Esther Wright is Lecturer in Digital History at Cardiff University. Her work is situated within the field of Historical Game Studies, critically examining how digital representations of the past found in popular visual media have the potential to shape public understandings of history. Her PhD, awarded by the University of Warwick in August 2019, is a study of Rockstar Games as developer-historian, and the company’s long-established project of negotiating and representing U.S. History in their games – in particular, focussing on Red Dead Redemption (2010), Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), and L.A. Noire (2011). This project is forthcoming as a book entitled Rockstar Games and American History: Promotional Materials and the Construction of Authenticity (De Gruyter, 2022). Esther argues for the importance of studying promotional materials, developer branding strategies, and other kinds of paratextual materials associated with the development and release of historical digital games. These materials are important digital sites and spaces through which game developers, like Rockstar, perform the role of historian and manage expectations for “historical authenticity” among players and critics. She uses promotional materials to offer more nuanced interpretations of the influence of dominant understandings of U.S. History on game development and marketing decisions. These hegemonies, established by and through the conventions of pre-existing cultural “genres” like the Western and film noir, and popular narratives long-centred on the white and male experience, lead to games that exclude and marginalise other people and identities, and promotional practices that reaffirm exclusionary stories about America’s “real” past. Esther is also a convener of the Historical Games Network https://www.historicalgames.net/
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed, Bettina Bodi.
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Transcription: Charly Harbord
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Bettina: Welcome to Keywords in Play podcast. Here with me today is Dr Esther. Wright. Esther, welcome to the podcast. Could you introduce yourself, please?
Esther: I’m Esther Wright, I’m a lecturer in digital history at Cardiff University in the UK, where I research and teach historical video games and digital history.
Bettina: Today, we’re here to talk about your forthcoming book, which is coming out in 2022. And the title is ‘Rockstar Games and American History: Promotional Materials and the Construction of Authenticity’. What is the overarching argument of this book? How do you go about exploring this particular topic?
Esther: Well, there’s two sort of intertwined points really, to what I’m talking about in the book. And the first is really a close analysis of the way that Rockstar Games as a kind of developer brand, how they’ve been sort of performing the role of American historian over the course of the last 20 years or so, over the course of their own history as a kind of studio, as a developer, and exploring particularly the representation and misrepresentation of US history in games like ‘Red Dead Redemption’, and ‘L.A. Noire’. I also kind of look at the way that Rockstar made certain claims about their games being historically authentic, while at the same time almost trying to set the standards for what that definition of historical authenticity might have been or kind of gatekeeper how we might perceive historical authenticity. But the other kind of much broader, I guess, point that I was trying to make or much broader argument I was kind of offering is about why studying different kinds of paratextual material is so important to the way that we understand, and in the way that we think about historical digital games and the kinds of arguments that they are making about the past. So, I did that really through looking at different kinds of official communication. So, a range of different paratextual promotional materials that were created and published by Rockstar and communicated then through their official channels. So, through the sort of official Rockstar website, and the kind of Newswire, somewhat sort of almost bulletin board, I guess, section of the, the Rockstar website, as well as other kinds of official channels of communication sort of mediated through the gaming and entertainment press so, developed interviews that were published in certain publications around the release of these kinds of games. I was looking essentially, at what Rockstar were saying about their games as representations of the past, how they were saying it when they were kind of communicating directly to fans or through these kind of intermediaries. And really, in what spaces they were, they were doing so and how that could help us think about the way the past gets represented in digital games.
Bettina: You mentioned Newswire, can you tell us a bit more about what that exactly is? So for those of us that are not familiar with Rockstar, and they’re kind of branding and marketing.
