly hostile environment for black characters. When Red Dead Online launched, I saw tweets remarking that black players couldn’t do anything without being called the n-word by players controlling white characters, or they were being hunted down for the crime of having dark skin. While some players found this phenomenon funny or unremarkable, others find the racism jarring: are these play styles betraying real-world beliefs?
“White Boys on Red Dead Redemption Online really be calling Black People Darkies,” one user on Twitter said. “And all though it is racist, it’s still kind of funny … Red Dead got these white boys on some throwback racist shit.”
“Played Red Dead Online for an hour today and already ran into two niggas role playing as ‘runaway slave catchers’ … & of course my character is black so y’all can tell how that went lmaooo fuck this man,” another said.
Over the last year, high-profile slip-ups of racial slurs from personalities like PewDiePie and Ninja have sparked at least some introspection within the gaming community. While many believe that the n-word doesn’t have a place in anyone’s vocabulary, others think that such words aren’t just acceptable, but endemic to the hobby. Recently, a post that called the n-word a “gamer” word went viral on Twitter. Make the mistake of leaving public chat on in any multiplayer game, and you’re bound to hear the n-word carelessly slung around by young white boys. But while racist slurs may be common both in digital and IRL spaces, many players I’ve spoken to over the last few weeks feel that it’s a little worse than usual in Red Dead Redemption 2 because of the game’s setting and commitment to realism.
One black player, who I’ll refer to as Louis, told The Verge that, while playing as black characters in multiplayer games is generally “hit or miss,” in Red Dead Redemption Online, being black “makes my character a target.” Red Dead Online is famed for being a chaotic mess for everyone, but the nature of the attacks against his characters can often be racial in ways that go beyond just being called the n-word.
“I was in Blackwater when a fight broke out,” he says. “Normal trash talk ensued and a white character told me ‘You know what year it is?’” The implication being, of course, that the game’s time period made it particularly dangerous for that character. Being that most MMOs take place in fantasy lands or in modern settings, Red Dead Online carries the unique burden of having real-world history that can color its arenas. According to Louis, playing the game often means being called the n-word, a slave, and so on.
“More recently, I got into a fight with two white characters whose clan name was ‘The Grand Wizards,’” he says, an obvious reference to the KKK. Admittedly, Louis says that he can have a fine time within the multiplayer — most people aren’t horrible — but when it’s bad, it’s bad in a very specific way.
Another player, who is white but says he often makes black in-game characters to add “diversity” to his friend group, told The Verge that every single time he kills someone in Red Dead Online, he gets called the n-word. It doesn’t offend him, he claims, but it still happens.
Jared Rosen plays online as a black woman. (“I didn’t want to be another white cowboy,” he says.) Players will often try to hogtie him while screaming racial slurs, he says. “Posses comprising of men and also myself will spontaneously disband or kick me, then follow me around trying to shoot me repeatedly.” It got bad enough that Rosen says he now walks around with a sawed-off shotgun, so he can dispose of assholes more quickly. He also spent in-game money to make his guns look as menacing as possible to deter players from picking fights with him, though it doesn’t always work. Once you make a character for Online, you can’t change their appearance unless you make an entirely new character.
What Rosen described to The Verge may seem like typical Red Dead Online behavior — outlaws being outlaws — but he swears that players often take stock of what his character looks like before they decide to attack him, rather than just attacking him no matter what.
“I can always tell [it’s racialized] because they stop for a few seconds so they can make out exactly what I look like,” Rosen says. “Sometimes they walk in front of my horse in town and look directly into my face before drawing [their weapon].”
It also only happens with characters who appear white in-game. “The women and black characters are 5000% more chill and we all have a kind of silent understanding to leave one another alone,” Rosen says.
Lordaedonis, a black player who spends a lot of time in Red Dead Online participating in shootouts, says the vibe of the game can dramatically change from one moment to the next for his characters. One minute, he feels like an outlaw, and the next, he might feel like “a runaway from a slave plantation depending on who’s in the lobby.”
Lordaedonis is used to slurs in online gaming — he’s played plenty of Call of Duty — but Red Dead Online feels different just by nature of what the game allows you to do. Rope is included in your offensive toolkit, and while everyone can be lassoed, the mechanic has a distinctly different feel for black players. Sometimes, Lordaedonis says, rivals will hang him off of cliffs after calling him the n-word. And if they don’t try to re-create hangings, the players will make remarks that make a point of reminding him when the game takes place.
“Though, I will say the luxury of [carrying] a knife is something I wish more of my ancestors were able to share,” Lordaedonis says.
These are players who chose to weather no man’s land, but other fans I spoke to say the racialized garbage in Red Dead Online prevented them from getting into the game. One player tells me, “The bullshit I endured on RDO made me quit the game altogether.”
Nearly everyone I spoke to agreed that Red Dead Online has a unique racial problem, but the explanations for the phenomenon ranged widely. Some stipulated that it was just trash talk meant to get under your skin, and race just happens to be one way of achieving that. Perhaps the most common theory posited was that it all comes down to anonymity: when you can look like anyone you want and the game doesn’t penalize you for targeting a specific race, of course there will be bad actors. This isn’t unique to Red Dead Online.
“I’ve been playing online games for years and the way people casually call each other racist, sexist, or other demeaning words comes down to the fact that can’t get punched in the face,” Louis says.
While anonymity often gets blamed for the majority of video game harassment and nastiness, it’s a poor explanation for what happens in Red Dead Online specifically. Yes, many people probably feel more comfortable being a jerk when they can hide behind a controller, but people often don’t need the shield of anonymity in the first place. Like video games, historical re-creations create liminal environments where spectators can interact with actors taking up specific roles. And within those spaces, people of color often suffer untoward behavior from white people straight to their face. Such incidents may seem baffling until you consider that some people living in this country look back on prior periods fondly, as if they were the good old days.
Perhaps the most convincing argument for the state of Red Dead Online is that the nostalgia for a historical setting combined with a lack repercussions for racial targeting makes people feel comfortable acting out racism toward vulnerable players. If Red Dead is already a game committed to realism and this period of time is widely known to be awful for people of color, then some players excuse their behavior by thinking it’s only natural for them to be racist themselves. Or better put, by one Red Dead Online player I talked to: “HiStOrIcAl AcCuRaCy.”
Similarly, Bernard Smalls, a contributor to HipHopWired, argues that the game’s setting made a difference in how players treated each other. “I remember a player actually saying ‘get that nigger’ with a Western twang to his voice,” Smalls says. “It was like they felt they have the perfect game to do so.”
The irony, of course, is that while Red Dead Redemption is committed to a certain fantasy of mechanical “realism,” the game itself makes no qualms about its politics. Micah, an antagonist within the game, for example, is a racist character who is clearly established as a terrible person. In a different mission, you find a lover of the Confederacy who makes the protagonist of the game furious. Players flocking to awful role-playing bits seem to miss this, though.
For some veteran black gunslingers, abhorrent racial behavior toward them is just another day in the Wild West. They’re used to it; they’ve learned how to deal with it or tune it out.
“I mean honestly there aren’t too many games where I can go murder KKK members,” Lordaedonis said. “So that’s a plus for me.”