A love letter to Harriet Davenport, the maddest of them all – The life of a Naturalist in Red Dead Online

by Felix Zimmermann

Introduction: Doing the work in Red Dead Online

Harriet is a killer. Well, that’s not quite right. Harriet makes me kill for her. However, she is very specific about who or what to kill, mind you.

Let me tell you that Red Dead Online, the stand-alone online version of Red Dead Redemption 2, is very much a game about killing. Even more so than the single player story surrounding Arthur Morgan and the Van-der-Linde-Gang, Red Dead Online is concerned with keeping me busy with small tasks to very slowly earn money and experience. One wouldn’t be wrong to call this grind or work. However, I have to admit that the world of Red Dead Online – which is the same as in Red Dead Redemption 2 with its five fictional states based on real-world North American landscapes – continues to enthrall me. I come back to the game almost every day to fulfill some of the so-called “Daily Challenges”, watch the sun set behind the Ambarino mountains and take a picture of it.[1]

The Ambarino Mountains in Red Dead Online (Source: Screenshot by author)

Every day, I am greeted with seven new “general” challenges and up to 15 challenges spread around the five “roles” available in the game: the “Bounty Hunter”, the “Trader”, the “Collector”, the “Moonshiner” and the “Naturalist”. To unlock these roles, you must accumulate a certain amount of in-game gold currency which can also be bought with real-world money. It takes almost forever but it is possible to earn enough gold by logging in every day and fulfilling the challenges. I have done that. Am I proud of it? Not so sure about that. Did I have a good time? Most certainly.

You see these challenges lean very noticeably towards violent activities. Of course, I have to pick some Milkweed[2] here and there or travel to a shop in Blackwater. But more often than not I am asked to shoot some bandits or hunt some animals (“Skin 3 Prairie Chickens” for example). And then, as you can probably imagine, the “role challenges” have to do with their according role. So as a bounty hunter I have to hunt people and bring them in dead or alive. As a collector I have to collect rare loot and sell it and as a moonshiner I have to, surprise, distill some moonshine and illegally distribute it.

Hunting for money

I think that the most important and therefore go-to role for beginners is the trader. As a trader I bring animal carcasses, pelts, feathers and such to “JB Cripps” who sets up his base in the camp of my posse (a rudimentary clan or guild of sorts). After a while I get the option to deliver the processed goods to a nearby town or outpost and earn some Red Dead Online-Dollars (the less valuable currency compared to gold). Then back to the camp, rinse and repeat. This a good way to get a steady income to buy equipment and upgrades for your camp while also leveling up the trader role to unlock high quality horses for example. Of course, I can also just take the dead animals to the nearest butcher in Valentine or Rhodes and sell them there if I just need some fast cash. It doesn’t really matter. What is obvious: (Dead) animals directly translate to money in the world of Red Dead Online. Feathered money, money on four legs, furry and striped money.

The trader role fully embraces this reality of Red Dead Online. As part of the daily challenges, it asks me to donate 6 perfect carcasses (so I must be careful to only shoot the head of the animal and with the right weapon and ammunition)[3] or to make 200$ from trading (which amounts to about three to four deliveries depending on how much goods were processed). Sometimes, I am asked to just give in and start a somewhat mindless killing-spree when I have to donate 20 carcasses in under ten in-game minutes. So, I run around and most of the time shoot everything that moves. Birds fall from the sky, bucks run in fear while I unload my gun’s magazine in their general direction and sheep gets slaughtered at the nearest farm.

It’s pretty brutal, now that I think about it. But what can I say: That’s classic gamified violence. I don’t see animals on my screen, I see a daily challenge to be met, I see feather money, money on four legs, furry and striped money.