Esther: Yeah, so the Newswire itself is a specific section of the Rockstar’s official website, it’s kind of a direct company to fan site of communication so it’s where they will post kind of managed updates so that’s usually related to kind of new game releases or Rockstar specific and more game-specific news. It’s where a lot of kind of discourse around interaction with fans happens. The kind of official channel of communication so we see get used quite recently to talk about like, fan competitions, fan interactions, in terms of new releases for games like ‘Red Dead Online’ and ‘Grand Theft Auto Online’. Yeah, very much this sort of official channel of communication from kind of the, the Rockstar brand and from like the branded face of Rockstar to kind of their fans and players and curated by the company itself. Looking at promotional materials and seeing them as a kind of potential access point into understanding the kind of historical argument that Rockstar have been making both in their games themselves through the actual textual representation of the past that they are offering, but also in these discourses and spaces that surround them. And these kind of spaces, these kind of official materials, these kinds of official means of communication that would have been many players access to the games before they could play the games themselves, kind of can help us to think about or as I see, it can help us to think about or maybe sort of, think differently, and maybe augment how we view certain aspects of the games historical representation that we would study anyway. Or maybe how thinking about broader things like studio branding creates certain expectations and how that might shape how we interpret the developer’s arguments. And what I felt in looking at, I guess, some of the work that had been done on Rockstar, so not, not always work, obviously, but there’s, there has been a lot they are kind of as a company, their games are kind of key touchstones for, for games studies and other kinds of kind of cultural studies, approaches to games and media, was that to a point of focus just on kind of doing textual analysis of the games themselves. In certain instances, especially when they were talking about the kinds of broader cultural references these games were making, or the historical kind of claims they were making, sort of sometimes led to critics or writers kind of maybe overdetermining intentions or connections or reading connections based on their own kind of experience, interests and kind of disciplinary approach, which, obviously, is a fundamental part of what we do in games studies or in historical research, obviously. So it’s not a kind of sort of criticism, per se. But what sort of, I guess, I found kind of frustrating sometimes was, in particular, maybe in overdetermination of the games function as critique of American history and society, or this kind of portrayal of these games quite unproblematically, in many ways as just, as just satire. And that’s not to say these games are not critical, because that, that is part of Rockstar’s brand to kind of poke fun and to kind of parody and to be critical. But they’re also very much implicated, or we can kind of maybe dial back what we view as a sort of effective criticism, because they are implicated in the processes of US history and culture that they are actually criticizing. They’re upholding kind of various sort of dominant, hegemonic things that they are trying to tear down, sort of simultaneously, which is a result, is a result really of a very partial kind of understanding or interpretation of that history, which seems to be largely informed by the fact that this understanding of history has been very much built up by pop culture references, rather than actually a kind of the same level of I guess, care and nuance into thinking about the implications of what their games are doing and saying, as we would have as scholars which on the one hand, sort of, yeah, fair enough. So for me sort of looking at and kinda tryna almost trace a kind of legacy of what’s being said in sort of different kinds of promotional paratexts, how that sort of leads the conclusions that we’re making about what, what Rockstar were trying to do, and the kinds of cultural and historical touchstones they were trying to hit by actually looking at what they were telling players themselves. And I was quite fortunate in the sense that for, for ‘Red Dead Redemption’, and ‘L.A. Noire’ and kind of the early 2010s, they were doing a lot of this, there was a very specific kind of marketing formula that was going on, in which they were actually kind of showing the processes they’re working out and telling players, the kinds of research they’ve done, they were sort of directing towards their interpretation of American cultural history, and more, other kinds of American history. So it was almost just the process of being led by what they were explicitly saying, not just looking at and seeing what I can interpret of the games, but kind of reading and listening to the other things that were being said about the past that they wanted people to know, I guess.
Bettina: That’s so cool, thank you. Your book is, is also sort of history of Rockstar in a sense, as far as I can understand it, I have seen kind of overviews, and I know some of your work that this is based on. So and this made me think of discussions around media archaeology versus platform studies versus game history. And there seems to be this call to reflect on methodology when it comes to a historical framing of games and the platforms that we play them on and etc. So, some people like Jaakko Suominen came to mind, who wrote about how to present the history of digital games, or there was an article a few years ago by Tom Apperley and Jussi Parikka that was also kind of engaging in this how do we make a historical account? What is a platform? What is a subject or sorry an object of our study, etc? So, why Rockstar? What was it about this particular studio that spoke to you, that really stood out to you and triggered all these questions?
