Achievement unlocked: Tennessee professor’s new course explores American history through ‘Red Dead Redemption’ video game

Education

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — University of Tennessee professor Tore Olsson is logging in to pop culture to get students excited about the past and shoot down myths of post-Civil War America.

Olsson will be teaching “HIUS 383: Red Dead America” this fall. The course will take a look at the popular “Red Dead Redemption” video game series and explore the historical themes it touches on, including westward expansion, the dispossession of Native Americans, the beginnings of Jim Crow racial violence in the South, the Mexican Revolution, women’s suffrage, and how Chinese, Mexican, Italian, and German immigrants played a role in shaping America.

“The games’ creators clearly cared a great deal about recreating the look and feel of turn-of-the-century America, and it’s obvious that they closely studied photographs of the period,” Olsson said.

“It’s almost like the games use real historical dilemmas as stage-pieces for setting their adventure. It’s our job in the class to try to fully understand those topics and their contradictions – which is of course what history students do in a regular history class. We’ll just use the game as a bridge to address those topics.”

University of Tennessee professor Tore Olsson

The two Rockstar games, “Red Dead Redemption” (released in 2010) and “Red Dead Redemption 2” (2018), follow two members of the fictional Van der Linde gang, John Marston and Arthur Morgan, as they deal try to outrun the law and the decline of the Wild West. The games are set in 1899 to 1911 and feature five fictional states resembling Mexico, the Caribbean, Colorado, Louisiana and the Great Plains states.

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Olsson, a post-Civil War U.S. historian, said the idea for the course came from his own experience with the game.

At the suggestion of another history professor, Olsson said he picked up a controller during the COVID-19 pandemic after setting it down in the 2000s when he was in college and grad school.

“I was quite stunned by the game’s visuals, storytelling, and attention to historical dilemmas,” he said. “But most importantly, I got excited about the idea of using the game as a gateway for students to explore the gritty reality of American life at the turn of the 20th century. Knowing how popular the game is among students, I thought, why not use this as a jumping-off point to dive into some complex history?”

It took Olsson about 75 hours to complete “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and he is going to start playing “Red Dead Redemption” for the first time in the coming weeks. He also plans to tryout the popular online multiplayer version “Red Dead Online.”

While the course is a bit out of the norm, Olsson already mixes pop culture and current topics with his other history classes. His U.S. history survey class from post-Civil War to current time is called “American History in 30 Pop Songs.” He also teaches “Food and Power in American History,” which uses food and drink as a lens to view the past, and “Borders, Burritos, and Gringos,” a course about the entangled histories of the U.S. and Mexico.

The hope, Olsson said is that his new course will inspire more students to look at history as a major and expand course offerings.

“In the past 20 years, there’s been a national decline in students choosing to major in history as our culture has become so STEM-focused,” he said. “So we’re always looking for ways to bring new students into the fold. But whether classes like this become more common really depends on how my experiment next semester goes.”

Students will be able to signup for the course in mid- to late-March. Enrollement is capped, for now, at 35 students, but Olsson said if demand is strong, the course could be expanded.

“I want to take as many students as possible along for the ride, especially those who might not otherwise take an American history class,” he said.

The University of Tennessee Esports Club and several students have already reached out to Olsson about the course.

Playing the game won’t be a requirement for the course, though Olsson said he expects most will have some hours logged in the game. Even if a student hasn’t played, Olsson said they’ll get a ton out of the class since the overwhelming focus is not the game, but the history behind it.

Source: Stefans02/Flickr

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