Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole rejects games aiding humanity’s worst for realism’s sake
The joy of videogames is that they let us live out cathartic fantasies, whether that be swinging through Manhattan as Spider-Man, defeating hordes of monsters as a bald space marine, or pushing levers as a ponytailed burglar of ancient treasures. But what if your fantasy is to beat up and kill feminists? Not to worry: that too is now possible, thanks to Red Dead Redemption 2.
Rockstar’s cowboy epic is not, of course, primarily designed as a feminist-abusing simulator, but it can certainly be played that way, as a YouTuber known as Shirrako has monomanically demonstrated on YouTube. One video, entitled Annoying Feminist Fed To Alligator, does just what it says on the tin. In another, Shirrako stands in front of a suffragette on the street while she says: “Women and men both deserve to decide the future. This is meant to be the land of liberty, but somehow I am not free to vote? Who says that?” (That last line is highly anachronistic, of course, being a quite modern expression of incredulity.) He then punches her in the face, lassos her and ties her up, takes her on his horse to a handily lit cave, and then throws her off a high ledge.
Naturally these videos have become rather controversial. But some people yawn. What’s new? After all, in earlier Rockstar games you could, notoriously, murder a sex worker to get your money back. But no one is forcing you to do these bad things! It’s just that the game is such a broad and deep simulator that you can play it however you like. If you choose to be evil, that’s on you. Indeed, in RDR2 you can also murder members of the Ku Klux Klan, and no one has complained about that. Why all the whining?
It’s natural to present some version of this argument in reaction to moral controversies over games, but I don’t think it was good enough back in the GTA days, and it’s not good enough now. Because Rockstar has never made a simulator where just anything can happen. In RDR2, you can brew a can of coffee over your campfire, but you can’t actually say whatever you like to the suffragette and have a real political conversation. Nor, for that matter, can you sexually assault her. Imagine if Rockstar included a ‘rape’ button in its games. Would anyone care to defend them by saying you don’t have to use it? In fact, designers are always making moral and political decisions about what to simulate and what not to.
The truth of the matter, then, is that Rockstar has deliberately chosen to allow such actions in the game, and can’t just blame the perversity of its players. People like Shirrako are showing something that is in the game by design, and if we want to defend the creators we need a different argument. You might, for example, want to plead that making suffragettes uniquely invulnerable to violence would compromise the realistic immersion of the experience, but I’m not sure that’s a terribly good line either. So many other things already compromise the realistic immersion of the experience – for instance, the fact that your cowboy is so superhumanly strong that he is able to drag a trussed-up suffragette on the end of a lasso behind his horse with only one hand, or that said trussed-up suffragette doesn’t scream herself hoarse on the way to her execution – that one more would hardly tip the balance.
The other thing that has changed since the old GTA hookers controversy, of course, is that, thanks to streaming and YouTube, videogames are now weapons in the wider culture wars. When Shirrako unveiled his first suffragette-killing videos, a horde of incels and other pathetic specimens of masculinity posted approving comments saying they wished they could kill feminists in real life in such picturesque ways. When this was widely reported by appalled liberals, Shirrako felt spurred to keep trolling, and made a new video in which he shot a suffragette and fed her to pigs. “Seeing SJWs on twitter motivated me to continue the series,” he wrote. “The more tears they shed, the more creative we’ll get. Accept that it’s JUST a game or run out of tears.”
But of course it’s not just a game. It’s never just a game, like a novel is never just a few hundred pieces of paper sewn together. Videogames have a problem with violence, and as long as the rest of us prefer to turn a blind eye to it, people like Shirrako are unintentionally performing a public service by gleefully pointing out the extent of that problem.
It’s never just a game, like a novel is never just a few hundred pieces of paper sewn together