(Post) Colonialism

Playing Wrong: The Horse Girl Takeover of Red Dead Online

Communities of play are vast and varied. The deeply competitive speedrunning community that still surrounds Nintendo’s 1985 release Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), wherein players compete to complete the game as quickly as possible, is a deeply varied community, and the parameters of this goal differ between communities of speedrunners and the ways in which they play. These communities are often divided into even more niche subgroups: for example, the percentage of completion is different among different runners, some groups prohibit the utilization of glitches, and others require that runs be done on the original hardware, an NES, rather than a computer-emulated version of the game. As James Newman describes, speedrunning is one example of a unique style of gameplay called “superplay”. As Newman defines it, superplay “is a generic term that describes a range of gaming practices that differ significantly in their execution and implementation but that are bound together by a common desire to demonstrate mastery of the game through performance” (Newman 2008).

It could also be argued that a new form of superplay has emerged in the huge communities of modders, or people who make modifications to the hardware or software of a game to achieve interventions or styles of play not originally intended by the developers. For example, Tool-Assisted Speedruns (or TAS runs)** utilize a computer that catalogues a series of pre-set inputs that that player loads into it, and then executes them much more quickly and precisely than any human could ever hope. TAS runs involve modding a game’s input system, and many speedrunners or e-sports players will modify their controllers to allow them to achieve quicker, more efficient, and more precise inputs in the execution of their moves.

As H. Postigo observes, there are generally three types of modders, or three reasons that individuals choose to modify a game: those who make modifications as an “artistic endeavor” and to “contribute to their communities”, those who modify to “identify with the games and thus increase their enjoyment of gameplay,” and lastly, those who mod as a means to develop a demonstration of a skillset that could get them a job within the game industry itself (Postigo 2007). Most importantly, despite their differences, what lies amongst these robust and diverse groups is the web of an expansive and thriving community that unites thousands of people around the world around their deep love for and engagement with a particular game.

But, what if there were groups of people who modded a game through the way that they played? What if they didn’t institute any mechanical changes, but instead, they changed the atmosphere, the message of the game, the play environment, the relationship between players, through the way they simply play the game? This is what the equestrian, or “horse girl” community of Red Dead Online are doing. Through their unique style of play, the “horse girls” of Red Dead Online are pushing back against the colonial, capitalistic narrative and mechanics of the online play space in order to create a uniquely feminist space based around community building and kinship.

Red Dead Online’s Capitalist-Colonial Mode of Play

Set 10 years prior to the events of the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2, 2018) but in the same timeline, Red Dead Online (RDO) creates a play environment that forwards the colonial, capitalistic endeavors of the story mode’s Dutch van der Linde. The narrative that Dutch spins throughout RDR2’s single-player campaign is one of an ever-vanishing mirage of wealth and freedom. If only protagonist Arthur Morgan, and the player, have a little bit of faith, and if only they can achieve one more score, then the West can be conquered in their own way, and nothing can stand between them and a lifetime of luxury, uninhibited by the tightening collar of law and order that comes with the closing of the “frontier”. Within RDO, this same colonial mode of play, bridled by capitalism, endures. In this online space, players can buy licenses for different “specialist” roles using in-game gold bars: Trader, Bounty Hunter, Collector, Naturalist, or Moonshiner. These gold bars can be attained through play (in very small increments), or purchased through micro transactions with real-world money, blurring the lines of reality and game world and the all-consuming capitalism that drives the space of play. These roles allow players to earn more money and gold within the game, rank up their role experience, and purchase items unique to that particular role which can only be unlocked through play.

Many a discussion board, Reddit thread, and Facebook group, has been started based on discussion of what the most lucrative roles within the universe of RDO are. The consensus amongst players indicates that purchasing the Bounty Hunter role is the most efficient way to grind for gold within the game, while the Trader and Collector roles are the ones that procure in-game cash the quickest. Money and gold within the game are not only used for the purchase of aesthetic items such as new clothes, new holsters for your weapons, engravings or wraps for guns, but are also essential for purchasing items and skill cards and their upgrades which allow for increased skill within the game. Higher level players will have access to better health, better stamina, a broader range of more powerful weapons with more powerful ammunition types, and skill card upgrades that give them unique and useful benefits. In any kind of player vs player game mode, or even when two players come to blows in the open-world “Free Roam” mode, lower level players with lower level equipment and skill cards find themselves quickly outclassed by higher level players. This can have the unfortunate side effect of stripping players of the ability to progress within the game.

For example, when delivering a Trader wagon (which takes much time and effort to produce) rival players can steal the wagon. If a low-level player, especially one playing alone, finds themselves up against a higher level player, or a posse of them, there is very little they can do to prevent the theft of their goods. Therefore, when one searches the traditional RDO Facebook and Reddit groups, they are rife with calls for assistance in activities such as the delivery of Trader or Moonshine wagons (two activities that, when done at high level, result in large sums of money for those participating), legendary bounty hunts which pay out large amounts of gold as well as money, and even player versus player activities which can result in large amounts of experience points and financial gain.

With new benefits, specific items for collection, specific daily and weekly challenges and tasks, and specific roles or activities benefiting from increased experience points and or money and gold, these types of players are engaging in the game’s capitalistic, cut-throat, colonial environment in just the way that the developers intended: spend hours of play to build cash reserves and skill, to become better than everyone else and the biggest, baddest, outlaw in the West. The community forums often reflect this competitive, violent, and antagonistic attitude that the game environment promotes.

