2152: Westerns

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Sitting here idly trying to figure out how the population of the Old West in the late 1800s compares to the number of Red Dead Redemption 2 players.
Title text: Sitting here idly trying to figure out how the population of the Old West in the late 1800s compares to the number of Red Dead Redemption 2 players.


The "western" genre refers to narrative works set in the American "Old West" west of the Mississippi River between the years of 1865 (when the Civil War ended) and 1895 (when the US Census officially declared the frontier to be closed). These dates are naturally somewhat arbitrary, but most works in the genre are set more or less in that relatively narrow window of time. This definition may be too narrow, however, as many events related to the American West took place before the Civil War. The fur trade was significant in the western frontier from the early 1800s to about 1845. The Oregon Trail saw its first wagon trail in 1836, and along with variants such as the California and Utah/Mormon trail, was regularly and heavily used beginning around 1845-1847. The California Gold Rush took place in 1849. Stories of fur trapping, wagon trains, and mining all feature heavily in the "western" genre, making the disparity between the length of real history and the length of historical fiction less great.

This era in American history was marked by aggressive settling of western lands. The US had pursued an expansionist policy known as "Manifest Destiny", which had the primary goal of extending US borders across the continent through the means of using Christianity to justify the displacement of Native Americans that were already living there. This led to various strategies to increase the lands under US control (ranging from diplomatic efforts to expansionist wars), displacing, containing, and eliminating native peoples from the land, and encouraging American settlement in the western territories. Settlers were encouraged to go west with the promise of cheap or free land for agriculture, mineral riches, and freedom from the dangers of large cities.

These sparsely populated lands quickly gained a reputation for being dangerous, unpredictable, and violent. The men and women who settled them were admired as rugged individualists, civilizing a wild frontier through hard work, courage and persistence. The mythos of the "wild west" arguably continues to impact American culture to this day.

The timeline in this strip suggests that the Western genre began almost immediately after the frontier closed. This matches the "official" timeline. The first critically recognized Western novel, The Virginian, was published in 1902, and one of the earliest silent films, The Great Train Robbery, was made in 1903. However, it should be noted that pulp novels and magazines set in the frontier, as well as "Wild West Shows" that toured the eastern states and Europe had begun decades earlier. And the end of the "Wild West" era can be considered to have lasted into the 1910's, or even the 1920's. In other words, Westerns were an established genre while the real western frontier was still in existence. The genre transitioned from a contemporary setting to a historical one without significant disruption.

The Western genre has varied in popularity, but has never gone away, and continued to produce popular works throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Artists who grew up admiring Western heroes have proceeded to use the genre for their own visions, and have reinterpreted the setting across multiple generations, and an evolving media landscape. Literature, music and live performances gave way to film, then television, and now video games. This strip points out the irony that the actual Old West took place over a fairly limited time and space, but the setting has managed to accommodate a genre that's maintained popularity for over a century (at least three times as long as the actual frontier era) and is consumed both throughout the US and across the world.

The title text is in reference to the popular video game Red Dead Redemption 2, which takes place in an Old West setting. Red Dead Redemption 2 has already sold in excess of 24 million copies, while at the 1890 census the entire West - even going by the widest definition, counting every state and territory west of the Mississippi - had a population of just 16.8 million. The region now counted by the US Census Bureau as the "Western United States" was even smaller, at just 3.64 million. Assuming every copy sold represents one player (some sold may not have been played, but others sold may account for multiple players), not only are there more RDR2 players than there were people in the Wild West at its height, there may be more than lived in the region at all during the frontier years.

A similar question was asked in the what if? article WWII Films.


[A horizontal timeline spanning between the years 1840 and 2020. Every decade is indicated by a tick below the line, and labeled every 50 years. Two ranges are highlighted by brackets and labeled:]
The "Wild West" era
Western films, books, video games, etc
[Caption below the panel:]
It's weird to realize that the Western genre has now existed for three times longer than the period it's based on.

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How many times longer than the Regency era (a decade) have Regency romance novels existed? A fair bit more than three, I'd guess! (Perhaps 8.4, if we credit 1935 as the start and the Regency period as ten years) JohnHawkinson (talk) 05:41, 20 May 2019 (UTC)

A similar question has been answered about WW2 by Randall: https://what-if.xkcd.com/100/ Lupo (talk) 08:53, 20 May 2019 (UTC)
Trivia about What-if #100: in another example of xkcd-inspired achievements, there now exists a short movie about the Anglo-Zanzibar war (http://www.imdb.com/keyword/anglo-zanzibar-war/). Plot keywords: stupid world record, cell camera, anglo zanzibar war. 10:14, 20 May 2019 (UTC)