Let me introduce you to Harriet Davenport

Now back to Harriet. This is Harriet:

Harriet Davenport in front of her tent in Red Dead Online (Source: Screenshot by author)

I come to visit her every time I play. She is always somewhere in the game world in her tent that she outfitted to not only be a home among the trees but also her laboratory. You see, Harriet Davenport is a scientist. She is specialized on the research and conservation of the game world’s wildlife. Did you know that there are 235 different animal types in the game?[4] Harriet will probably have to spend a lot more time in her tent to learn about them all – especially because she seems to be the only person interested in them (as long as they are alive, at least). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The official trailer for the „The Naturalist“ DLC for Red Dead Online

Harriet Davenport was added to Red Dead Online when the “Naturalist” role was released in July 2020. As is the case with the other roles, I had to amass a hefty amount of gold to buy a “Sample Kit” that allows me to work for Harriet. Now I can find her in her tent, reading, taking notes, analyzing samples or mixing together tinctures from rare plants. She comes from a wealthy family of outfitters (there is a “Hoffmann & Davenport” store in Saint Denis) but tries to ignore the contempt of her family and pursues her passion as a naturalist. At some point in the game she mentions that she “just received a letter from my sister saying that I’m an embarrassment to the Davenport name, that I should be getting married and starting a family”, and proclaims: “She’s the embarrassment, not me! I’m on a voyage of discovery.”

“Hoffmann & Davenport Comprehensive Outfitters For Ladies & Gents” in Saint Denis (Source: Screenshot by author)

It stands to assume that the character of Harriet is – at least in parts – based on real-world female scientists who furthered research on flora and fauna despite falling out of the societal roles that were intended for them by doing it. I could only find one short essay by a user named “The One-eyed Thief” who argues that Harriet Davenport is based on the Australian natural history illustrator Harriet Morgan (1830 – 1907) and the American author and naturalist Harriet Mann Miller (1831 – 1918), however without providing proof for this claim.[5]

Her unkempt, slightly chaotic hair is an important part of her visual appearance. She wears upper-class clothing which, however, appears dirtied from the field trips Harriet presumably goes on when I’m away doing something else. Also, I can spot mud stains on her face, emphasizing the hands-on approach to her research. Harriet seems to me like a woman torn between her apparently quite noble upbringing and her actual living in the wilderness. She is as well a very elegant woman, polite and well-behaved, as she is very direct, fierce, and unconcerned with how society sees her or expects her to be.

Harriet Davenport (Source: Screenshot by author)

Thou shalt not kill

My main duty as a naturalist is to collect animal samples, bring them to Harriet for her studies and thereby complete the “Animal Field Guide” that was added to my inventory when unlocking the “Naturalist” role. To help me with collecting these samples, Harriet provides me with special sedative ammo for the “Varmint Rifle” that otherwise is mainly used to kill small animals without damaging their pelts. With this ammo, I am able to temporarily put most animals to sleep to extract a sample from them with my syringe.[6]

While the buck sleeps, I can take a sample. (Source: Screenshot by author)

After a while, the animals get back up again unharmed. I can then bring the samples to Harriet and sell them, thereby gaining experience for the naturalist role and earning money without killing. It’s an interesting alternative to the well-established flow of the game that is built around a hunting economy.[7]

But you know, Harriet is not the person to just provide a neat alternative to hunters looking for variety in their income flow. Harriet is a woman with a very strict moral code, dedicated and really in no mood to suffer my animals killing routines. After I bought that “Sample Kit” to work for Harriet and thereby unlocking the “Naturalist” role, at first, I went back to my default behavioral script. I took my horse to camp, shouldered my trusty “Bolt Action Rifle”, and went to shoot some bucks in the head. Well, I did that and was met with a message in the top-left corner of my screen: “Killing animals will cause Harriet to become increasingly upset with you.” I was wondering: Is the game trying to shame me for killing animals now? That’s ridiculous. So what if Harriet gets upset? In a world in which you can kill nearly anyone and anything without real consequences, it is hard to believe that some NPC will be the one to stop me from doing what I please in this game.

And then I went to Harriet. As I got closer, she shouted: “Oh, I know what you’ve been up to, word travels fast in the forest.” Alright, I thought, hello to you, too. I tried to talk to her but a cutscene started. Enraged, Harriet procured some kind of perfume flask and sprayed some liquid directly into my face. I didn’t know what was happening.

Harriet has had enough of your bulls***(Source: Screenshot by author)

There was no time to react – I mean, it’s a cutscene – and before I could really comprehend the situation, my character passed out. She poisoned me! Or drugged or sedated or how you want to call it. Shortly after, I woke up some 100 meters away from Harriet’s tent. I went back to confront her, but she just didn’t want to talk to me. No interaction possible. And no, it’s impossible to just shoot her.