Esther: Yeah, I think this is an interesting question about kind of approach and methodology because I think that historians generally have historically been quite bad about being upfront about their methods. So when it comes to something like, like studying digital games, like studying kind of branding and platform, these kind of things which have such multitudes anyway, in different ways we could do it, it kind of is, you know, gets more complicated. And within the sort of the broader kind of subfield or the concerns of digital history as a kind of, as a discipline, there are these kinds of concerns about methodology, increasingly as we move into a sort of a period in which most of the sources available to us are now born-digital as well. And thinking about the kinds of questions that have always been around preservation of sources and archiving and especially how they apply to digital games, and ephemera and capturing experiences of play, capturing all these kinds of things are just really kind of coming into sharp focus when thinking about how we actually study the history of certain, certain companies, certain games, certain platforms, that kind of thing. So they were there was also kind of when I started, there’s obviously been a lot of work applying paratexts there, the concept of paratexts methodologies, paratexts to games. But it’s very, it was very kind of loose and undefined still, I think. To an extent when I started sort of the PhD research that this book led into, and still, even though there’s more work coming out now, it’s still kind of quite undefined and definitely undefined in terms of how we might apply thinking about paratexts to historical game studies as a kind of sub-discipline as well. Which was compounded by the fact that there there isn’t really an archive at all of this sort of material. The only access to an archive that I had was, was actually the Rockstar website itself. That was the closest thing that I got to kind of having a stable base of materials and stuff. So I was implicitly reliant on the way that Rockstar themselves and certain publications where I was getting kind of developer interviews and other kinds of official sort of media communication from like, IGN, or the Guardian or Kotaku, these sort of publications that have strong emphasis on games and have had, continue to have strong emphasis on games, the way that these companies and sites preserved their own materials and how the extent to which, in successive website overhauls and changes the format and just losses of material and content, the extent to which there was even still kind of preserve performance of game promotion, and of branding for games like ‘Red Dead Redemption’, ‘L.A. Noire’ and when I started, I was only kind of four or five years away from the release of these games. So you know, I started in kind of 2014, 2015, and the games have come out in 2010, and 2011. But even by that point, I was kind of not under any illusion that I was going to be finding everything that was available online at that point. And obviously, I was pretty much entirely working with digital materials, let alone any kind of like physical things that would have been published in magazines and stuff like that. So the extent to which sort of work that kind of like you, you mentioned, in terms of the question has, has spoken about the fact that these kind of platform studies or game histories are kind of about building its own archive almost that was kind of what I was I was doing implicitly through, through the book is that I was kind of trying to constitute together the things that I could find either by looking at what Rockstar themselves had preserved. Or by looking at what was preserved in, in other places, just through sometimes kind of the happenstance of being able to find these things and having to use like the ‘Internet Archive’ and ‘Wayback Machine’, that kind of stuff. What was good about having Rockstar as a case study for that, then is actually their visibility helped with this kind of construction of an archive. And actually, that their, their, their marketing practices, and their marketing formula was kind of useful in locating this kind of material, they, there’s a limited amount of speaking to the press that they actually do. It’s quite highly controlled and usually happens within very certain periods during and around the release and sort of development of games. It’s usually only kind of a select amount of developer interviews that are given by specific people, quite senior executives at the company to very specific kind of outlets. It’s a very sort of controlled and managed marketing strategy, that they don’t really speak to the press unless they want to. So for these two games in particular, that I was kind of acutely focused on within that two-issue period between 2009 and 2011. They use a really remarkably similar formula for how they were promoted beyond just obviously the developer interviews, which you could kind of find by going back to these websites to an extent but on the, on the Rockstar website and the Newswire, there were very specific kinds of blog posts, like blog series that were highlighting different aspects of the games like looking at their kind of historical foundations, looking at their cultural foundations. They were making recommendations or like, you know if you are looking forward to playing ‘Red Dead Redemption’ or ‘L.A. Noire’, then you should go watch these movies, or you should like read about these things. They were marketed in quite strikingly similar ways in the kind of early 2010s at that point. So that kind of helped as well, in terms of tracing the sort of the consistent branding and formula that they adhere to, in terms of selling these games or marketing these games. And, you know, I also kind of broadly to set the foundation of what I was talking about in terms of Rockstar as a developer brand, as kind of American historian or historian of America, I wanted to speak about this Rockstar brand. Without just this, this brand image being something that I just kind of created as, as the scholar kind of taking, you know, obviously, that’s inevitable to some extent, but I wanted to try and think about, as much as I could, like the kinds of branding and expectations that had been kind of crystallized with the kind of the idea of Rockstar over the last 20 years. And that involved looking at the way that they get their games or them as a company had been treated by game studies academics, but also kind of looking in could popular criticism and popular discourse to, to try and understand like, what expectations they were of this company, and then how that kind of helped me to trace the way that they themselves were kind of saying things about these games and about these particular aspects of American history that they were representing. So yeah, quite, quite convoluted. I don’t know if that’s a good response to a question about methodology. And a lot of it was just being, being led by what I could actually find. And this is why I sort of focused on official quote, unquote, communication because it allowed me to attribute what Rockstar was saying, in these different spaces, as a way of filtering all of the possible things I could have included. It was just the performance of kind of brand and performance in the role of historian that Rockstar themselves are doing these different, different spaces and different sites.