The M*A*S*H TV show lasted more than 3 times the length of the Korean War. Barmar (talk) 14:36, 20 May 2019 (UTC)

"Golden Age of Piracy": 1650's to 1730's, roughly; modern "pirate genre" pretty much entirely derived from Treasure Island, 1883, but fiction and romanticized-to-the-very-edge-of-fiction histories of the still-famous Golden Age pirates date to at least 1724. -- C.Robin (talk) 05:56, 27 September 2020 (UTC)

I would have thought Randall would understand the difference between "longer than" and "as long as". Mattcoz (talk) 14:53, 20 May 2019 (UTC)

Hmmm... "A is as long as B" means pretty much the same as "A is as short as B". But "A is 3 times as long as B" is very different from "A is 3 times as short as B". English is weird. -- 15:47, 20 May 2019 (UTC)
That leads onto a personal bugbear. "Lasts three times longer (...than competing product)" logically means 4x the duration ("lasts one time longer..." would be original plus the new claim, or 2x, etc), not triple. And, in the same (mis)spirit of above there's the closely associated "five times less (...thing that each product tries to banish/destroy/mitigate)". And there are even worse phrases (either badly composed or deliberately weaselish misinforming advertising/etc) that I won't even try to perpetuate by directly quoting. 00:03, 23 May 2019 (UTC)
I've concluded that "X times longer" just doesn't make sense, period. If product A lasts for time period 1, product B lasts for time period 3, and product C lasts for time period 4 (units are equal, I don't care which -- nanoseconds, decades, Jupiter years --) **neither B nor C** last 3 times "longer" than product A. Or "4 times longer." 3 is not 3 times bigger than 1, it's 3 times as big. Same with any other number. 08:49, 11 March 2020 (UTC)

I'm pretty sure that using the same logic as this page, Trojan War, a 10 years long conflict which started to be depicted in Greek no later in 8th century BC when Illiad was written and continuing to be depicted in poems, literature and movies up to today, would easily win this. There could also be several contestants from Rome - while both Roman Republic and Roman Empire lasted hundreds of years, the time period depicting fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire, starting with First Triumvirate 60BC and ending with Nero's death AD 68, is 128 years heavily depicted in literature and movies since it happened to, again, now. -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:32, 20 May 2019 (UTC)

This makes me think of how the British TV show Dad's Army lasted for longer than the Second World War. --OliReading (talk) 23:12, 20 May 2019 (UTC)

Dad's Army aired from 31 July 1968 – 13 November 1977 (A period of 9 years, 3 months, 14 days.) However, it had a run-time of only 2445 minutes (40 hrs, 45 minutes) [List of Dad's Army episodes.] That's a distinction that most of these comparisons are overlooking. These Are Not The Comments You Are Looking For (talk) 04:58, 27 May 2019 (UTC)

The famous pony express existed only for 18 months. -- 02:19, 21 May 2019 (UTC)

Bill Cody alias Buffalo Bill pulp and shows started around 1870 06:32, 21 May 2019 (UTC)

I hate ambiguity when dealing with "mathish" language. This is not as irritating as when people say things like "three times as cold" or "twice as small", but it still bugs me. Does "three times longer" mean the same as "three times as long"? Given an initial event time of "t" and the longer time of "x", if "x" was "two years longer" than "t", that would mean "x-t= 2 years". It feels like "three times as long" means "x=3t" while "three times longer" means "x-t=3t" thus "x=4t". J-beda (talk) 12:59, 21 May 2019 (UTC)

I agree, that three times longer than 40 years should be 160 years, not ~120 as in this case --Lupo (talk) 13:55, 21 May 2019 (UTC)
Actually, this description seems to say the left bracket is THIRTY years - 1865 to 1895 - while the right bracket seems to indicate roughly 1900 until now, which is indeed nearly 120 years and indeed about 4x as long. :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:06, 24 May 2019 (UTC)

The commentary about how the Wild West segued from being "contemporary" to "historical" entertainment without a lapse in popularity reminds me of how Sherlock Holmes did the same. When the first Holmes story was published in 1887 it was contemporary, the popularity of the stories have never flagged, but now the antiquarian aspect is a key part of its appeal. BTW, I think the commentary is stretching it too far to assert that the "Wild West" extended into the 1920s. This is presumably because of the "Posey War" in 1923, but this is rather similar to the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot - it was just white vigilantes running non-whites off their land on a pretext. Even the 1918 Bear Valley War is too late, just a short Mexican border skirmish involving 60 people total. The 1915 Bluff War is about as late as can be credibly claimed for an event that is anything like the Wild West period, and it was really just an extended manhunt. Usually the last real Indian conflict was Battle of Kelley Creek in 1911. 16:49, 3 August 2019 (UTC)