Youtube was recently forced to U-turn and restore several videos of Rockstar Games’ latest release Red Dead Redemption 2. The removal of videos featuring players murdering a suffragette non-playable character (NPC) provoked a backlash online which led to the U-turn. The game, set in the dying days of the American Wild West in 1899, includes a nod to the contemporary women’s suffrage movement by way of a female NPC canvassing for support in one of the urban areas of the game map. Like all NPCs in the game, players controlling cowboy Arthur Morgan are able to interact with the suffragette in a variety of ways. Since the release of the game at the end of last month, several videos emerged online of players killing the NPC in a number of creative ways including feeding her to alligators, setting her on fire, and leaving her tied up on train tracks for her to be run over by a train. The removal of these clips was the first such example of such an action for a mainstream gaming title.
Prominent YouTube gaming stars including PewDiePie and Keem condemned YouTube’s removal of the videos, the most popular of which has millions of views. The head of gaming at YouTube, Ryan Wyatt, commented after the restoration of the videos that the removals had occurred due to a misinterpretation of community guidelines and stated: “the reviewer will be educated on this outcome and on how to avoid repeating this mistake.” Although the clips are back online, they are now restricted to viewers over the age of 18. The episode has prompted a wider discussion within the gaming community about the nature of virtual violence within YouTube content. YouTube guidelines prohibit “gratuitous violence, nudity, dangerous and illegal activities, and hate speech”, according to a spokeswoman. As games become more life-like, the line between acceptable and unacceptable depictions of in-game violence, particularly targeted violence such as in the controversial clips, becomes more nuanced and difficult to navigate for regulators.
As Western countries mark anniversaries of the advancement of women’s suffrage, the videos have sparked debates about the politics of player expression. Rockstar Games, the studio that also produces the Grand Theft Auto franchise as well as other controversial series, has long attracted criticism for the content of its games. Critics of the videos have leveled some blame at Rockstar themselves, accusing the studio of creating an environment in which misogynistic players are emboldened to create such content. Sexism has been in the spotlight within the gaming community in recent years. This dispute has sparked speculation that there might be a repeat of the gamergate scandal. The scandal highlighted the tension between some gamers and feminist critics within the media. It arose from the perceived imposition of progressive values on gaming culture, which sparked a backlash from some gamers, leading to more discussions across the gaming world about sexism and integrity in video gaming journalism.