Bettina: I have a follow-up question to that, actually. So I know that you teach digital history at Cardiff University, maybe modules or research methods, and archival work, and etc. So how do you, do you, and if so, how do you teach this kind of research methodology, handling digital-only text, etc, to your students, if at all?
Esther: So being hired in the brand new role that was created in my department at Cardiff of digital history is kind of interesting, because before I got this job, I, I didn’t necessarily think that what I did was digital history, I kind of thought, well, I look at digital historical games, I look at games, I kind of wasn’t really sure that my credentials as a, you know, someone with an MA and a PhD and a BA in history, were gonna really stand up at that point after looking at games for the last kind of like five years or whatever. So, what I’ve found really useful, what I’ve enjoyed doing is that, yes, I do work with digital sources. Yes, I work with born-digital sources. So, I do kind of talk to sort of students about the kinds of challenges and the pressures of using these kinds of sources, the sorts of things we need to think about because born-digital sources are increasing the only kinds of sources that will be available to historians if we’re trying to study kind of the now in the last, you know, 30 years or so plus. But what I’ve what I’ve tried to do to kind of stay within actually, the kind of digital history that I do see myself doing, or the kind of digital historian that I see that I am, is use digital games, digital historical games to teach, teach history to think about what history actually is or what history could be. So, I teach a second-year undergraduate optional module for history undergraduates called ‘Digital Games and the Practice of History’, which is drawing much more broadly than just my work on Rockstar and looking at digital games as a, as a form of history as a way of representing the past and how, how games relate to other more traditional kinds of representation of historical knowledge. What thinking about games can, how it can help us think about the role of the, role of the historian how we could write history through games. It’s one of the sort of one of the assessment components that students do for the module is that they, they do their own kind of historical research, but they think about how they would present it to again, rather than sort of writing or writing a kind of essay or dissertation or something. But I really like using games and something that I’ve been kind of increasingly trying to do is to use games to help students think about the idea, the idea of historical practice of what it means to kind of be the historian do the research and just think about the archive. Something that I’m doing in a few weeks time with a MA cohort actually is using ‘Return of the Obra Dinn’, sort of Melissa Kagan’s idea of archival adventuring to think about walking simulators and to think about how, yeah, just, just offering these sort of new ways of using media to kind of conceptualize what the historian actually does. And I think a lot of students really appreciate the fact that a lot of them play games, they don’t necessarily only play historical games, but they just kind of appreciate the fact that we’re sort of taking seriously their interests. And we’re not just saying, games have nothing to do with your education, games are not a proper way to think about these things. I think they kind of do appreciate the fact that you’re saying that this interest is legitimate and that we can, we can sort of take it seriously. And it can help us to think in a sort of very meaningful way about what it means and what our role is as the kind of the historian or the scholar or the critic. And also just to kind of encourage them to sort of develop more critical media literacy when they’re playing on these games, too, and thinking about the kinds of messages about the past and present that they are seeing, yeah.
Bettina: Absolutely, no I 100% agree. That’s what I try to do my teaching as well. Going back to the book and kind of Rockstar, something that you’re focusing on is authenticity, and how the studio through their games but also through these kind of paratextual surrounds construct authenticity for themselves, like legitimize themselves, but also the games and have a particular version of American history, etc. So how do you think Rockstar does this? How do they create this authenticity? And maybe, can you compare it to another studio or another kind of game?