At first, I felt offended. How dare she drug me and tell me to get lost! And how dare the game make me feel bad when I kill animals with this annoying message telling me that Harriet will get upset! The whole game is built around a mechanic to kill enemies and animals alike! But then it dawned on me: What a bold move by the developers! After encouraging to kill, skin, sell, kill, skin, sell over and over and over for dozens of hours, the game just slapped me in the face with my own behavior. Of course, I was not locked out from interacting with Harriet forever. After some (cool down) time, she agreed to speak to me again but every time I go back to killing animals, she will know, and she will retaliate. When I spoke to her after ‘the incident’, she made that clear: “Sorry, I don’t have much respect for punishment, but sometimes words are not sufficient. Let’s hope that got the message across.”

Sure, this might just be a nuisance but even a nuisance can be a powerful way to get your message across to players. The moment I’ve unlocked the “Naturalist” role, I was in it for good – I can’t stop being a “Naturalist” again. Every time I start up the game and kill an animal, the message showing Harriet’s disappointment will return. I know that I shouldn’t do it and that Harriet will always be watching. As an educational moment this is very powerful although it will definitely differ from player to player depending on how much they care. But I can say for myself that it stopped me effectively from going down the rabbit hole of gamified and emotionally disconnected killing again. Daily challenges for the “Naturalist” role like “Don’t kill an animal for 18 game hours” reinforce this. It has become harder for me to see animals as money on four legs.

Ok, maybe thou shalt kill

Oh, and when I mentioned that Harriet is a woman with a strict moral code, I very much meant it. You might be wondering why I earlier stated that Harriet is a killer as it seems that Harriet is actually very much into preserving life instead of destroying it. I can tell you that Harriet doesn’t stop at drugging people that harmed her animals. Although Harriet doesn’t leave her tent (at least while I’m around) and therefore doesn’t act on her own, she is very clear when communicating with me about what I must do for her. Bringing her animal samples is only one part of our work relationship.

After progressing to Rank 5 of the “Naturalist” role, some “special missions” were unlocked. I got a “Legendary Animal Map” to find special animals in the Open-World and get samples from them and I was sent to investigate “Legendary Animal Sightings”. The latter brings with it some very interesting cutscenes that present the – oftentimes quite dangerous – animals to be sedated.

The “Legendary Animal Map” provided by Harriet. Not the most helpful map in the history of maps, maybe, but gives a general idea of where to look for some of the legendary animals. (Source: Author by screenshot)

A scene from a cut-scene that is part of the mission to find a legendary (and ridiculously deadly) Leopard. (Source: Screenshot by author)

On another occasion Harriet asked me to save some animals from poachers. As can be deduced from her poison attack on me, Harriet acts decisively when it comes to protecting the wildlife. When she sent me out to find a legendary animal, she asked me to “treat it with kindness”. When she sent me out to deal with some poachers, she called them “a squadron of bloody blisters waiting to be burst”. Suffice to say that the tone changed a bit.

With the “Naturalist” update, there was also another NPC added to the game: Gus Macmillan. You could say that he is Harriet’s nemesis.

Gus Macmillan in his shop in Saint Denis. What’s not to like about this guy? (Source: Screenshot by author)

He is a retired hunter and asks me to bring him animals pelts, so he can craft powerful trinkets that buff my character’s stats. Where Harriet wants me to find the legendary animal, take a photo and a sample, Gus wants me to kill it and bring him its rare pelt so that he can for example craft a nice hat from it. The Red Dead Wiki claims that “Gus once slaughtered twenty elephants in Africa due to losing a bet”,[8] so it is pretty clear what to expect from him.

Harriet talks about Gus a lot. One time, she told me about what she calls “Macmillan’s murder for hire business” and that she “should pay someone to kill him”. “I’m joking, of course. I would never sink to his level”, she added, but she was clearly conflicted about it, that much was obvious. Quite generally, Harriet is a complex character. While she emphasizes that she is “not a violent person” she makes it very clear that in her mind the poachers she wants me to kill “deserve what’s coming their way”.

She is very gentle with animals, even has something like a spiritual connection to them. She tells me about a new plant she found which she named “Harrietum Officinalis”. One time I rested at a campfire when the game suddenly gave me a prompt to burn some of that plant in the fire. It is most certainly a very interesting plant, that much I can say. I had contact with an animal spirit that night.

