A controversy reminiscent of GamerGate is brewing in the gaming community, as the designer of a popular game is defending his choice to program some problematic gender stereotypes into his characters.
Though RimWorld is not yet a complete game, the sci-fi colony sandbox survival simulator — first published in 2013 — has become increasingly popular since its “Early Access” release on the Steam platform this past July.
In RimWorld, players pick an assortment of characters who live and work with each other to build a colony on an extraterrestrial world that can hopefully withstand an onslaught of disasters. These “pawns” have their own personalities and can interact with each other in a fashion similar to The Sims. That means they’re capable of romance.
But Claudia Lo, a master’s student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, realized there was something peculiar about the significant role that gender was playing in the different ways characters were trying to engage romantically with each other.
And given a chance to examine the game’s code, she found even more than she was expecting.
The romance algorithms
Lo noticed that the game sympathized with the men whose affections were not reciprocated, but appeared to feel no concern for a woman constantly being harassed about her looks.
In a piece for gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun published this week, Lo described how her two male pawns relentlessly hit on her gay female pawn. “Her life is a constant hellish stream of corny pick-up lines and work for the colony,” she wrote. While this annoyed Lo, it didn’t annoy the female pawn, who constantly rebuffed the men in the game but never let it negatively impact her mood. The men, however, were constantly agitated that they kept being rebuffed, making them less effective in their roles.
This observation prompted Lo to delve into the game’s coding to make sense of how exactly these pawns were programmed to behave — and she found some compelling results. For example, male characters in the game are programmed to initiate romance with someone they’re attracted to almost all of the time, while female characters only initiate about an eighth of the time. Neither a history of rebuffs nor knowledge that a pawn was gay was programmed to affect this behavior. That explained why the male pawns just didn’t give up on harassing her female pawn.
“In daily life, the feeling of having to constantly turn people down is not a nice feeling,” Lo, a real-life woman, said. “But these negative feelings are only reflected mechanically for those being rejected, and because of the way romance initiation is handled, you end up having to cater for the sad rejected men, rather than the women who are always having to turn away these unwanted encounters.”
Lo also found that men and women were programmed with different limitations to their sexuality. In RimWorld as it’s currently programmed, there are no bi men and no exclusively straight women.
If women were gay, like Lo’s pawn, they would always reject men, and likewise, if men were gay, they would always reject women. All non-gay men were totally straight and would always reject other men, but all non-gay women had a 15 percent chance of being attracted to other women.
And Lo uncovered some odd differences in terms of how age impacted attraction. For example, female pawns are programmed to prefer partners that are older than them with no age limit, but men have a cap of 15 years older. The attractiveness algorithm also punished pawns for having a disability, including any limitation to their ability to talk, move, or manipulate objects.
“The problem with this model isn’t that it’s flawed,” Lo concluded. “It’s that it’s flawed in a way that perfectly mirrors existing sexist expectations of romance, with such specificity that it is hard to view it as unintentional. And if it is unintentional it is on us to ask what this system is trying to show.”
The backlash reminiscent of GamerGate
When Rock Paper Shotgun published Lo’s findings, her piece was accompanied by an odd editor’s note:
The developer was contacted for interview as part of this article, but declined to take part unless we ceded editorial control over the publishing of that interview. We do not cede editorial control to developers or interview subjects and so no interview took place.
This is an unusual request. Ceding “editorial control” to the subject of a piece isn’t a thing. Journalists conduct interviews and quote accurately from those interviews as it makes sense to do so in their stories. Anything short of full editorial control results in either a puff piece or outright sponsored content.
But the game’s creator did eventually weigh in. After Lo’s article was published on Wednesday, RimWorld creator Tynan Sylvester published his own lengthy response in the comments, then followed up on Reddit on Thursday with additional remarks.
In these comments, Sylvester accused Lo of writing an “anger-farming hit piece” and of not being willing to “print the other side of the story.” He objected to “naive” and “uninformed” readings of the code that led Lo to make inferences about the intent of his programming.
