American history in the 20th century was once heavily defined by the country rallying together as a singular entity at the expense of some personal liberty. The WWII war effort, the New Deal and Social Security, large government infrastructure projects like the interstate system, the rise of labor unions, the notion that you would work in one company for the rest of your life—all of these were emblematic of a shift away from that rugged individualism and toward a collectivization of identity.
The culture has swung back hard. The rise of the gig economy, foreign policy isolationism, sharp divisions around political identity, disruptive startups, electing a president who puts his name on everything he can, are all symptoms of a shift back to the idea of an America dominated by the freedom of individual interests superseding everything else. With that would naturally come an interest in experiences that highlight, romanticize and encourage this type of sturdy individuality. Enter Red Dead Redemption 2. However, what the game does not do, also like much of the American culture, is wrestle the real consequences of the freedom it loves so much. “You’re out to survive,” John Marston, a side character in this game, says to a captive of a rival gang. “We’re out to live free.”
The game, like America, has no real desire to investigate how such complete self-determination could be harmful. Rather, there is a sense of a complete human right to it. While the game does give you the option to donate food, medicine and money to your camp, it’s not mechanically necessary. If you decide that the openness of the Red Dead Redemption 2 world deserves more of your time than your posse, they will be just fine. Everything works out for everyone no matter how individualistic you choose to be. You can steal someone’s horse, find a town, shoot the sheriff, and erase all consequences of your actions by paying a fine, easily recouped with further mayhem.
Of course, this is a game, meant to offer a dopamine fix based on achievement and results. It never purports to be real life. However, from an artistic perspective, as well as a sales perspective, it aims to attract something intrinsic to the game’s audience. It clearly wants to provide a scenario that romanticizes a lawless landscape. The psychology of that inclination goes beyond a simple serotonin fix. It says something telling about the culture it’s trying to court.