Masculinity and Video Games

This paper was presented at the Southwest Popular / American Cultural Association conference in Albuquerque, NM on February 7, 2018.

The use and reuse of the epic and mythic West has been iterated in many forms throughout the years. This portrayed West, however, as Daniel R. Maher writes “is the copy of a copy of a fiction.” [1] The “copy of a copy of a fiction” goes back to the middle 19th century, but it was always an invention – an invention that sought to reorder and reorganize how society understood and imagined itself. Dime novels in the mid-19th century used Davy Crockett to encapsulate the individual and the West; Buffalo Bill and his Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World brought the “adventures” of Western settlement and war to large arenas in the East in the late 19th century; Films, beginning with The Great Train Robbery in 1903, and later T.V. in the 1950s began to infuse the tropes of a gendered, ordered, and necessarily controlled West; Film and T.V. copied the copies of the fiction and presented a mythic representation of the “Old West,” further enhancing the idea of a lawless West needing order. Video / arcade games have more recently incorporated, or layered, a new copy of the mythic West with its concomitant masculinity and violence into this newest medium. As video / arcade games rose in relevance and popularity in the 1970s, they borrowed heavily from the well of established western myths. Early versions of these video games included titles such as Gun Fight, Boot Hill, and High Noon. While rather simple in form and action, they contained the essential copied forms of earlier mediums. As video game technology improved, the gaming platforms provided a different and more immersive experience for gamers. And while the incorporation of the Western narrative has become more complex in many of these games, they all maintain a connection to the violence and the individual cowboy of western myth –  the copy of a copy ad nauseam. Many of these more recent games have garnered a strong following and some critical acclaim, including GUN, Call of Juarez, Red Dead Redemption, Lead and Gold, and Six-Guns.

While it is possible to look at the coherent and consistent use of Western myth and popular cultural references to the cowboy within the pantheon of this sub-genre of video games, my concern is with the use of the mythic masculine “cowboy” figure and “his” penchant for using violence to order the game world.  This cowboy figure, imbued with stylized and culturally presupposed masculine forms, is easily configured and coded to perform violent acts, demonstrate his sexual prowess, and play the role of the Anglo westerner.  The “cowboy” as myth, whether an actual(ized) cowboy or not, is the constructed character for partaking in some form of individual violence – redemptive or otherwise. Videogames have adapted (and adopted) these tropes into a form that can readily incorporate that violence into a variety of formats. It is a “white man’s West,” that in video game form, channels violence as a progressive end, and much like the myth, it is singular, protective, and manly.[2]

This construction downplays racial and sexual violence and the larger reality of the racial carnage of Western settlement in the late 19th century. In this way, the “western myth has preempted history in explaining conflict in the West,” and this is clear within these games; games that immerse the player in a presumed and assumed world.[3] The myth holds that the West was not only inordinately violent, but that that violence took form mostly to impose some sort of order on a chaotic world or to promote progress. The form of violence exploited by the myth views violence as singular and personal, not as structural and nationalized as in the form of the American military. The myth also views this violence as principally, if not exclusively, as white on white. Where there are other non-Anglos, then the violence is seen, as it often is when looking at or explaining mythic violence in the West, as redemptive, protective, or necessary for the survival of American civilization.

The position of the gameplayer is an important component in understanding how the myth, the copy of a copy, is employed to create and maintain a perceived real “Wild West.” There is a distinct “problem of intention and agency” within video games in general. The gameplay, the game world, and the game structure reveal not only historical ideas and eras, but demonstrate the gameplayers role in confirming or conforming to a prior knowledge.[4] : “Players do note merely observe, they are in the story, they belong and are an operational part of the narrative and mechanical processes of the video games.”[5] As one 32 year old game developer and programmer stated, “I can make decisions about what is happening. I mean, I can affect this world or this thing I’m interacting with.”[6]  This world, which in this case, is the idea of what the West is or was and what a “cowboy” is or was is particularly relevant to the immersive nature of the games and the consumption of the mythic West. The game itself has a structured and controlled narrative that includes implied choice: “The player is free to take action to reach desired results as long as these actions are codified in the interior of the apparatus.”[7] Gameplayers feel some authentic choice even if the narrative has limited possibilities. As Emily Joy Bembeneck states, “In video games, the player is invited to take part in an act of fantasy in which he or she projects his identity or a portion of it into the game through the activity of the player.”[8] The gameplayer as character (Marsten et al.) acts out the events, narrative, or storyline. In this way the player is of the game, and the actions taken by the player are a collective presence of the game’s structure and the player’s actions within the confines of what is allowed by the game’s mechanics and rules. It allows players to not only consume mythic history, but to personalize the mythos. This constructed control in the mythic West not only reinforces the exceptionalist narrative of the West, as the game provides the mythic vantage point and the player accepts and expects this view, the player through a sort of “mechanical gaze” has the opportunity to see the world clearly and be outside of it simultaneously.