However, there are other Facebook groups for RDO, and these groups are interested in something quite different than their more traditional counterparts: horses.

A Man Girl and His Her Horse

One of the biggest innovations in the gameplay of RDR2, in both the single-player campaign and RDO, was the introduction of an advanced system of interaction with horses. Not only could players now tame and keep (in the story) wild horses, but they could buy, name, and bond with horses of all different breeds and coats who possessed different attributes and temperaments. Both the horse’s relationship to the player and its stats (like health and stamina) increase through play, and by spending time taking care of the horse.

This new system was much loved by many a player, especially in the story mode. Arthur bonds with his (the player’s) chosen horse, and there is even a touching scene with it in the final moments of the game’s story. Subsequently, when RDO launched, the developers added new horses exclusive to online play for players to purchase (taming and owning wild horses for free is not allowed in the money driven world of RDO, of course). For many players looking to build skill, best other players, and earn capital, better horses are a means to an end: the more expensive the horse, the better their speed, stamina, and health.

However, a community emerged in RDO that was much more interested in horses than the traditional player, and in fact, horses are the main draw of the game for them. The equestrian or “horse girl” community of RDO is not interested in mastery. Instead, they are interested in kinship: both with their horses and with other members of the community. This largely female-identified player base shirks the mechanical precedents of colonialism, capitalism, and conflict set by the game, instead creating a community for women to come together and bond through play and a shared love of horses. The two main Facebook groups, RDR 2 – Horse Fanatics, and Red Dead Redemption 2 Equestrians, market themselves as non-traditional community spaces that are not focused on the intended mode of play. The “About” section for Red Dead Redemption 2 Equestrians reads:

This group is for:

1. Horse lovers who are not gamers, but bought RDR2 anyway for the horses.

2. Horse lovers who are gamers or like to play the occasional video game and bought the game for whatever reason.

3. People who bought the game for whatever reason.

This is the first game that has finally come close to having a realistic horse dynamic to it and has drawn a huge crowd from the horse world. This group has been created to provide tips and insight into the horses and horse-related activities of the game.
Please keep it RDR- and/or horse-related and make sure to review our rules.

The “About” for RDR 2 – Horse Fanatics is not dissimilar:

For the horse fanatics of Red Dead Redemption 2. Discuss all about your trusty steeds without bothering those who prefer to talk about more general topics of the game. ✨ You must answer all questions to join, and please follow the rules! ? Friendly people only!

Both of these groups forward an environment and a community that does not endeavor to grind for gold or defeat other players, but instead to come together around a shared interest. The posts in these groups differ vastly from those of the more traditional forums surrounding RDO, with posts such as: “Heyo guys, girlies, and non-binary babes! Let me see your favorite pictures of your horses!”, and “Hey everyone!…So I’m in the market for a new horse…stats don’t matter, but I’m looking for a different, pretty one that you don’t see often…”. The groups even go so far as to organize in-game “events”, creating their own unique modes of play:

Poll from the RDR 2 — Horse Fanatics Facebook group. Screen shot by Ashlee Bird.

These community-created events, not built through any modifications of the game’s code, are evidence that players are capable of modding a game, its purpose and its narrative, through their play itself.

Playing “Wrong”?

These female identified players are purposefully playing “wrong”, and through doing so, as Travers states, are creating meaningful spaces and uses for a piece of technology: “Pressure to use technology appropriately reveals that meaningful opportunities for unintentional use need to be explored and that opportunities for resistance do exist” (Travers 2003). This is not to say that these players are entirely uninterested in the traditional mode of gameplay in RDO, and they are certainly more than capable of it, but they have simply chosen to modify the game and its play space through their engagement with it, carving out a feminist space in a digital world that was not seeking to make room for them.

As Kishonna Gray states, “virtual gaming spaces have been constructed as White, masculine power structures having hegemonic control with the ability to reproduce dominant ideology” (Gray 2012). Through their community building, shirking of the capitalistic, colonial, and competitive narrative and mechanistic structure of the world of Red Dead Online, these female identified players are not only ignoring the “dominant ideology” of the game, but turning it on its head in favor of their own pursuits of kinship, community, and joy.

** Conversely, Real-Time Attacks (RTAs), are runs that are executed by an actual, human player, rather than tools that modify the game software or hardware directly.

Ashlee Bird is Moreau Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre-Dame. Ashlee is a Native American game designer and holds a PhD in Native American Studies. Her 2021 dissertation, “Representation and Reclamation: The History and Future of Natives in Gaming,” addresses representations of Native American characters in video games, and seeks to reorient game design towards decolonial methods which can promote Indigenous futures.

Works Cited

Kishonna L. Gray. 2012 ‘Intersecting Oppressions and Online Communities’. Information, Communication & Society, 15:3, 411-428.

James Newman. 2008. “Superplay, Sequence Breaking and Speedrunning” in Playing with Videogames. New York: Routledge. 123-148.

H. Postigo. 2007. “Of mods and modders: Chasing down the value of fan-based digital game modifications” Games and Culture, 2, 300-313.

Alice Ruppert. 2020. “Wholesome Gaming: Dozens of Horse Game Fans meet for virtual Trail Rides in Red Dead Online“, The Mane Quest.

Ann Travers. 2003. “Parallel Subaltern Feminist Counterpublics in Cyberspace”, Sociological Perspectives, 46.2. 223–237.

[Update: This post was updated 16/02/2022 to add a citation to Alice Rupert’s 2020 article on these RDO communities].

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