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kottke.org posts about Nicholas Lund

Going Birdwatching in Red Dead Redemption 2

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2019

Birding in Red Dead Redemption 2

For Audubon, avid birder Nicholas Lund writes about the experience of going birdwatching in the mega-popular Red Dead Redemption 2 game, set in the American West, circa 1899. The attention to detail and the number of species represented is impressive.

I spent most of my time finding birds, and was impressed with the breadth and relative accuracy of the species represented. Birds change with habitat: Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets feed in the bayous of Saint Denis. Laughing Gulls and Red-footed Boobies roost along the coast, while eagles and condors soar over mountain peaks. Each of these are crafted with accurate field marks and habits. There are dozens of species I couldn’t even find, including Carolina Parakeets, Ferruginous Hawks, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Like real life birding, you’re never guaranteed to see anything.

The sound design, too, is impressive. The landscape is alive with birdsong, including many species not actually in the game, like Northern Flicker and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I was riding through a wooded area one time as dusk turned to night, and whip-poor-wills began singing out all around me.

But the game’s realistic portrayal of wildlife and its exploitation by humans causes Lund to reflect on how much destruction we’ve caused.

The demand for egret plumes for fancy hats was driving several species toward extinction. (Snowy Egret plumes can be sold in-game for $2.50 apiece.) Habitat loss and overhunting contributed to the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet soon after the game’s timeframe, in the early 20th century. (Carolina Parakeet flight feathers can be used to make far-flying arrows in the game.) The type of wanton destruction encouraged in Red Dead Redemption 2 is what led the National Audubon Society to lobby for, and Congress to pass, the real Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, and other environmental legislation in the following decades.

Lund’s birding trip reminded me of other non-conventional uses of realistic video games by players: Jim Munroe being a tourist in Grand Theft Auto III and war photographer Ashley Gilbertson sending back photographs from the ultra-violent The Last of Us Remastered.