Digital Cowboys

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN’s four-year anniversary this week! Like in previous years, we have been celebrating all week long by featuring new and exciting work every day to mark the occasion. In this last piece of the week, Juniper Lewis analyzes video game environments through the lens of gender, focusing on Red Dead Redemption 2 in particular.

The virtual landscapes found in video games can be breathtaking wonders, terrifying and treacherous ruins that make players’ hearts race, or just a cross section of soil strata players can navigate with a pickaxe. Video game natures both divert and engage, able to make players feel like they truly inhabit a different place. In the 2018 game Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2) by Rockstar Games, players embody the outlaw Arthur Morgan as he travels around a fictionalized and spatially tightened version of the lands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. The digital ecology of RDR2 is beautiful, vibrant, and diverse. Players can catch fish in the bayou, track moose in mountain lakes, and tame rare wild horses on frozen mountain peaks. Video game environments can be read through a variety of lenses, but here I want to think about gender, cowboys, and virtual ecologies. In order to perceive the possibilities for gender expression implied by RDR2’s landscapes, I will look at the game itself along with country songs “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly,” both of which also discuss gender and nature in their lyrics. 

First, how can players and researchers think about gender in the nature of a video game? In her discussion of the virtual environment of World of Warcraft (WoW), anthropologist Bonnie A. Nardi discusses how the game’s landscapes appeal to different players: “On the contrary, varying palettes of tertiary colors, the sounds of water or frogs croaking, beautiful night skies, the use of curves and soft shapes, and snug inns, shops, and storefronts, constructed a visual experience congenial to most female players.” She contrasts the feminine curves of the landscape of WoW with masculinist games that tend to be industrial and brutalist. The trouble with talking like this about gender in games is that it often feels like recounting stereotypes: women like soft gentle landscapes with lots of green while men like industrial strongholds with lots of guns. While one’s gonads or hormones have no effect on what sorts of virtual landscapes one prefers, there are clear social pressures shaping how men and women should engage with both real and virtual natures. In some ways the landscapes of RDR2 fit neatly into Nardi’s description of why WoW is appealing to female players, though it also struggles with the limits of a colonial male fantasy staged in a semi-fictionalized West. The landscape of the game displays a particular sort of beauty that is seen as safe for heterosexual men to want while also being a virtual depiction of a nature space that has often been an oasis for people who do not fit into cultural pressures. Nardi’s description of the gender binary in the form of virtual landscapes points towards cultural norms around desire; men are supposed to want utilitarian spaces. RDR2 defies this by being a soft and beautiful nature space that is also masculine. Instead of thinking about how to mark a virtual nature space as either masculine or feminine, I want to suggest thinking about how different readings of those virtual environments allow us to see possibilities for gender play. 

“He’s not wrong, he’s just different” laments Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in their 1978 cover of the country music classic “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” Cowboys, like gamers, are often wrongly imagined as white, heterosexual men. In reality, throughout the mid and late 1800s about twenty five percent of cowboys were Black, and many more were Hispanic or Indigenous. Many cowboys rode out onto the plains to work with cattle and other animals as a way to escape white supremacist colonizers intent on expanding westward. But despite this need to escape, Jennings and Nelson also comment on the contradictory desires of vaqueros: “Cowboys like smokey old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings.” The desire for both social bonds and solitary nature experiences is another key feature of being a cowboy. The song clearly divides the communal and asocial, the pollutedness of people and the freedom of nature. And, of course, cowboys here are always men. It is the job of a woman, the titular mama, to keep her sons from falling into this solitary and strange lifestyle. The landscape that cowboys tread is both masculine and on the rough edges of gender and society, just strange enough to be unsavory. Through this song, the mountainside becomes a landscape of freedom from norms. We can see gender and exclusion at work in RDR2 and the ways the landscape of the game allows for the characters to live outside of social pressures. 

Out in the many natures of RDR2, players encounter a variety of characters who buck against the gender norms of 1899. Players help transport a group of suffragettes as they protest for women’s right to vote. Sadie Adler, who joins Arthur in the Van der Linde gang, dresses in menswear and regularly does missions with the men of the camp. Susan Grimshaw runs the camp, and as Rockstar Games says, she is “The undisputed boss and arbiter of justice in the camp, everything would have fallen apart years ago without Susan in charge. Tenacious and iron‐willed, she stands for no nonsense.” The other women in the gang run scams, give orders, and shape their own destinies. While women in the game have a great variety of ways they can experience and express their womanhood, the men are far more limited. Dutch Van der Linde is a fashionable man who is always sure to set up his gramophone at the camp, but generally the men RDR2 are more limited in their gender expression. Though RDR2 doesn’t dwell on men subverting gender norms, country music has. 

Willie Nelson’s 2006 cover of the song “Cowboys are Frequently (Secretly Fond of Each Other)” is best-known, but it was written in the 1980s by composer and academic Ned Sublette. This West Texas waltz discusses the gay undertones –overtones? – of cowboy life. The song opens by letting the listener know “Well, there’s many a strange impulse out on the plains of West Texas.” The song states that everyone has urges that cross gender lines, but it also cautions: “And there’s always somebody who says what the others just whisper/And mostly that someone’s the first one to get shot down dead.” Crossing gender norms, especially men being seen as feminine, appears socially dangerous. Even the freedom of the range, both virtual and imagined, is not freedom enough for men to escape mandatory masculinity. 

Gender cannot be read onto a landscape in the same way it can be performed by a person; nature is far too queer for such prescriptions. Instead of trying to find masculinity or femininity in the digital ecologies of video games, I think researchers will have more luck looking at the ways these natures and games allow for different types of gender play. There are already cultural and historical narratives about cowboys living outside of cultural norms, and RDR2 reproduces these narratives. But these new opportunities for deviance are not equally for everyone, and while outlaw life allows the women of RDR2 the chance to play with masculinity and femininity, the men do not have that same opportunity. The landscape of the West as depicted in RDR2 and country music is a place of freedom, but only freedom for some.

*Cover image: Screenshot from RDR2.

[*Cover image description: six figures pictured from the back in a old western town setting, walking towards a person in the background.]

Edited by Evelyn Ramiel, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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