Video games are often characterized as a kind of interactive movie. This is superficially true of all video games and perhaps substantially true of many short, highly visual games like Ico and Journey. But in my estimation, video games are much more like books. Like books, video games are a substantial time commitment that require serious imaginative and critical engagement on the part of the consumer. Increasingly, the best games — The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto V — simply throw you into a world and invite you to find your own way.
Whenever I play games like this, I like to fully immerse myself in that world. This is especially true with games with historical settings. Every time I play an Assassin’s Creed game, for example, I make an effort to read a book about that period. It’s a three-for-one deal: I get to learn about a period or place I might otherwise have ignored, my experience playing in the game world is substantially deepened, and I forever remember my time with the game as (in the case of Assassin’s Creed: Origins, for example) ‘the month I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt.’ When Bioshock: Infinite came out, I literally took an entire class on Gilded Age America. Yeah, I know.
With Red Dead Redemption II out, I am gearing up to do the same with the Wild West. I prepared by watching one Western film a week in October, and my hope is to read (and/or reread) two or three books on the subject as I dive into the game’s world. I invite you to do the same. Here are my suggestions, with a strong social science orientation:
The Significance of the Frontier in American Life by Frederick Jackson Turner (1890)
In 1890, the US Census Bureau officially declared the American frontier closed. The last of the open land in Oklahoma had been gobbled up and the West had been settled by Americans. You may recognize this year—it’s the year in which Red Dead Redemption II is set. If you played the first game, you know that the tension between the frontier and encroaching “civilization” — and what it means for American identity — is a major narrative tension in the Red Dead series. This thesis — that American society has its basis in the frontier — was famously argued in this brisk essay written in 1893 by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Reading this will substantially deepen your understanding of the world of Red Dead.
The Not So Wild Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill (2004)
The conventional narrative about the Wild West reads something like this: Before settlement by Westerners, Native Americans lived in a state of simple, egalitarian, propertyless utopia. Settlement was an uncontrolled and typically violent process. Eventually, the US government came in and enforced order and stability. It’s a story that Red Dead mostly buys into. While this story isn’t completely bogus, it’s deeply flawed. Contrary to the “noble savage” narrative that has emerged, most pre-conquest native tribes had sophisticated systems of property rights and economies that tapped into continental trade. The process of settlement, more often than you might think, was an orderly process of creative social entrepreneurship. And order, insomuch as it arrived, mostly came with the government merely formalizing the institutions that emerged from the bottom up. Anderson and Hill explore these themes and more in this fascinating reassessment of the Wild West.
Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes by Robert Ellickson (1994)
Two mechanisms of social control exist in the world of Red Dead Redemption II. The first is obvious: if people see you commit crimes, they might attack you, or they might call the sheriff, who will attack you, or they might put a bounty on your head, in which case bounty hunters will attack you. The second is less obvious: if you mistreat other people in the game world, they won’t want to deal with you. If you want to trade with people, get information from them, or get help, you have to maintain a good reputation. This tracks well on to how social control works in the real world. Sure, if you misbehave badly enough, people with guns will come find you. But in most situations, good behavior is enforced simply by reputational forces like praise and shame. In this absolute classic of empirical social science work, Ellickson explores how these forces work among cattle ranchers in the contemporary frontier of northern California.