When the COVID-19 pandemic shut individuals indoors, Associate Professor of History Tore Olsson of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, took a colleague’s recommendation to play Red Dead Redemption 2. A former avid gamer, Olsson hadn’t touched a console since his high school days, but being cooped up indoors, he gave the game a chance. Within a few hours of play, Olsson began noticing frequent allusions to major historical dilemmas that usually go untouched in video games.
“I was quite stunned at its attention to detail, at least relative to other games, and its willingness to engage difficult and complex historical subjects, including race and racism, the power of corporate capital, and the cosmopolitan nature of the US population, women’s suffrage, among many other topics,” Olsson said.
Games such as The Oregon Trail and Assassin’s Creed, which portray historical events, have at times been incorporated into university history courses, but Olsson saw Red Dead Redemption 2 as the basis of a possible class.
The Red Dead series, developed by Rockstar Games, originally launched in 2004 with Red Dead Revolver and grew to fame in 2018 with its third title, Red Dead Redemption 2. Set at the turn of the 20th century, Red Dead Redemption 2 details crime and lawlessness at a moment when the entire United States was being transformed by industrial capitalism.
Individuals play as Arthur Morgan, a fictional member of one of the last remaining outlaw gangs, who is fleeing federal agents and bounty hunters after a robbery goes wrong. On his journey across America, Morgan faces choices that determine his character and ultimately—spoiler alert—his death. The game’s story line and visual texture skyrocketed its sales, giving it the largest-grossing opening weekend of any video game.
The game’s popularity struck a chord with Olsson. If students were interested in the contents of the game, would they be interested in more of the period’s history through the lens of the game?
“The course was born out of this instinct, and out my long-term interest in inviting new generations into the professional study of the past. Historians have being doing this forever. Fifty years ago, we taught history courses using popular novels. Thirty years ago, we taught history courses with popular films. Twenty years ago, we might have used popular TV series. We’ve been very slow to acknowledge that video games are basically the same thing,” he said.
This fall, Olsson is teaching Red Dead America, a course detailing the history of North America in the period from 1880 to 1920. Proving as popular as the game itself, Olsson’s class filled up quickly.
Olivia Musick, a senior history major from Morristown, Tennessee, is a fan of the series and has regularly taken Olsson’s special topics courses. She’s one of 55 students filling the upper-division history course.
“When I was signing up for class last fall, Professor Olsson had told me about a class that incorporated a video game theme, but I wasn’t expecting it to be something I was interested in,” she said. “I am genuinely looking forward to how he is going to structure the class. He really puts a lot of thought and effort and storytelling into a concept and really makes everything interesting. It’s not just facts. It’s not just dates. It’s actually a story and it’s all linear.”
Students in the course are not required to have knowledge of the time period or the games. On the first day of class, Olsson found that 80 percent of students were familiar with the series and more than half had played it.
Aaron Parker, a senior in communication studies from Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, said he had completed an hour of the game before becoming bored with its storyline.
“I had seen commercials about the game, and it was big buzz,” he said. “I had needed an elective and thought about taking a revolutionary war class, but once I saw an option that incorporated a video game into history, I said we’re absolutely taking that.”
“Teachers always try to make connections to things in the real world. This class really does that.”
Throughout the class, students will discuss the 40-year time period’s many issues, including corporate capitalism, racial violence, and women’s suffrage, using the game for visual reference in combination with additional reading and visual materials.
Olsson’s course picked up publicity earlier this year as he announced it in a tweet that was quickly shared by nearly 1,000 users and liked by more than 2,900. His use of Red Dead Redemption 2 in the classroom was noticed by two of the voice actors in the series—Samantha Strelitz, who plays Mary-Beth Gaskill, and Steve Palmer, who plays Bill Williamson in the 2010 and 2018 games, and offered to Zoom in to the class during the semester.
“I wanted the students to have a little insight into how these games are made and also to inspire them to be like, Hey, a history major could possibly open doors to working in this industry as well,” said Olsson.
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