Here’s What Happened When A Video Game Began Randomly Assigning Gender and Race For Its Players

Screenshot from Rust. CREDIT: RUST
Screenshot from Rust. CREDIT: RUST

What would you do if you woke up one day and everything about yourself was different? You still had the same job and lived in the same place, but suddenly your skin was darker, your hair was longer, and anatomically you weren’t the same.

The developers of the popular video game Rust recently brought that theory to life with a game update that randomly assigned gender and race attributes to players’ avatars. And it didn’t go over well with the game’s players.

“You’ve made me into a girl,” one Rust player tweeted. “Not happy.”

Another tweeted this: https://twitter.com/ItsDadMan/status/719836086462242817?ref_src=twsrc^tfw

Users complained they were being forced to identify with the company’s “feminist ideals,” and one user called the new feature “the dumbest thing” the game developers have ever done.

Originally, every avatar in Rust would appear as a “white bald guy,” but the game’s developers were concerned about the rise in over-customization in the video game world. Now, instead of having each player choose how their own avatar would appear on screen, Rust permanently assigns an avatar’s gender and race to a player.

Rust’s lead developer Garry Newman addressed the negative response in a Guardian post, saying that “Rust is not a game about identity. The objective in Rust is to survive.”

The bulk of complaints originated from regions with overwhelmingly white populations, such as Russia, Newman observed.

“Inevitably, there are people who like it and people who don’t,” wrote Newman. “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.”

Some of the more vitriolic responses were specifically about gender. “Why won’t you give the player base an option to choose their gender?” asked one disgruntled customer. “I just want to play the game and have a connection to the character like most other games I play. Not have some political movement shoved down my throat because you make the connection we can’t choose our gender in reality so let’s make it like that in game too.”

While the game has received some praise for being more inclusive, some have criticized the developers’ choice to stick to the gender binary of male and female, which excludes transpeople. Newman said he understands this frustration, but argued that gender identity wasn’t the primary focus. “We’re assigning gender randomly in game — not in real life.”

The game itself is in a stage of development known as “early-access,” meaning that it’s not fully developed yet, but users can still play the game. Rust’s developers continue to update the game every week, and have been doing so since it first debuted in 2013. Since its release, Rust has sold 3.5 million copies, and roughly half a million people play it every week.

The developers’ decision to choose gender and race for players attempts to mimic how individuals move through society. No one gets to choose their social class, economic status, race, or gender, but everyone has to survive and get food, shelter, and water, just as players must do in Rust.

The backlash is indicative of the deep rifts in the tech and gaming industries. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community have all suffered discrimination in the gaming world.

Rust is not the first video game to spark controversy over adding diversity. Earlier this month, game developer Beamdog released an expansion for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition that included a transgendered character and three-dimensional female roles. The new expansion prompted dozens of angry forum posts and negative game reviews from customers who didn’t agree with the change.

Women make up 44 percent of total game players and purchase 41 percent of all video games.

A growing body of research is attempting to understand the impact of gaming avatars on human psychology. Kelsey Schmitz, a researcher at the University of Ottawa, told the CBC that males and females react differently to video game avatars while conducting research for her PhD. Schmitz discovered that males often selected avatar gender based on strategy, and sometimes aesthetics. Meanwhile, female gamers were more willing to play as avatars who looked nothing like them, and this correlation was more pronounced in gaming environments far removed from everyday reality.

Rust’s move towards diverse avatars is particularly noticeable in the gaming world, which has been the subject of repeated criticisms concerning an overall lack of gender and racial sensitivity. In 2014, game developer Ubisoft announced it would not add female characters to Assassin’s Creed Unity, after it claimed that creating female characters would require “double the work”. Studies have suggested there might be a link between gaming habits and racist tendencies, though this has been disputed. Another example includes the time feminist video game critic Anita Sarkessian received death and rape threats as part of the Gamergate controversy.