Call of the Wild West, Land of the... Ethical Treatment of Animals?S

I CAN outrun a bear. I can just about outmanoeuvre a wild boar. Although I'll get taken down by a pack of wolves fairly fast. A wild cougar will tear my fleshy neck asunder.

The Majestic Buffalo

This contains spoilers
There are two particular parts of Red Dead Redemption's single player story when the underlying theme of hunting and the treatment of animals becomes an overt criticism of human mastery. Nastas the Indian is leading Marston and a coke-riddled anthropologist named McDougal out of town to a pow-wow. A herd of bison is stampeding, desperately trying to escape the gunfire of a couple of hunters. Nastas turns nasty. White man is slaughtering the herds. McDougal is incredulous. The Injuns do it as well, says he.

"But we hunt out of need, not for sport," says Nastas.

An estimated 3,158,000 buffalo were killed by white men at the height of their extermination in the years 1872-74. Native Americans managed 390,000. Maybe Nastas has a point. Or maybe there were just more white folk to do the killing by that point. What with the Natives suffering their own conspicuous population downer and everything.

The treatment of animals comes up again when John Marston, in one of his moments of blind hypocrisy, tells his son while they are hunting elk to "only kill what you need." For a game that actively encourages the player to kill as many animals as possible solely for achievements or trophies (the money gained has no useful purpose – I will fight you on this), it gets on its high horse an awful lot about the ethics of hunting.

This is RDR's real strength. It lets you play with some of that there ethics stuff. Forget the honour and notoriety scale. Forget reforming criminals with Boy Scout noose tying lessons. Forget helping old ladies get run over in the road. Animal rights is the real playground.

I wanted to investigate the extremes of the animal rights ethics. For and against. But I didn't want to read any books about it. So I played Red Dead Redemption instead.

PETA Bred

I can outrun a bear. I can just about outmanoeuvre a wild boar. Although I'll get taken down by a pack of wolves fairly fast. A wild cougar will tear my fleshy neck asunder.

I can tell you all this because my first task playing as an extreme animal rights activist was to get to know the animals. To try and live among them. Most of the time I just ended up dying among them. Although I didn't have much luck with the humans either.

The multiplayer of RDR takes place on the same huge, open-world map of the single player game. I plotted my route. I would spend my time in Call of the Wild West, Land of the... Ethical Treatment of Animals?Mexico living with the animals. By the time I hit America again I would be ready for the second phase.

Up to 16 players can roam the West. They can do this either as part of a co-ordinated posse proposed between players or they can brave the wild alone. This lends a unique sense of paranoia to player encounters. When you come across another lone feller on the range, you can never quite tell if he'll say howdy and dander on by, ask to team up with you or stick a bullet in yer gullet. So to anyone who saw me, tumbling around with a pair of coyotes trying to see if they'd ever stop running away (three or less Coyotes will run from you – four will gnaw on your face), it must have been either terribly unnerving or strangely reassuring.

I was shot often.

To pose as the most extreme animal rights activist I had to set myself some rules. Firstly, no killing any animals, even when they attack – run, don't shoot. Secondly, no riding horse-back – saddles are a cruel symbol of animal subordination to human oppressors! I would trek the whole way on foot (although my horse just followed me everywhere anyway). Finally, anyone seen inflicting harm on animals must be taught the error of their ways.

The first two rules are practically inconvenient, the third rule is just plain awkward. How do you teach someone to stop harming living things for no reason? Do you try and teach them by telling them over your headset? Or do you put a round in their belly to make sure they get the message? In doing this would I be breaking the first rule? Since humans are animals too, and I can't kill any animals even when attacked?
I decided to take the pacifist approach.

If only I'd known how fuzzyhead98 would react.

He clambered toward me amid the scarred canyons of Perdido. He wore an American Army uniform. You can't smell on the PS3, but if you could he would have smelled like disloyalty. He dismounted his horse and ran about a bit. I stopped trying to make friends with a skunk and said hello. He replied by shooting my horse.

"You know, you shouldn't do that. That's animal cruelty."

In RDR there is something majorly insulting in the killing of someone's horse. It's an inconsistency. Players kill each other casually with throwing knives and shotguns. They slaughter fleeing stags, boars, buffalo, rabbits, beaver. But to kill someone's mount just feels like terrible form old chap. Most people don't do it. However, if your horse dies you can whistle and a respawn will appear over the horizon pretty much instantly. I whistled.

I tried to relay to fuzzyhead98 the argument philosopher Peter Singer uses – all animals should be equal in suffering. Animals (human and non-human) should therefore not be treated according to their capacity for rationality or intelligence. Animals should be treated according to their capacity for suffering. Distinctions we draw between humans and "beasts" are merely arbitrary. In most Western (not this kind of Western) societies we do not harm or kill a severely brain-damaged person, even if they have the mental capacity of a chimpanzee. But we'll gladly slaughter any animal that we deem stupid and tasty enough.

It looked like I would have to use books after all. I quoted Singer.

"Once we ask why it should be that all humans – including infants, mental defectives, psychopaths, Hitler, Stalin, and the rest – have some kind of dignity or worth that no elephant, pig, or chimpanzee can ever achieve, we see that this question is as difficult to answer as our original request for some relevant fact that justifies the inequality of humans and other animals."

It was only after fuzzyhead98 knifed my third steed that I got the distinct feeling Singer's point was not getting through. This must be what animal rights protesters feel like all the time. Nobody wants to know.