The ability for a gameplayer to conform and fit into the mythic world is assisted by the presumed or accepted authentic material objects within the game. These objects serve to reinforce these games as historic or historical, and validate the mythology behind the historical presentation. This is what Andrew Salvati and Jonahathan Bullinger refer to as selective authenticity: “how game designers draw upon a chain of signifiers assembled from historical texts, artifacts, and popular representations” to create a feel and look of authenticity.[9] In this sense, artifacts and other items are modeled on actual artifacts (e.g. guns) to provide realism, which further serves to immerse gameplayers into the role of the “cowboy” / shootist. At the same time, other cultural markers such as tipis, totem poles, deserts, saloons, and brothels are inserted to connect with presumed or assumed historic knowledge. The myths of the West are readily used and incorporated by developers and gamers alike. While neither group may understand the particulars of the mythic references, they rely on the packaging and repackaging of these cultural elements and artifacts to help enhance the westernized gaming experience. For example, an excerpt for Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West stated that the game “catapults the player straight into the dramatic crescendo of the Western myth.” Within Call of Juarez: Gunslingers various missions include meeting “authentic” outlaws such as Billy the Kid.  Gamers often comment on their expectations from these games and desire to play “Cowboys and Indians.”  As one gameplayer stated, “these guys were tough back in those days.” Examples like these are prevalent and reinforce the idea that these games provide a sense of a desired or anticipated reconstruction of the past. As Carlo Ginzburg states, “learning and rediscovering are complicated operations; perceptions and cultural schemes become intertwined and in turn modify eachother.”[10] There is an agreement between player and developer, and a portion of the identity of the player is projected onto their avatar. However, the characters within the game also provide the material for that projection. John Marsten is expected to do certain things, and he does – mostly violently.

Characters like John Marsten (RDR), the McCall brothers (CoJ:BB), Colton White (GUN), or Silas Greaves (CoJ:GSR) are presented as very masculine figures who use violence to order and control their world. And while the particulars of each narrative differ, they each present the mythologized, stoic “cowboy” figure who has an itchy trigger finger, and a quick draw. Their masculinity is confirmed by their ability to move forward through violent acts. When Colton from GUN says,  “I’d like to shoot you in the teeth, but that’d be too kind. Reckon’ instead I’ll take my knife and whittle you some,” the reference and application of violence is clear. These actions and mythic nature are furthered by the characters overt individualism that serves themselves, close family, and always asks questions later. To wit, “Violence existed, the myth said, but the violence was personal.”[11]  The characters are hyper-masculinized not only through violence but through the association of the idea of particular 20th century male-centric traits: stoicism, individualism, justice, and filial protection. They exude the idea of what a “real” man would do if only they could and had the nerve. While this is far from the masculine identity and actual “cowboy” behavior of the late 19th century, it matters little to the engrained idea of what a “cowboy” should look, feel, and act like in a game (or otherwise).

So what is it that Western themed video games allow or provide gameplayers? As argued in The New Western: Critical Essays on the Genre Since 9/11, western films, and in this case games, often appear at a time of crisis in American society or culture. [12] This crisis is one of significant change that includes cultural tension over the direction and meaning of American society, a society that is disordered or chaotic in a way that challenges what are seen as traditional social, political, or cultural beliefs, particularly regarding individual behavior. In this way, Western themed video games provide a readily accessible platform for individuals to re-order society, a sort of “’power fantas[y].’” [13]   While the society is set in the West (and in a video game), that game world can be seen as parallel to the changing or chaotic modern world. And in the mythologized Western world, the individual “cowboy” has the ability to create order and meaning through a strong-willed, certain, and ultimately manly individual. Whether it’s the McCall Brothers abandoning their Lost Cause to save their family farm (and all the values it entails) or John Marsten needing Redemption to salvage his family and family farm. The root of the narrative and gameplay is to use violence in the form of a strong, manly character to create the order within their own limited universe.

