It started with a question: "What do real cowboys think about Red Dead Redemption 2?" Are there even cowboys nowadays and do they play video games? Isn't Red Dead Redemption 2 more of a game about outlaws than cowboys? Should I be speaking with convicts instead? But the answers I found on this journey helped shine a light on a very niche group of people with gaming experiences and Red Dead observations that I doubt I'd find from anyone else.
Rockstar's long-awaited sequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption came out late last month and it's far more robust than anyone could have imagined. Your hair grows in real-time, you can have free reign over a lawless west, hunt and fish as you please, your horse's testicles shrink in cold weather. There's a story, but Rockstar really pushes Red Dead Redemption 2's realism.
As I can only be charitably described as an "indoor kid," I was curious to find out how well Red Dead Redemption 2 tracks with real life. I decided I'd like a cowboy's perspective on how realistic Rockstar's cowboy sim truly is.
It wasn't easy to find them. A search online for cowboy groups led me to the subreddit r/Cowboys, the forum dedicated to the NFL team from Dallas. But I soon happened upon r/Ranching, which is described as a "place for stockmen, grass farmers, and cowboys to gather," and boasts a community of 1,600 subscribers. I knew I had found the place to ask some cowboys to answer my very serious video game questions.
"Are r/Ranchers excited for Red Dead Redemption 2?" I posted about a week before the game was set to launch. I waited for the comments.
"I am usually too busy working to pay attention to video games, and I have yet to find a cowboy or rancher who plays, let alone knows what these games are," commented one moderator. "I only help manage a ranch. Because of that I don't have time," commented another member. "No, games are for children. I have work to do," said one Redditor rather curtly.
Slowly, though, I began to hear from cowboy gamers. "Ex-farmer here. I still have chickens... I know they're not male but most of them are named after Red vs. Blue characters," commented Anthony, who I would later find grew up helping his mom run his grandparents' farm. "Both Red Dead Revolver and Redemption were such momentous games for me. Something about them just took me back to the simpler days of shucking corn and watching Gunsmoke with my papa."
Anthony says he's speeding through Red Dead Redemption 2, so the story won't be spoiled for him. "I spent a lot of time watching Gunsmoke and other older westerns with my grandpa. I've always loved the few western themed games though. Red Dead Revolver, Gun, Call of Juarez, I've played them all."
After Anthony, I developed a correspondence with other gamers in the ranching community. One was Mrs. M, who spoke to me on behalf of her husband who doesn't have a Reddit account. The other was Joe, a full-time rancher and cowboy. Both declined to share their full names for this story. Here's what they had to say.
Mr. and Mrs. M: "The roping is off."
Mr. M has deep roots in the ranching industry. According to Mrs. M, he and his family have 400 years of history in Texas, with Mr. M growing up working on his family ranch and at local rodeos. One of his favorite hobbies is Team Roping—a rodeo event where two riders subdue a steer. They have their own horse, and of course, Mr. M loves Red Dead Redemption.
"His opinion of Red Dead is that it is pretty accurate to [a] cowboy's life," Mrs. M says. "The guns, besides the scopes, are pretty accurate. In fact we have a collection of old guns from the 1800s."
Rockstar boasts how there are 50 unique usable weapons in Red Dead Redemption 2 with robust customization. And while there are some guns that are customized for the needs of video game mechanics, like sniper scopes, the collection is apparently on par with Mr. and Mrs. M's own antique gun collection.
Mrs. M says her husband has been playing games since he was 12 and enjoys mostly open-world games like Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, or Assassin's Creed. "To be honest he actually doesn't make money ranching. Most cowboys now and days [sic] have an outside job to compensate their income, for example he is an insurance adjuster. Most insurance adjusters down here are cowboys," Mrs. M tells me through online messages. "It pays good money to support things like the ranch and Team Roping events."
If Mr. M has any criticisms for Red Dead Redemption 2, it's that he would have preferred more cattle rustling missions. Apparently the roping is off as well. "Once you catch the animal with your rope, you wrap the rope around your saddle horn," Mr. M explains. "If you held the rope with your hand it would pull the rope out of your hand or pull you out of the saddle." Mr. M also says the game focuses on outlaws, not cowboys.
Joe: "Is this how people think some of us still live?"
Joe is a full-time cowboy and rancher on a large commercial ranch and says they cowboy "pretty hard" where he works. I reached out to Joe because of a comment he made about how playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Switch got him through months of "calving." I didn't know what calving was.
"Typically, on a cow calf ranch you have a two- or three-month window where your heifers (cows that haven't had a calf yet) and cows 'calves' a.k.a. have their babies," Joe says. "We calve from March to almost May. Due to weather and the fact that the heifers haven't had a calf before means they need to be watched in case they need assistance during birthing, or any extreme weather comes in that could harm or kill a newborn calf. This includes at night. So, every few hours at night the heifers need to be checked to see how they're doing if there are new babies, if everyone is warm enough, etc. So, our shifts are typically 9pm, midnight and 2 or 3am. So, I really enjoy my Switch because I can stay up late and relax wherever in the house and not disturb my girlfriend sleeping with the TV on or bright lights of my PC."
The Switch is apparently a great ranch console since it's less online-dependent as the internet where he's at is terrible. "For a few years I had a data plan with Verizon that cost me $125 a month for 24GB of data and that was around 1mbps up and down!" Joe says a tower was recently installed nearby that offers internet speeds of about 8mbps upload and 10mbps download which makes online downloads feasible, though time-consuming.
"Ranching and gaming is a challenge. There is absolutely always work to be done on the ranch. No matter how hard you work and how many hours you spend, there is always more work to get done. So you have to develop a way to reward yourself," Joe says.
When I asked Joe what he thought about Red Dead Redemption 2 so far, he told me, "Sometimes it's amusing. It makes me think, 'Is this how people think some of us still live?'"
Joe says he appreciates the realism in Red Dead Redemption 2, but sometimes his real-life experiences outpace what the game is capable of simulating. "In one mission where you have to herd livestock I approached it way too seriously and had to laugh at myself," he says. "I was concerned riders coming up the road towards the herd were going to turn the animals around on me."
Missions in Red Dead Redemption 2 like "The Sheep and the Goats," where players wrangle some animals, are actually quite difficult and require some finesse, but as a non-rancher I would never expect the animals to behave other than what their AI is programmed for. Joe says, "I really enjoyed how you have to make noise and move your arms to get the animals to move faster and all... moving cows can get quite loud.
"It might sound odd but sometimes it just makes me feel good, that maybe playing this people think about ranching and being a 'cowboy' and what it must be like. That it still does exist, we exist!" Joe also brings a little of his life into the game. "I also like to name some of the horses in game after horses on the ranch as a little personal touch.'"
Like the luxury theme park in HBO's Westworld, Red Dead Redemption 2 indulges a specific kind of fantasy. Playing cowboys allows the park goers to drink and shoot and cavort however they please because there is a freedom and lawlessness associated with the cowboy myth.
Real life is different, of course, and part of what makes video games unique is what individuals bring into the game that can change the entire experience. But the cowboy-vaquero traditions of the 18th century still managed to find a way to echo into the modern era through a digital avatar called Red Dead Redemption 2.
You can read more of our Red Dead Redemption 2 at USgamer over at our complete Red Dead Redemption 2 guide. Or check out our Red Dead Redemption 2 review for our full opinion about Rockstar's western sequel.