Life persists in wildness. Technique turned the world into a wildlife park, domesticating all within its borders. Yet it didn’t succeed in eradicating inner wildness hiding within the human psyche. Romantic yearning for adventure is like a callback to what has been temporarily lost. That may be the main attraction of open world video games like Red Dead Redemption 2.
Duck for cover. Empty revolver reloaded. Bullets fly to and fro while an outlaw crawls to another advantageous spot to empty his again in the direction of a militia. The bank robbery failed, and this means fleeing through a hastily found backdoor, over the roofs, into a boarded up mansion to crash the night. To get out of town the outlaws need to sneak past the guards onto a boat. On to a safe haven, or perhaps another unforeseen challenge.
This is just a taste of what might occur in Red Dead Redemption 2. The player is Arthur Morgan, one of the outlaws in the gang of bandit Dutch van der Linde. Industrialization rapidly displaces the mythical Wild West, making life increasingly difficult for the gang. All the Western tropes present themselves in the smorgasbord of missions. It’s a world where the dollar rules. Despite amicable coteries between Arthur and other gang members, everyone has their eyes set solely on quid pro quo interaction. The law is not something delegated to authorities, but taken in one’s own hands.
The beauty of the Southern landscapes of Arthurs whereabouts perpetually enchants. It comes alive thanks to details like wild animals that can be hunted by following their tracks. The slow pace of the game contributes to a deep immersion, because the next destination can be a ride of half an hour away. Every once in a while the stillness subsides in favor of exciting shootouts or tense chases. Developer Rockstar Games’ penchant for bombast plays up, when Arthur blows the Cuban army to smithereens in the Caribbean with a cannon. But the spotless attention to detail maintains the immersion.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is like a boys’ adventure book come alive. A new experience lurks around every corner when all buildings can be entered and each non-player character provides at the least for small talk. The enchanting landscapes fans the fires of a romantic yearning for adventure, almost resonating in a mystical manner. The game is a blank canvas to be filled with one’s own story. A walk to ever new horizons.
This yearning for adventure evoked signifies the wildness calling within. Wilderness is an autonomously operating mutually cooperative environment. A place whose independence can only be appreciated with the specific attitude of wildness. One cannot grasp it with pure intellect. Nor can one be submerged in it through pure instinct. As Friedrich von Schiller posited, it is the amalgamation of these two drives that makes one truly appreciate each moment for itself. This emotional disposition of aware immersion he called the play-drive.
Wildness is a form of autonomous playfulness. The organism creates their own story within an environment, shaping it and getting shaped by it in an iterative manner. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga showed how culture always has an element of play at its base. Wildness framed as playfulness is weaved into the fabric of human culture, the recurring attempt to create new constellations out of the scraps of its surroundings. As Huizinga said, man actually is homo ludens (playing man).
Within the tribulations of Red Dead Redemption 2 even shaving feels like a matter of life and death. Arthur is just like an actual human being. He needs sleep, gets hungry and even has to grind his own coffee beans to get his morning joe. Arthurs hair grows. If the player doesn’t groom and wash him every once in a while people won’t cross his path. Lack of care has consequences, but it detracts from the adventure. It’s a sign that the grand vistas Arthur rides towards are but a shiny gloss over a neutered wilderness.
In their quest for realism Rockstar Games turned the boy’s adventure book into a math study book, as many criticisms of the game pointed out. Grooming Arthur gets to be a chore, and the personal goals one can set are a continuation of this grind. Collecting all the skins of legendary animals in some scrapbook and walking around in their hides is not a trophy, but atrophied adventure. A matter of mere addition. In the end Arthur Morgan is just a player character that gets stronger through upgrades. It makes the game a hunt for dollars to pay for these. The non-player characters aren’t invitations to adventure, but just a means towards the end of continuous self-improvement. And the animals frolicking about hides yet to be sold.
Huizinga defined play as non-gravity, and according to him gravity gradually took over in modern times. The player-character in Red Dead Redemption 2, defined as he is in a purely additive manifestation of numbers, serves as exemplary of Huizinga’s contention. The exploration within the game parades as adventure, but this chimera in actuality reflects the boredom of the daily life escaped from. One rides not towards the horizon a cowboy, but a commuter towards their job.
A Red Dead Redemption 2 routine rules daily life, made grave through the workings of technique. It’s a manifestation of pure intellect and stands as such in contrast to the ideals of wildness. Technique as defined by sociologist Jacques Ellul is the control of an environment in order to attain a specific goal. In the name of production maximization technique cultivates the wilderness and thereby demarcates wildness, leading to a restriction of human experience.
Because whereas the threat of technique consisted of steam trains and electric lamps in the time of the Red Dead Redemption 2 outlaws, the situation has become more urgent. More than three quarters of the Earth’s area is subjugated to human activity through technological means. Man’s activities are regulated to perfection, with mass media’s algorithms playing into our impulses. The depth of the human psyche contained in algebra. It’s as if we have lost something with these technological developments. Our innate wildness has been tamed with a boring dystopia the consequence.
The intellect rules through technique and Huizinga proved prescient. Still wildness lingers on hidden, though often canalized and thereby neutralized. This applies to Red Dead Redemption 2 as well. It immerses one in another world in an overwhelming way. The complete control over Arthur Morgan and his place in the fictitious world gives a sense of independence. As if one is the cowboy themselves. Yet this escapism is a sign of a fake type of wildness. For in the end Red Dead Redemption 2 is a well made Skinner box, where the constant novelty conditions one to desire more.
Within the strictly coded confines of the video game, revolt seems impossible. But one can rebel all the same, ignoring the quests for messing around. One can have morbid fun by catching unsuspecting passersby and drag them into the lake, turning the world into a pandemonium of rugged individualism. Indirectly it shows how the individual, yearning for adventure, treats daily life in a similar way.
The call for excitement cannot be answered by techniques innate containment of impulses. It leads to a feral descent into ferocity. It’s a logical reaction to a world where technique makes the individual powerless and every experience is grave. Wildness has mutated into a destructive tendency to jump off the cliff together with technique. Opposed against the intellect of technique, instinct is given free rein.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han criticizes digital communication for engendering an outrage society due to the mediums elimination of distance in favor of anonymity and symmetry between individuals. This is a specific application of the wider development within society of mutated wildness reacting against the intellectual totalitarianism of technique. It’s a form of self-defense. Beyond the emergence of the online shitstorm as analyzed by Han, it is the rigidity of technique’s control itself that provokes extreme counters. A mediums characteristics can bolster this reaction, but ultimately it is technique itself that makes shitstorms out of minds.
One can see this in several disturbing contemporary phenomena. Random acts of terror motivated by desperation, its perpetrator giving in to destructive instinct. Within the political sphere, fascism is on the rise again. It appeals overwhelmingly to anger and combativeness, as if pure instinct is the solution for alienation by technique’s intellect. The cowboy forgoing quests in favor of wantonly dragging passersby in the lake from Red Dead Redemption 2 is but a benign form of the same tendency.
The games tease of wilderness is part of a microcosm mirroring broader developments within society. It’s a reflection of the boring dystopia technique transformed the world into. Yet wildness can’t be tamed, and it creeps to disturbing places if it isn’t given free rein.
Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. Random House, Inc. (Original work published 1954).
Han, B.C. (2017). In the swarm: Digital prospects. MIT Press.
Huizinga, J. (2008). Homo ludens: Proeve eener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur. Amsterdam University Press (Original work published 1938).
Schiller, F. von (1795). On the aesthetic education of man.