Last week, developer Gary Newman and the Rust development team released an update that randomly assigned a permanent race and gender to all players’ characters.
When you first launch Rust, a sandbox multiplayer survival game, you are now assigned a race and sex automatically. In practice, you’ll only really know by looking at your inventory screen, in which your character is depicted with their equipment — or lack thereof. Everyone enters the apocalyptic stone age naked, with a single stone and a torch to their name. Whether you sport an additional pair of stones, southward, is up to the game.
Newman’s op-ed on The Guardian detailed community reaction to the change. In his words, “the response has been extreme.” While many have applauded the unique design choice, more than a few are dissatisfied. Newman however, doesn’t believe that the character to which you are assigned should matter.
Rust is not a game about identity. The objective in Rust is to survive. This is made difficult by things such as starvation, dehydration, radiation, exposure and bear attacks. The biggest threat in the game comes from other players who are trying to survive in the same conditions.
Nevertheless, “the range and strength of opinions have never been this intense,” said the creator.
Inevitably, there are people who like it and people who don’t. Some players have praised what we’re doing. Like us, they think that who you are in the game, your race and gender, makes no difference to the actual gameplay – and are happy to have the diversity. Others aren’t so positive. They feel that playing a gender or race that doesn’t match their own is detrimental to their enjoyment.
According to Newman, the decision was made for a couple of core design reasons, not exclusively as a political statement.
Originally every player appeared in game as a white bald guy. We were still in the early stages of development and had other things to focus on. Recently, though, we decided to change this. We decided that we didn’t want players to pick their own appearance. We felt that player customisation had got a bit out of control in other games. And we didn’t want to spend six months making a player customisation tool – we wanted to concentrate on the game.
Aside from regaining development time that would otherwise be lost to creating a character customization interface, the permanence of this assigned identity lends itself to the way that the developer would like to see the game played:
We also wanted the appearance of the players to be consistent over time. A survivor shouldn’t be able to attack another then come back later with a different gender or race and befriend the same player. They should be recognisable consistently and long-term – so anyone likely to commit a crime would be more likely to wear a balaclava or a face mask.
This isn’t the first version of the feature. Rust has been using Steam IDs to generate random race and penis size since last year. It’s the extension of the randomized features that is attracting new attention to the Early Access product.
Newman further details his experience with reaction to the change, observing that Russian players have voiced the most discontent with being assigned a race that isn’t their own. He posits that men dislike it more because they haven’t been forced to play outside their race or gender in games very often, while women are more approving because they’re used to playing as a male protagonist.
Lest you think that this is a veiled attack on any one group, Newman is taking heat from the transgender community as well. Still, he stands by his conclusion: Rust is assigning race/gender in a game, “not in real life.”
Ultimately the decision comes down to gameplay. We don’t believe that letting you choose your race and gender would improve the game. On the other hand, randomising everyone’s gender and race meets all our requirements. We get an even spread of races and genders that make players more identifiable – while at the same time making the social aspects of the game much more interesting.
As a social experiment, it appears to be working. People are certainly talking about it, and the in-game goals for the design are being realized. No matter where you come down on the whole debate, it should be very interesting to see how it plays out.
Personally, I find the experiment very intriguing. By giving someone a permanent virtual identity — randomized or not — you add weight and consequence to their decisions. You’ve removed an element of the Internet’s anonymity, but in a manner that doesn’t have any implications outside of the game. You can be recognized. You have simulated identity that doesn’t come down to which fancy glowing pauldrons you’ve equipped.
Still, I can understand the argument for personal immersion. My enjoyment of a game is often predicated on how much I can put myself in the protagonist’s place — it’s why games heavily featuring choice and consequence crowd my list of all-time favorites. Being unable to reflect myself in an experience creates an immediate disconnect with that identity. It’s a conversation with strong arguments on both sides, but I’m pretty sure that was the intent.
And now, the moment of truth: what character did the game generate for me to play as?
Seems about right.
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