Red Dead Redemption and Race


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This is a presentation from Computers and Writing 2011 (I think it was 2011). I'm using it for class, so I figured I'd toss it online, too.

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Red Dead Redemption and Race

  1. 1. A little over a year ago, I had an interesting online debate with a fellow blogger about the DC Vertigo comic book Scalped. For those who don’t know, Scalped is billed as “the Sopranos on an Indian reservation,” is written by an award winning (but not Indigenous) writer named Jason Aaron, and represents Native people in a way that many commentators have referred to as “negative.” The “boss” and all the evil-doers, as well as the agent trying to catch them are all either full- blood or mixed blood members of the Ogala Lakota tribe.
  2. 2. My opposite in this debate claimed, and I will not disagree, that the representation of these fictional Indians, on their fictional Prairie Rose reservation, was damaging because it portrayed Indians in a very negative light. But my counter was this: if those of us in the Native American community want to be taken seriously as a part of contemporary American popular culture– to rise above the stereotypes– we have to be willing to be presented in ways that are “real.” We have to be willing to be Darth Vader if we want to be Luke Skywalker, to be Cruella DeVille if we want to save the dalmations.
  3. 3. Video games are quite clearly in the realm of popular culture. And while I wish to focus on a few specific examples from one particular game, I want to set the landscape quickly by showing just a few American Indian– or American Indian inspired– game characters to set the stage for this discussion. Stereotypes abound.
  4. 4. In the video, the player hears Harold McDougal– an anthropologist from Yale who is studying “the Injuns”– lay out his initial view of the American Indians in Red Dead Redemption as he speaks to the game’s protagonist, John Marston. Notice that is fits many fictional stereotypes (and sadly, once held beliefs), and while he doesn’t use the word “noble,” it invokes the “Noble Savage” imagery. We later meet Nastas, McDougal’s American Indian ally and one of his research participants (though I doubt he had IRB approval).
  5. 5. Here we see a rhetorical inversion: McDougal, the scholar, is a character that would typically be considered intellectual and a representation of what is “right,” but we see in the video: 1) He is shocked that Indian and “white” blood is the same 2) He uses cocaine to “think” 3) He has no sense of what Nastas knows 4) He has little sense of “reality” (but is sure of his own ideas)
  6. 6. The gamer now starts to see the narrative tensions. The protagonist, Marston, doesn’t appear to take a side, but the professor comes more and more unhinged as he moves forward, playing the stereotypes of the Western genre out in a comical inversion wherein Nastas, and in the next clip even the villains, appear much wiser and more well informed. Notice the ethos in play as McDougal attempts to use his position as a Yale scholar to justify his opinions and his “research.”
  7. 7. I would not assert that Nastas represents a quantum leap forward for the portrayal of American Indians in video games and popular culture, but he indicates a sort of progression from Deloria’s sense of “playing Indian” to offering a mediated Indian that shows depth and the potential to be not “just” a savage, not “just” a warrior, not “just” a shaman, not “just” a sex symbol, but to be a character with depth and narrative force. Of course every good thing has its end…
  8. 8. All images used linked to their sources. All video recut from walkthrough videos here.