Is Red Dead Redemption 2 historically accurate?

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We discuss the historical accuracy of Red Dead Redemption 2 with John Mack Faragher, professor of history and American studies at Yale University

Rockstar loves its cinematic references. To your mind are there certain movies that depict the Western Frontier more accurately than others?

Well, we’re talking about different kinds of depictions rather than history, but my own preferences go to where there was a little scene in the trailer where a guy is standing there and there’s a carcass in the foreground and vultures pecking at the carcass. In the Seventies that was what was known as the blood and rags approach to the verisimilitude or mise-en-scène of the films. Tattered clothing and a disordered background as opposed to the classic Westerns, which are set in a kind of pristine, unrealistically clean kind of environment and it went the other way with the Italian Spaghetti Westerns and all the American versions that followed. I think that Deadwood took that approach and I think that’s a much more preferable approach if only because it’s grittier and although it’s a depiction of reality, it’s much closer to the reality.

In your new book, Eternity Street, you talk about how codes of honour and vengeance rule when there’s an absence of authority, which reminded us a lot of Rockstar’s themes in these games. Can you tell us more about he history of that?

In this world, the world of the frontier… authority was very weak, if present at all, so in Southern California you’ve got two or three counties at the time, so three county sheriffs with perhaps a couple of deputies a piece and that’s pretty much the extent of law enforcement. Maybe town marshals, but these people, including sheriffs, are actually more interested in tax collection and assessing fines because for the most part they receive their own compensation as a cut of fines for taxes they collect. Their attention not really directed toward law enforcement except in extremis.

In that kind of circumstance where there is very weak law enforcement, a very weak justice system, people who hunger for justice take it upon themselves. You have the DIY, do it yourself kind of justice, what I call in the book Outlaw Justice as opposed to legal justice. Of course, Outlaw Justice quickly devolves into vendetta, feud, honour killing, gang violence (otherwise known as vigilantism). Those become the primary mode of the attempt to achieve justice.

That kind of Outlaw Justice is toxic. It prevents the establishment and growth of legal institutions of justice. Vigilantes are frequently breaking into jails and taking guys out and hanging them because they are convinced that there can be no justice under the law, that the law is not strong enough to enact justice. It’s a vicious cycle.

Red Dead Redemption deals with a lot of characters trying to hold on to old west values and rejecting technology and federal government. Was this true to the time?

I don’t know if this is an extension that plays into the game or not, but in reality this world that they’re defending is a traditional world. It’s also the world of slavery of Indian-hating, of dispossession of native peoples, so aggrandisement, squatting, stealing land, and hostility to federal authority. These things are still true today, you know. The proclivity to go armed, that of course is something that doesn’t go all the way back in American history to the Eighteenth century, actually. I think the arming of America and particularly the frontier and countryside is something that happens in the wake of the Mexican War and the Civil War.

Would it have been unusual to see outlaw gangs with members from different ethnic backgrounds such as Mexicans or Native Americans?

No, not necessarily because of the diversity of the population in general, that is to say that there are plenty of native people and plenty of Latinos. By and large native people hang out with native people, Latinos hang out with Latinos and whites hang out with whites, but there’s enough of everybody and enough diversity among them that plenty of Latino gangs would have the odd white guy and vice versa. Any of these combinations is plausible.

It’s not clear yet if women will be a part of the gangs in Red Dead Redemption 2, but would that have been unusual in outlaw gangs to have female members as well as male?

It was unusual, but not unknown. I have records of the capture of gangs that include women. In fact not only did they include women, but women would get strung up along with the others. And I have also accounts of women who participated in battles between vigilantes and sheriffs posses and outlaw gangs. Women who were in the outlaw gangs who were riding along with them and firing their revolvers just like the other guys.

John Mack Faragher’s latest book, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, is available now from Amazon and all good book stores worldwide

And you can read more about Red Dead Redemption 2 in games™ 182, on sale now