Still, he can't have been satisfied. Which was probably the reason he knifed me too. It was probably the reason he kept stabbing my cadaver. That, or because of all the malicious philosophy that was spilling out my gut.

Knife to meet you

Arguments don't have one side. I drew my knife when I got to America over Frontera Bridge. I was going to need it for all the glorious hunting I'd be doing as an animal rights de-activist. Actually, that makes it sound like I went around killing hippies. I'll stick with "hunter." I was going to be a hunter. The second phase.

The rules: firstly, only kill wild animals – predators or prey but no humans. Secondly, try to kill them as naturally as possibly – using primitive weapons (sadly this means no help from other animals, so no horse-riding again). Thirdly, a true hunter kills legendary game – I must kill a cougar, a wolf and a bear.

I'd gotten to the North without any more hassle from other players. I ran into a pair of wolves once, who savaged me when I tried to convinceCall of the Wild West, Land of the... Ethical Treatment of Animals? them to make me a Mexican Mowgli. Apart from that I'd stumbled across a goat, a few skunks and a couple of White-tail deer that didn't want to play. If that was the wildlife when I was friendly I can't imagine they'd be much more accommodating to someone charging at them with a blade, eyes full of hunt-lust.

I first noticed something was wrong when there were no birds in the sky. Behind me the Silent Stead was just that. There should have been vultures circling, crows cackling like beaked toddlers with a nasty streak. Ahead of me, in Rattlesnake Hollow, there should have been Rattlesnakes, but there was only Hollow. I whistled for my horse, just to make sure he was still around at least. But he never came. Rockstar's recent DLC update had given everyone glitches and the models for both animals and humans weren't showing up. The other players were still there but only as dots on the radar, ghostly voices and heavy breathing, their character models having long gone invisible. As lovely as the scenery is in RDR, as beautiful as the scarlet sunrises over the sandstone monoliths of Diez Coronas are, I was supposed to be looking for wildlife. I did not want to play a game about geography.

I trekked on regardless through the eerie, empty wilderness. Where have all the millions gone? There were no mustangs in Cholla Springs, no mule deer in Hennigan's Stead. There were no Bison on the Great Plains.

But there were bugs everywhere.

It was a digital extinction.

The Patient Hunter

Lonesome days have passed. The bugs are gone. All the Master Hunting challenges are complete. Sod the natural. Nature gave humans brains. Brains gave humans weapons. Ergo, weapons are a product of nature. A gun is as much a tool as a knife. I stuck Lobo the wolf with a knife. I peppered Gordo the boar with buckshot. Khan the jaguar got a rifle bullet in the torso. I fed Brumas the bear dynamite.

There is a new quarry on the map. They call him the Mad Man on the Mountain. No they don't. But I like to think they do. A player with the title ‘Lord of the Flies.' Who dropped everything he was doing. Went outlaw. Killed dozens of lawmen and civvies in Blackwater town. Got himself a bounty of over $2000. Climbed up to snowy Nekoti Rock, one of the highest points on the map, just to wait in a bear's cavern with a sniper rifle, some TNT and bones for company. Whoever kills him first collects the experience points. He waits.

First, WHITE_POWER016 tries to collect. His ascent. Dodging a TNT blast he eventually nears the top, only to receive a belly full of lead from one of those new-fangled high powered automatic pistols. I can tell you this because I was there. I saw it. His six-shooter isn't a match. He respawns. Calls for his horse. His horse is shot in the head from under him from what looks like a mile away. WHITE_POWER016 flees and doesn't try his luck again. I can't say I'm sorry he failed. The Mad Man has a black character avatar. Fuck off, white power.

Then noblestrangerman tries to collect the bounty. He arrives in a wagon pulled neatly by a couple of horses. The Mad Man takes some pot shots and noblestrangerman has to abandon the wagon to take cover. Oddly he doesn't fire back. This gives him a sheepish, puzzled air, like a Japanese businessman who has gone trail-blazing by mistake. I can tell you this because I was there. I saw it. Before he can ascend to the sadist's nest, before he can pass the corpse of WHITE_POWER016 and the half-dozen identical bodies of the Mad Man's horse repeatedly respawned and remurdered, before noblestrangerman even has a chance the Mad Man takes out his last stick of explosives and throws it at the wagon. Aiming to kill the horses and the bounty hunter in one terrible blast. Without waiting to watch for success he leaps from the mountain top, turning ragdoll half-way down. Finally, he cracks his neck against the ground by the wheel of the wagon. The bounty is gone – it only lasts one life. Nobody can claim it now. The noblestangerman, who has miraculously survived the blast, can only whistle for the respawn of his horse and mournfully saunter into the dark, glacial woods. There is no romance in RDR. It's a harsh world in single player and multiplayer. Nobody rides off into the sunset.

I can tell you that this was what the Mad Man had learned. He was not really mad. He merely realised that it was dog eat dog, that nature was nasty and brutish. In his own way he too believed that all animals were equal. That is, that none were exempt from nature, from predation. Not human players, not their horses. Not Lobo or Gordo or Khan or Brumas, and not himself. I can tell you this is not the Mild West. This is the Wild West. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. I can tell you this because I was there. I saw it. Because it is what I thought when I went completely Colonel Kurtz. When I became the Mad Man on the Mountain.

Brendan Caldwell is a news editor at Resolution Magazine. He eats meat and pretends to feel guilty about it when really he feels gorgeous inside. Find him scuttling about on The Shore and on Twitter.