Hey there, animal spirit buddy! (Source: Screenshot by author)

With enough of the “Harrietum Officinalis” plant I could even turn into a buck, a rabbit, a boar or an opossum for a short amount of time.[9] Harriet emphasizes this special relationship she has to animals and that she also – as it seems – wants for me. For example, one time she asked me to find a legendary bear. Note where she got her information about this animal from: “You’ll know it when you see it, a fox told me.”

She encourages me to try to look through the eyes of the animals around me, to fully accept them as “sentient beings, with complex emotions”. One time she elaborated her thoughts: “The majority of people go through life believing they see everything. When in fact, they see almost nothing. Confined by the limits of their own consciousness. Just imagine if you could scurry as a possum. Hop as a rabbit.“

For her, animals are our equals and should be treated as such. However, when she is talking about the poachers and hunters, there is no sign of empathy. She mocks the “heavy-browed sadists” and “their massacres”. She even claims that “If anyone deserved to be hunted, I think you’d agree that these fine fellows have earned their place.” What ends up happening then is that I go to these poacher camps and carry out a massacre of my own. I can’t talk to these poachers, I can’t ask them to release the animals they have captured. When I approach their camp, the killing begins. If I agree to help Harriet, killing the poachers is the only possible option. All in all, you could say that it is ok if you arrive at Harriet’s tent covered in blood and brains as long as it is not that of an animal.

Bad day for poaching (Source: Screenshot by author)

If that seems radical to you, that’s very understandable because it is very much a radical approach to animal preservation. Harriet is, without a doubt, an extremist. She once asked me: “What gives us the right to destroy life on a whim, with complete impunity, and where will it end?” and then sent me out to kill a dozen people. She recited an argument she appeared to have been hearing a lot from these hunters that she so very clearly despises: “We’re not bad fellows, we’re just making money for our families.” She asked: “At what cost?” but forgot to ask herself the same question.

The sanest of them all

However, and this might come as a surprise, I think that Harriet’s course of action is not only logical but also justified in the world of Red Dead Redemption. I stumbled upon an article about Harriet Davenport on an online magazine called “TheGamer”.[10] The author argues that “Harriet Davenport Is A Terrible Character For Representing The Importance Of Animal Preservation” because he sees this “contradiction” between the animal-loving Harriet and the human-hating Harriet as some form of “sloppy writing and poor character development”. Finally, Harriet is described as “a sort of caricature of PETA, embodying extreme tactics to achieve her goals with little regard for others” and as “a squandered opportunity for Rockstar because animal rights are an ongoing issue worldwide that deserves attention”.

What this argument amounts to is that the author believes Harriet should go about her cause more peacefully, that she should behave so that we, as players, can fully stand behind her goals and deeds. But let me ask you this: Why in the world should she? Why should Harriet Davenport go about her business as a pacifist while everyone around her shoots and kills for a half-empty bottle of whisky? Because she is a woman? I’m not asking this to imply that the author of the aforementioned article employs a sexist argument, but I wonder if it might have something to with Harriet being a woman that she is generally considered in the Red Dead Online community (as far as I can see) to be an unpopular character.

I feel it’s insincere to raid a bandit camp, steal a blood diamond, kill 20 animals, rob a train, and then shoot up a town for fun just to then tell Harriet to please calm down and think about the poor people that are dying for her cause. I think that’s what I like about Harriet the most. She just doesn’t care about me or if I think it’s right what she does. Sure, she is glad that I help her (“With your help, I’m confident in my success.”), but she will never let me off the hook for killing an animal. And I can appreciate the passion she has for her work. At least she is doing something that doesn’t only benefit her while the rest of the game mainly caters to egoistic power fantasies based on riches and firepower.

No, Harriet is most definitely not a badly written character. Quite the opposite, actually. In my opinion it was a smart move to make a character that fights for a good cause in this egoistic world of Red Dead Redemption at the same time so brutally obliviously to human life. In a way she is an iteration but also a subversion of the male-dominated “Mad Scientist” myth[11] – as much in her behavior as in her appearance. Harriet Davenport is extreme in how she disturbs the flow of the game that I have grown accustomed to. Harriet Davenport is extreme in how she kills or rather makes me kill to preserve life. At the very least she willingly accepts the bloodbaths I carry out in her name. But that makes her an interesting character in the world of Red Dead Redemption and one that made me think more about the environment in the game and in the real-world than any game character in the recent past. I just think that Harriet brings with her so many questions for players to ask and so many great ideas for how to bring players to ask these questions.