The taming and reordering of the world is not purely of the West, but it is the ordering of the world through the masculine and violent protagonist. This control creates some order and meaning around the character in a world that lacks the depth and breadth of the varied history of the historic West. For example, while some games have begun including non-Anglo characters, these characters are often out of context or serve to preserve the redemptive and justified nature of the player character. While there are many examples of this, I will use just one to demonstrate the point. During gameplay, the McCall brothers are called upon to save the Apache in general and Seeing Farther specifically. While their purpose may not be in a broad sense the saving of Indians as a cultural group, the goal of the game puts them in a position and role of savior. As the Apache are being attacked by Confederates, the McCall brothers work to stop the attack and kill the attackers. This chapter of the game, while in part demonstrating the terrors and bloodshed that the Apache endured in the real world, does little to position them as able or constructive agents. It is the McCall brothers who kill the Confederates and destroy their cannons. The attack by the Confederates also presents other interesting issues. The attack upon the Apaches is perpetrated by Confederate Colonel Barnsby and troops that refused to see the Civil War as over. That is, the attack is not only by remnants of the Confederacy (i.e. not the Union or United States), but by an individual who is a Confederate – Barnsby- and his acolytes, looking for revenge on traitors to the (Lost) Cause. This belies and reconfigures the reality of the slaughter of Native Americans by the American military. In gameplay it is the traitors, the Confederates, those who refuse to surrender, who are the destroyers.

While possibly of no surprise, there is also little concern for historical authenticity regarding the Apache. The Apache dwellings in the game are your typical tipis (not Wickiups), which is possible, but not common. The use of the tipi instead of the Wickiup plays into the idea of the West and Native Indian dwellings – to use dwellings other than that of the mythic and supposedly ubiquitous tipi might confuse the tale and the connection to the myth that the gameplayer readily maintains. Additionally, there are totem poles everywhere throughout the Apache village. An extraordinarily unlikely occurrence as totem poles were only created by a few communities in the Pacific Northwest. In this case, selective authenticity is not used to authenticate an artifact, but to authenticate the myth. This disparity and selective use of selective authenticity demonstrates the lack of care and agency given to non-Anglo characters.

What the mission does, and other missions in games such as Desperado’s 2 or GUN, is to allow the player character some redemptive qualities within the historical construct of the destruction of American Indians. This is also clear in Chapter X of CoJ:BB when the youngest McCall, William, who happens to be a priest, steps in to stop the Apache from killing them, and is exposed as having betrayed “his own people” (Anglos) to help the Apache. In this sense, these scenes serve to assuage any guilt that a player or developer may have; however, as one prominent historian wrote regarding such episodes in popular culture, the “Myth takes a West of Indian hunting and violent strikes, of fence cutting and range wars, and translates it into a West of rugged and armed individualists.”[14] This seems to be the case even when the McCalls are running roughshod through Navajo territory killing Indians at will.

[1] Daniel H. Maher. Mythic Frontiers: Remembering, Forgetting, and Profiting with Cultural Heritage Tourism, (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press,  2016), 168.

[2] Jason Pierce, Making the White Man’s West: Whiteness and the Creation of the American West, (Louisville, CO: University of Colorado, 2016), 7.

[3] Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own”: A New History of the American West, (Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 328.

[4] Andrew B.R. Elliot and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, “Introduction: To Build a Past that Will ‘Stand the Test of Time’ – Discovering Historical Facts, Assembling Historical Narratives,” in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Andrew B.R. Elliot and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 9.

[5] Daniel Muriel and Garry Crawford, Video Games as Culture: Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society, (London, Routledge, 2018), 69.

[6] Muriel and Crawford, “Video Games as Culture,” 70.

[7] Muriel and Crawford, “Video Games as Culture,” 79.

[8] Emily Joy Bembeneck, “Phantasms of Rome: Video Games and Cultural Identity,” in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Andrew B.R. Elliot and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell  (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 80.

[9] Andrew J. Salvati and Jonathan M. Bullinger, “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past,” in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History), ed. Andrew B.R. Elliot and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 153.

[10] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, trans. Anne C. Tedeschi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 92.

[11] White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own,” 328.

[12] Scott F. Stoddart, “Introduction,” in The New Western: Critical Essays on the Genre Since 9/11, ed. Scott F. Stoddart (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc., Publishers, 2016), 5. Michael Samuel, “Reclaiming the Past,” in “The New Western: Critical Essays on the Genre Since 9/11, ed. Scott F. Stoddart (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc., Publishers, 2016), 172-5.

[13] Muriel and Crawford, “Video Games as Culture,”71.

[14] White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own,” 328.