Visual Cultures Workshop: The Mechanical Machinations of Manifest Destiny: Winning the West and Vanishing the Indian in Red Dead Redemption II


Location: B043 DPAC (View on map )

Bird New Photo

This presentation examines the colonial mode of play through which players consume open-world role playing video games, and the elaborate façade that Red Dead Redemption 2 creates in order to appear as a revisionist Western, outside of this colonial framework. Appearing as a small, white, circular area in the Northernmost region of the map, the Wapiti Indian Reservation is immediately set apart from the rest of Red Dead Redemption 2’s expansive world. The Wapiti Reservation also stands out from the malleable, consumable breadth of the remainder of the digitized world in its restriction of player behavior. Within this space, players may not unholster their weapon or inflict any type of damage to the reservation’s inhabitants. The reservation borders, and the designed constraints on player ability within them, give an impression of both developer safeguarding of an otherwise defenseless in-game community, and sovereignty of the Indigenous avatars within. However, through a further examination of not only the Wapiti and virtual forms of dispossession, as well as an analysis of the game’s construction of people of color in general (as well as player responses to them), women, and the story’s forwarding of a Manifest Destiny-style narrative, it becomes abundantly clear that these impressions of digital diplomacy are nothing more than an illusion. This chapter analyzes Rockstar’s motivation to institute these faulty safeguards, what purpose they serve within the digital realm of the video game, and why they are, at best, a hollow gesture, and at worst, a digital enactment of Manifest Destiny.

Ashlee Bird is a Native American game designer and PhD in Native American Studies. She is Western Abenaki and originally hails from the Champlain Valley of Vermont. Her dissertation, “Representation and Reclamation: The History and Future of Natives in Gaming,” theorizes digital sovereignty, drawing on Native American studies, media studies, and game studies to address representations of Native American characters in video games. The work analyzes specific colonial methodologies being replicated within game spaces in order to then replace these with decolonial methods of game design being undertaken by herself and fellow Native game designers with a focus on what she terms “synthetic Indigenous identity,” oriented around promoting Indigenous futures. Bird is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled Red Dead Redemption: Finding My Place in the Digital West that explores the complex relationships that different players have with games and undertakes an exploration of the Red Dead Redemption series and what the games have offered (or not offered) to their player bases. Beyond her academic writing, she has created three artworks, publicly exhibited seven times in group and solo exhibitions, and has curated one show. Among these are two of her original video games, One Small Step and Full of Birds, which have been featured in the InDigital Space at the ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Festival in 2018 and 2019 respectively. She is also working with the Wôbanakik Heritage Center to help develop a digital museum featuring elements of Abenaki history and culture.