This post by Sofie Schrey is the tenth post in a series on Environmental Histories of the Future, in which scholars from the environmental humanities explore how people in the past imagined and crafted their own environmental futures, and how our thinking about the environment in 2021 might shape the future.
“Video games [are] the perfect storytelling medium” (Burks 2015, 1). Perhaps contrary to their reputation, video games have been found by Richard Ferdig among many others to be an effective way to process and retain new information. This can be helpful to make complex subjects, such as climate change or environmental history, more approachable. Over the past decade, the game industry has seen a general rise in environmentally-positive content, which lead to the emergence of a specialised genre: climate fiction video games. However, blockbuster games and open-world games in particular are still prone to perpetuating old stereotypes regarding nature and wildness. One of the aims of the Environmental Humanities is to build a solid common knowledge of our current environmental situation and the possibilities for its future; therefore, it is important to acknowledge the educational potential of the game industry.
Inspired by Helen Philips’ article, “Why All Fiction Should Be Climate Fiction,” I would like to discuss why every open-world video game should have an environmentally-oriented component. As Lauren Woolbright highlights, games such as these have much to offer as an environmental learning device and may be of great help in imagining the scope of climate disasters in the future by offering an array of possible outcomes, solutions and viewpoints to their audience. They may even, as Woolbright puts it, “turn play into activism,” effectively embodying the spirit of the Environmental Humanities. As a case study, I would like to discuss the environmental messages in the blockbuster game Red Dead Redemption II and argue why unromanticised wilderness representation and the inclusive discussion of the environmental crisis should not be reserved for small indie games. Rather, to further our collective environmental knowledge, forms of appropriate environmental learning should feature in some way in every future open-world game.
Originally released in 2018 for Playstation 4 by Rockstar Games, and made available for the new, elusive fifth edition of the Playstation, Red Dead Redemption II is far from a simple western shooter game. It is a good example of the way modern games can balance a wealth of accurate environmental information about wild landscapes with an awareness of the dangers of romanticising this wilderness. In RDR2, the scale and behaviour of every animal, plant, and tree is programmed as close to reality as the medium will allow it. The animals are programmed to fit each species’ speed, gait, range of sight and hearing; plants appear in the right environments; the weather and light programming enhances immersion. As story-related quests guide the player through each of the open-world sections, it becomes clear just how much time and effort game developers put into interactive open worlds. Based on American National Parks established in the years before the game’s historical setting, the designs essentially look like a love letter to the “great American outdoors” and fall into what Lawrence Buell (2000, 84-85) refers to as “attentive representation of environmental detail” (2000, 84).
Representations like these, however, come with a number of serious risks. As William Cronon argues in his 1995 essay “The Trouble With Wilderness,” this nostalgic, romanticised outlook on nature is not only one-sided and overly positive, it also erases the history of human-landscape relations. Our love for wild nature, Cronon says, is only a very recent idea; one that, in the time period in which RDR2 is set, had only really existed for about 50 years. Before the 18th century, European settlers thought of the wilderness as a dangerous place, one to be structured and, if at all possible, avoided. More importantly, the romanticisation of “pristine” landscapes often means a full erasure of the culture of Indigenous inhabitants, as well as their violent removal from such places (Cronon 1995, 82).
Unaware of these discussions, many open-world games are prone to glorify wilderness – this is the case for example in the very popular Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, in which the “wild” aligns with fairy tale settings of a landscape disconnected from people. In contrast, RDR2’s plot addresses these caveats head-on. First, the romanticisation is nuanced by, at the very least, alluding to if not outright depicting the intense violence, abuse, and insecurities that characterized the lives of anyone living in the West during the early 20th century. The story also does not shy away from highlighting important social issues that sprang up at the time. Among the themes addressed in RDR2, the women’s suffrage movement, the lingering racism towards Black and hispanic peoples, the careless banishment of those that are in any way “other,” the cruelty of domestic abuse and animal abuse, and liquor and substance abuse are quite prominent. Additionally, while many of the game’s characters find life out in the open to be harsh and draining, they are not afraid to vent their dislike of the environmental decline in their surroundings and frequently express their apprehension about the big cities that spring up around them. The distinction between “pristine” nature and “polluted” cities is not clearly presented; different characters alternately express excitement for the future, or nostalgia about the past. The narrative does not seem to try to push any agenda, but rather shows the different perspectives one might have on the issue of economic growth versus environmental decline.