Esther: I think the thing to understand about the way that Rockstar went about kind of performing or claiming authenticity, or the historical authenticity of their games was at how the extent to which they were reliant on what their games are representing as being kind of well known, in terms of popular memory and popular culture. So a key strand of the, the selling of these games both is kind of the, the Newswire posts, and the other kinds of official communication was the fact that they were, they were drawing on these preexisting pop-cultural genres. So the relationship between ‘Red Dead Redemption’, and the, the kind of American Western and a relationship between ‘L.A. Noire’ and, you know, in Film Noir and Neo-Noir, and the fact that these are both kind of ubiquitous genres associated with American cultural history, and implicitly associated with a very specific geographic and temporal location in America’s past. So I truly don’t think, like if you look at Rockstar’s, the way that they develop games, they always, always have some kind of like pop culture link. ‘GTA’ is intrinsically associated with kind of gangster cinema, gangster pop culture. ‘Max Payne’ is also drawing heavily on noir, games like ‘Bully’ drawing on the kind of teen, teen genre, and even the the absolute remake of ‘The Warriors’. You know, it’s everything they do, is about kind of re-articulating American history, but also American cultural history. And there’s a there’s a great quote, something that I kind of start the introduction to the book with from, from Dan Houser, who said, you know, one of the co-founders and former VP of creative for Rockstar, where he was, it was at a promotion of ‘GTA V’ in kind of 2012, I think, and talking about the fact that ‘Grand Theft Auto’ isn’t really about America, it’s about Americana, it’s about the America that was sold to the world. So Rockstar’s representation of the past is always through the lens of the way that other popular culture has already kind of sold it. So I think that’s where that’s what they rely on to kind of claim authenticity so much, or to such an extent rather. It’s, it’s the fact that they presume their players will already have a certain kind of impression of what an authentic version of this, these periods or these kind of genres are. And their promotional materials are a lot of the time, designed to nudge their audience towards their interpretation of what a classic Western or classic Noir is. So it’s not just saying, you know, these games are authentic. It’s, we did all of our research, and we did all of this work to help ensure that your experience was super authentic. Here’s the proof for everything we did. Here’s where you can go and see, you know, we’re saying that a classic Western is something like ‘The Wild Bunch’. So go and watch ‘The Wild Bunch’, oh, look, when you play ‘Red Dead Redemption’, it’s very, very similar to ‘The Wild Bunch’. Therefore, this must be a kind of classic and authentic Western. It’s that kind of, that’s why I talk about like, that’s why the title is the kind of ‘Construction of Authenticity’ and it’s why that you know what I’m talking about authenticity I’m not talking about an actual defined property or value that we can actually ever really unpick, I don’t think authenticity is that. It’s not quality. It’s always, it’s a performance, it’s a claim that, that people are making and can be kind of interpreted positively or negatively. And what Rockstar were doing was trying to ensure that their fans interpreted it positively rather than kind of negatively.
In terms of comparing what I find really interesting and something that I always kind of mentally compare, what Rockstar were doing and have kind of historically been doing is that I compare it in some way to what kind of Hideo Kojima, his kind of social media presence, and kind of the ‘Metal Gear’ games and kind of to an extent sort of like ‘Death Stranding’ sort of his, his genre and kind of like presence, the way that through his sort of social media, he kind of performs this very American pop culture awareness, like a global pop culture awareness, when it’s, it’s all it’s always to do with like, certain key, classic kind of proper sort of bits of American pop culture, and how he kind of interacts with his fans how he sort of performs himself as somebody well-versed in sort of pop culture history, the difference being that Kojima is just one person and Rockstar sort of does this behind the mask of Rockstar Games through these official channels of communication as a kind of branded image. Which is supposed to make you think, or I think, it’s supposed to make you think that this is a collective of people, that is all sort of versed in this kind of pop culture, knowledge and understanding.
Bettina: Authenticity is very visible in social media-related research, especially in research that talks about kind of influencers and how they construct authenticity. And another term came into mind as I was reading your work, which is Crystal Abidin’s ‘Concept of Porous Authenticity’, that she uses to talk about the kind of presence that influencers curate in social media spaces, and specifically, how they create these inconspicuous and scattered halls or gateways that were intentionally left as trails for the curious. This made me think about how, you know, we can maybe imagine Rockstar being a history influencer, what do you think of that?
