When Rockstar Games followed the success of their magnificent, open-world Western Red Dead Redemption with a sequel in 2018, they renewed a fascination with the American West among players worldwide. Historian Tore Olsson, associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is building on this enthusiasm by using the games in a new history course for autumn 2021.
Red Dead America explores the history of the United States between 1880-1920 and its contemporary parallels using the Red Dead Redemption games as central texts. “I picked up Red Dead Redemption 2 after it was recommended to me by a colleague, a 19th century historian,” says Olsson. “I distinctly remember him saying, ‘check out this game, it’s not stupid.’”
Having taken a break from the medium for some 20 years, Olsson decided it was time to check out what he had missed when faced with an abundance of downtime during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was mind-blowing to play games again after so long and see the development of characters and narrative,” says Olsson.
“These were things I just had no idea that video games did. I thought you just ran around and shot people, which is what I did with games like DOOM and Quake in the 90s.” It was then that the idea hit him. Why not design a class around this game to get students interested in history?
Meeting students where they are
Teaching collegiate classes based on video games isn’t a new idea. English and history classes occasionally pop up from semester to semester using games such as Assassin’s Creed or Dark Souls as bases. But to Olsson’s knowledge no class has ever been taught using Red Dead Redemption.
“They’re the smartest, most historically careful video games that I’ve ever played but, to be honest, that’s not saying much,” says Olsson. “The games very often float a real, serious historical topic that isn’t central to the plot, but is still there. It’s my job to take these things that are largely in the background and to help students think seriously about what they mean.”
Over 15 weeks, Olsson will guide students through the four regions of North America interpreted by Red Dead Redemption: the West, the Deep South, Appalachia and Mexico. After months of planning, Olsson’s class, Red Dead America, held its first session on 19 August. So is it working?
A serious history class
In terms of pure student interest and engagement, Red Dead America has been a huge success for UTK’s history department. The course is catalogued as “HIUS 383,” a catch-all course used for experimental, usually one-off history classes. When Olsson taught 383 last semester, he had 12 students; this semester, Red Dead America has just under 60.
Make no mistake, Red Dead America isn’t a class where students simply play video games for an easy A. It’s a serious, upper-division history course that looks at the years 1880-1920 in the American West through the lens of the Red Dead Redemption games.
While knowledge of the games may help add interest or enthusiasm for students, it isn’t necessary to take the class. Clips from the games are shown in every lecture, but most of the course is taught from texts including Inventing the Pinkertons by S. Paul O’Hara and The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela’s 1929 novel about the Mexican Revolution.
Awakening historical interest
The strategy of using Red Dead Redemption’s popularity to draw in students that might otherwise be uninterested in history seems to have worked. While half of the class are history majors, the rest of the students are majoring in journalism, child and family studies, physics and other subjects.
Though an advanced history course might be intimidating to non-majors, Olsson’s passion and teaching style is breaking through to students. “As a big fan of the games, Red Dead America has been one of the most engaging educational experiences I have taken part in,” says Austin Orr, a senior at UTK majoring in communication studies.
“Dr. Olsson is very passionate about the history and the games, and it really shows in every lecture. The class is enjoyable and accessible to students from any major who are looking to learn about a particularly pivotal time in American history.”
Students aren’t just feeling an increased interest in history thanks to the class, they’re actively engaging far more frequently than in a normal history course. “The participation rates (in in-class discussion and debates) are already significantly higher than in a regular class,” says Olsson.
“And it’s not just discussion on the games; students are drawing on the readings and lecture materials and asking serious questions. I’ve also had way more participation in office hours than I have ever had. There’s been a steady stream of people stopping by each week, which is completely unlike most office hours I’ve ever done.”
While the class still has a few months of its inaugural voyage remaining, it seems to have been blessed with fair winds. Red Dead America is successfully drawing students into an advanced level history course in record numbers, encouraging increased engagement and discussion, and renewing interest in history as a whole.
Olsson is unsure whether he will teach Red Dead America again in the near future. He is however actively working on a new American history course that is not constrained to the Red Dead franchise. Given Red Dead America’s success, UTK will likely continue to use video games in unorthodox ways. Olsson hopes others will follow suit.
“Teaching history classes using pop culture as a basis isn’t a new idea, but using video games still kind of is,” says Olsson. “While the results aren’t set in stone yet for Red Dead America, it’s so far, so good.”