Second, the game takes a very clear standpoint in representing wilderness without erasing local cultures in its storyline on Native American oppression. Already emotionally heavy, RDR2’s main storyline includes the abuse, deception, and manipulation of Native American people, specifically their forced expulsion to make way for a large oil drilling corporation. The two prominent Indigenous characters are voiced by Native American actors, Graham Greene and Jeremiah Bitsui. Part of the game’s main plot is to attempt to help a fictional tribe called the Wapiti regain control over their land, which the main character, Arthur Morgan, and his gang are happy to do. A setup such as this is reminiscent of the white saviour trope, but is later nuanced with the fact that the Wapiti are betrayed by Dutch, the leader of the gang. Dutch’s deception eventually leads to many of the Wapiti losing their lives as well as their homes, exposing the hypocrisy of white saviourism, and highlighting the vulnerable position of Indigenous tribes during this period.
Unlike other games, such as Horizon Zero Dawn and The Flame in the Flood, Red Dead Redemption II most likely does not qualify as so-called “climate fiction.” However, it is a fine example of how games might include an inclusive wilderness-positive message without making that its main focus – and thus without limiting its audience. The game represents a future of inclusive environmental morality. RDR2 highlights the problematic nature of environmental destruction, the abuse America was built on, and, sadly, the fact that these issues are left unresolved today. It shows that kindness, inclusivity, and generosity are important qualities when trying to face our modern social and environmental crises, even if they may not be enough. Scholars such as Morton (2013) and Marshall (2014) have argued it is impossible to represent climate change, because it is happening on such a large scale. But the rescaled settings in open-world games are one way to attempt to show its impact. Whether it be through discussing the consequences of climate change, featuring unromanticised depictions of underrepresented landscapes, or another technique altogether, open-world video games could be the most effective form of environmental education.
Buell, Lawrence. “Representing the Environment.” The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Eco-criticism, Routledge, 2000, pp. 84-85.
Burks, Robin. “How Video Games Have Become The Perfect Storytelling Medium.” Tech Times, 14 Sept. 2015, www.techtimes.com/articles/84016/20150914/how-video-games-have-become-the-perfect-storytelling-medium.htm
Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. W.W. Norton, 1995, pp. 69-90.
Ferdig, Richard E., ed. Handbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education. IGI global, 2008.
Goldberg, Harold. “The Making of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2.” Vulture, 15 Oct. 2018, www.vulture.com/2018/10/the-making-of-rockstar-games-red-dead-redemption-2.html
Horizon: Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games, 2017.
Knight, Shawn. “It’s 2021, and Scalpers Are Still Buying up PS5 Inventory for Huge Profits.” TechSpot, 20 Jan. 2021, www.techspot.com/news/88348-bots-ravaging-playstation-5-inventory-retail.html
Marshall, George. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Phillips, Helen. “All Fiction Should Be Climate Fiction: A Conversation with Lauren Groff.” Edge Effects, 12 Oct. 2019, edgeeffects.net/lauren-groff/
Red Dead Redemption II. Rockstar Games, 2018.
The Flame in the Flood. Curve Digital. 2016.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo, 2017.
Woolbright, Lauren. “Environmental Game Design as Activism.” Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment 8.2, 2017, pp. 88-102.
Woolbright, Lauren. “Ecofeminism and Gaia Theory in Horizon Zero Dawn.” Trace Journal, Issue 2, 2018.
Feature image: Still from Red Dead Redemption II. Courtesy of Rockstar Games