Esther: Yeah, that’s a really nice, nice way of thinking about what they were what they were doing, because so much of this material actually did have this kind of almost pedagogical tone that was trying to like I said, was trying to kind of prove that they’ve done their research and that they were knowledgeable about certain periods and genres and showing their kind of sources, their evidence, inviting fans to kind of come into their vision almost, and to see things the way that they see them. So showing them there, what the Rockstar kind of branded vision of the American West or of kind of 1940s L.A. was, and for them to go away then and investigate themselves by watching the movies or reading the sources to make sure that it actually measured up. And in that way, they were trying to kind of almost be an influencer for these very kind of canonical, very partial understandings of what the Western and what Noir is. But by inviting fans to sort of see them the way that they see them. And in doing so what they’re essentially doing is they’re revising a whole kind of complex and multifaceted canon of movies and cultural texts that have a very kind of global history, and really sort of revising them down to a very, very particular version and definition of the Western and Noir that is entirely oriented around American texts, very partial understanding of US history around white men. And these genres is kind of the vehicles for white masculinity. It’s completely stripping out complexity, for essentially the reason of creating a consumable image of these canons that I guess essentially authenticates what Rockstar wanted to make, because of their branding, because they made the kind of games they always sort of make, that usually kind of touch on these kinds of things they usually ordered around men and masculinity, they tell particular kind of stories. So they just kind of stripped out everything from what they were showing in terms of the, the overarching vision of these genres, these kind of cultural histories, to essentially influence people into thinking that, that was, that was the complete definition of what they are. And they have been super influential, like when, when Westworld, the TV series kind of came out that you know, the HBO series, the first ‘Red Dead Redemption’ was cited as a key influence on it despite the fact that Westworld is Westworld; is a kind of original text in many ways. But it was sort of games and particularly ‘Red Dead Redemption’ that were influential on it. So it was kind of this weird moment of, I don’t know, genealogy of like a game that is basically just a pastiche of those Westerns now, inspiring this TV show, which is partly Western, partly other things. So yeah, I do think that’s a really interesting way of thinking about them as kind of their role in inviting kind of players in to see sort of what they’ve done behind the scenes but offer a very, very kind of curated and constructed view of this. So that hopefully they will they will agree with what they’ve said.
Bettina: Yeah, absolutely. At least it is that kind of tension in self-presentation that stems from the strategicness of it, you know, people are curating and in the case of a multinational corporation that Rockstar is, several people, very large groups of people are curating it like in different parts of the world, different motivations, etc. their kind of image, but also this claim to be authentic and relatable and how they do that. So one of the things that really stands out to me from your work is how you explore this from the perspective of, you know, kind of film studies, gaming, media studies, history, etc. Speaking about Rockstar, obviously, the time of this recording is roughly kind of late 2021, when there has been quite a lot of discourse around the ‘GTA’ remaster. So I was curious about how you think Rockstar fits into the broader AAA game landscape of audience management.
Esther: I think what’s an interesting kind of facet of what has historically been Rockstar’s brand image is that they have this kind of image or try to self-actualize this image as being kind of the rebellious outsider, it’s something that has kind of come out in lots of kind of game studies literature, I’m thinking of like, either Games of Empire and Digital Play when the kind of these sort of these canonical almost like game study texts are talking about what, how Rockstar fit into the kind of landscape of AAA games. And the way that there’s been like sort of popular perceptions of them, too, is always this kind of yeah, really sort of rebellious outsider, they’re kind of outlaw brand. And sort of the, the branding and stuff that we’ve sort of seen of ‘Red Dead Redemption’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption II’ of this like outlaws for life kind of branding that was obviously about the game, but was also quite implicitly or quite explicitly about the company themselves. They really tried to maintain this image as being sort of outside or they’re entirely completely implicating the kind of the dominant, mainstream AAA capitalist kind of industry itself. So, I think that’s super interesting. They tried to be almost like anti-corporate sort of, at the centre of the games industry in terms of like, progress and doing all these amazing things and setting the standards by which games should be judged. But they’re also like that they’re above it. And they’re not really like like that they’re not as corporate as like other, you know, other companies and stuff like that. I think that’s a way in which audiences have or the audience or Rockstar fans rather have kind of seen them or viewed them for a long time. They were kind of different. I think that’s why it’s, sort of, really interesting that we’ve seen with the kind of the remaster of the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ trilogy that’s kind of come around in the last couple of weeks. And the huge backlash there has been against that, is really interesting. It’s, I think it’s a kind of signal change, that people’s perceptions of Rockstar are changing and fans perception’s of Rockstar are changing in ways that they hadn’t to such an extreme before. And I think it’s a kind of, to some extent, a slow change in, in people increasingly viewing Rockstar