In the title of this essay, I called Harriet “the maddest of them all”. Now that I think about it, in a world of mad people, she might actually be the sanest of them all.

[1] Andy Kelly captures the beauty of Red Dead Redemption 2’s world perfectly in this video: https://youtu.be/l-q9L3zYB9M 
[2] Milkweed is one of 43 plants that can be collected in the game, among them Ginseng, Mace or Yarrow.
[3] There is some research available on how Red Dead Redemption handles its hunting mechanic, for example by Backe or by Brown: Backe, Hans-Joachim. “Within the Mainstream: An Ecocritical Framework for Digital Game History.” Ecozona: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment, vol. 8, no. 2, 2017, pp. 39-55;  Brown, P. Saxton. “The Garden in the Machine: Video Games and Environmental Consciousness.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 93, no. 3, 2014, pp. 383–407.
[4] GTAbase presents an impressive “Animals Species & Wildlife Database“. Note that ‘only‘ 166 of the 235 animals in the game can be hunted: https://www.gtabase.com/red-dead-redemption-2/animals/#sort=attr.ct77.frontend_value&sortdir=asc
[5] The One-eyed thief. “Historical Similarities – ‘The Real Harriet Davenport’” Amino, 19.02.2021, https://aminoapps.com/c/thereddeadredem/page/blog/historical-similarities-the-real-harriet-davenport/gnkJ_gPU6uV31xKQx2dqdRVYX3nzLRY3v4
[6] Note that the game prevents abuse of this mechanic. It is impossible to put an animal to sleep, take a sample and then just shoot it to also get the pelt. After a sample is taken, the option to skin the animal becomes unavailable. Also, killing a sleeping animal reduces the player’s honor score. (Moritz Hoffmann writes about the honor mechanic in the game:   Hoffmann, Moritz. “The Moral of the Story: Red Dead Redemption 2.” Public History Weekly, 4 April 2019. public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/7-2019-12/red-dead-redemption-2/. Accessed 18 September 2019.)
[7] Indeed, the Naturalist role subverts much of what is known and scientifically discussed about Red Dead Redemption. I will be interesting to see how the Green Game Studies discourse surrounding the game will react to the addition of this role to the game. (See for an ecocritical approach to Red Dead Redemption for example Chang or an upcoming article by myself: Chang, Alenda Y. Playing Nature. Ecology in Video Games. University of Minnesota Press, 2019; Zimmermann, Felix. “Ethical Boredom in the Wilderness: Treating Red Dead Redemption 2 as an Ambience Action Game.” In: Meinel, Dietmar (Hg.), Playing the Field II: American Studies, Video Games, and Space. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022 [In Print])
[8] He probably boasts about that at some point in the game, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t talk to that guy (#TeamHarriet). Therefore, I have to trust the Red Dead Wiki on this one: https://reddead.fandom.com/wiki/Gus_Macmillan
[9] I tried that numerous times but this function, while still available in the game, seems to be broken at the moment. There are a lot of complaints about that on Reddit. It appears that Rockstar Games isn’t particularly interested in fixing this animal transformation mechanic for the few players that would actually try it out.
[10] Kobek, Patricio. “Red Dead Online’s Naturalist Harriet Davenport Is A Terrible Character For Representing The Importance Of Animal Preservation“ TheGamer, 13.01.2021, https://www.thegamer.com/red-dead-online-naturalist-harriet-davenport-represent-animal-preservation/
[11] [Sorry, German source] Pfister, Eugen. “„Doctor nod mad. Doctor insane.“ Eine kurze Kulturgeschichte der Figur des mad scientist im digitalen Spiel“ PAIDIA, 27.07.2017, https://www.paidia.de/doctor-nod-mad-doctor-insane-eine-kurze-kulturgeschichte-der-figur-des-mad-scientist-im-digitalen-spiel/

Recomended Citation: Felix Zimmermann,  „ A love letter to Harriet Davenport, the maddest of them all. The life of a Naturalist in Red Dead Online“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/3082> 27.08.2021

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