as kind of corporate and money-hungry, which they, you know, to an extent they always have been. But I think with the fact that for so many years now, really since ‘GTA V’ came out, and it kind of signaled the death of single-player DLC for their games, which is what most fans seem to want. Like, obviously loads, people play ‘Grand Theft Auto Online’, and they play ‘Red Dead online’, but the fact that as a company, they’ve basically just been plowing lots of kind of time and energy into updates for those modes, and you know, giving more content that way. But people are just asking well where’s ‘GTA VI’? Like, where’s the you know, where’s the single-player stuff? It’s, it’s really interesting that the audience seemed to want this kind of Rockstar curated experience, this Rockstar curated narrative experience, like, yes, they like playing the online modes, they like playing with, with kind of friends and other people online. But there’s still this kind of hunger for this kind of Rockstar curated experience of something. So it’s interesting to see the ways that there’s been this backlash, that there is this kind of perception now that a company may be trying to just bank on the popularity and enduring legacy of these games that came out nearly 20 years ago, okay, slightly less than 20 years ago, but rather than creating something new, this kind of remaster that, you know, has not hit the ground running in the way that the company obviously wanted. And people being really upset and annoyed that they can’t get the original versions or they can now but at the time, they couldn’t get the original versions and the original versions being pulled from, from kind of stores in, you know, being replaced by these remasters that did not live up to expectations. It’s, it’s been interesting to kind of watch in a slightly detached way trying not to kind of overanalyze and study it too much, but to kind of just see the way this has kind of all gone down in the last couple of weeks and what it might suggest to us about the way that this is perhaps a big moment for kind of this shift of Rockstar’s brand identity and its relationship with its fans. It’s kind of been maybe happening for the last seven or eight years anyway.
Bettina: Thank you, Esther Wright, for this great conversation about your work on Rockstar and historical authenticity and the construction of authenticity through paratexts and promotional materials. Where can we find out more about what you’re working on?
Esther: I have published sort of bits of this work sort of so far, like, you know, kind of very earlier bits of this book. In 2017, I published an article called ‘Marketing Authenticity’ in Kinephanos as kind of a special issue on video game promotion. That was kind of a really early articulation of the way that specifically in terms of those Newswire posts, I was talking about how Rockstar were trying to kind of manufacture perceptions of authenticity in terms of the border, cultural history of the kind of cultural touchstones their, their games are making. That’s been extended and developed a little bit to here for the book. But more recently, in kind of late 2021, I’ve had an article come out in a special issue of the European Journal of American Studies, which was a really great special issue on kind of games, American studies and politics, looking at the way that Rockstar through ‘Red Dead Redemption’ was sort of articulating and kind of dealing with different ideas about progress. So, in some sort of interesting, and to me quite striking ways, both in the way that they were promoting kind of ‘Red Dead Redemption’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption II’ in terms of the ideas of the kinds of progress they were making in terms of open-world game development and progress in game development more generally. And how that was kind of running parallel and kind of having some interesting similarities with the kind of the broader discourses of progress that we find in the kind of expansion of the, the American west or that were kind of part of the, the ideological kind of underpinnings in the expansion of American West. So it’s kind of a piece of work that sort of adjacent to the, some of the stuff that I’m doing in the book, or will be doing in the, in the book when it comes out. So, if people want to kind of go and read that as open access as a kind of insight into kind of the way that I try and sort of square promotional materials and kind of textual representation in the way that they can kind of conflict, conflict and contradict each other, but also the way, essentially a kind of microscale argument of why looking at promotional materials is so important for unpicking these kind of political and ideological messages that we find in games that we might think that this game is quite critical of something. But when they’re relying on exactly the kinds of ideologies and very problematic kind of racialized terminology that they think they’re critiquing, like, to what extent we actually think that’s a meaningful critique when they’re using it to sell games in a sort of perhaps, slightly, not as informed as they should be way, perhaps we might put it. Less about kind of my own writing, but something that I do, I’m co-convener of the historical games network, which at the moment has been a kind of series of quarterly themes and quarterly events with invited guest speakers that, essentially has been sort of organized around key themes that we, we’ve kind of seen in the intersection of history and games, in both digital and analogue and all different kinds of games. We’ve so far had themes and live events on historical truth, on ethics, and our current theme at the moment when we’re recording this as postcolonialism. But then we’re moving towards theme of education and informal learning. So we have the live events, which are recorded and put on YouTube that people can watch at historicalgames.net. But we also have a kind of a blog with guest posts and lots of interesting sort of studies and videos and blogs from people thinking about these key themes and how they intersect with our kind of concerns and the way we think about history and games of all kinds.
Bettina: Thank you so much.
Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.