He also defended some of his choices, including his belief that “bi-curiosity is quite asymmetrical between sexes,” citing research from The Advocate and the Williams Institute to make his case. He insisted he understood that bi men exist, but also said, “In contrast, every bi man I’ve ever known has ultimately ended up identifying as gay.” It was his understanding that bi men are “rarer than bi women” and that “gay women seem to be rarer than gay men.” And he rebuffed the claim that the game treats disabilities as unattractive, arguing that “you probably wouldn’t attempt a romance with someone who had a gunshot wound or who had severe flu.”
Sylvester concluded by explaining that the characters in RimWorld are designed to be flawed, including having gender prejudices, enjoying cannibalism or sadism, or just being lazy or selfish. “Please don’t criticize how the game models humans as though it’s my personal ideal of optimal human behavior. It’s not,” he wrote. “I’m really hoping RimWorld can be appreciated as the game it is and not just become a culture war battleground.”
In his responses, Sylvester confirmed that the next release of the game will include bi male pawns, as well as some sort of “gaydar” behavior “so colonists will be less likely to attempt romance with others of non-matching orientation.” He did not indicate fixes that address any of Lo’s other concerns, nor did he offer a timeline for when that next release will be published.
This RimWorld controversy bears a strong resemblance to the GamerGate controversy that has played out over the past few years. Essentially, GamerGate became just a vast platform for misogyny, including the targeted harassment, doxxing, and threatening of female gamers and anyone interested in diverse representations in games.
Somewhere at the heart of what became GamerGate was a catalyzing event in 2013. Female game designer Zoe Quinn was publicly accused by her ex-boyfriend of sleeping with a male game reviewer to get better coverage of her game. Though the backlash Quinn then faced was purportedly about journalistic ethics, that quickly proved to be a facade for many gamers’ objections to the changing culture of games. The harassment that Quinn and countless others suffered was because of their attempts to expand the gaming community and make it more inclusive for people who aren’t members of the industry’s traditional demographic: straight men.
The parallels for Lo’s RimWorld article are perhaps all too obvious. She’s a female writer who published a critique of a game’s portrayals of women on a gaming site, and the male designer of that game responded by attacking her and accusing her of malicious motives. Not unlike GamerGate, Sylvester took umbrage over Lo’s journalistic ethics, which were neither relevant nor in doubt, to avoid a more considerate discussion of the concerns she raised.
Lo is no stranger to these issues. She told ThinkProgress that, since she has been both a gamer and a Reddit moderator on various feminist and social justice channels for some time, she saw GamerGate go down first-hand.
Though Sylvester had never explicitly taken a position on GamerGate, Lo felt the need to be very careful publishing a piece criticizing an aspect of his game. The gloom of GamerGate was ever-present.
“I told my close friends about this article I was writing,” she recounted, “and almost universally, their response was, ‘Congratulations!’ and then immediately, ‘Tell me if there’s anything I can do for you if you don’t feel safe!’ It’s kind of messed up to be really happy for your friend’s success and then immediately start worrying about her safety.”
She had good reason to be particularly cautious writing about Sylvester’s game. As she was working on her critique of RimWorld’s romance code, she noticed that Sylvester had recently done an extensive interview with Breitbart — an alt-right site whose tech editor, uber-troll Milo Yiannopoulos, was one of the chief mouthpieces of GamerGate, having penned headlines there like, “Feminist Bullies Tearing The Video Game Industry Apart.” The fact that Sylvester had given Brietbart an interview “set off warning bells in my head,” she said. Lo also found evidence that he was sympathetic to a designer whose game depicting the Black Lives Matter movement as a terrorist organization was banned from Google’s platforms.
Raj Patel's experience with 'good-guy tyranny'. A worrying trend. https://t.co/CbO3zfmwQf
— Tynan Sylvester (@TynanSylvester) September 22, 2016
Before the piece was published, she took steps to “triple check” her security on her social media accounts, delinking her accounts and emails on various platforms, changing passwords, setting up two-factor authentications — “locking down,” as she put it, to protect herself from potential harassment. She told her friends and even explained the situation to her roommate, “just in case the worst happens.”
“That’s the kind of tenor and that’s the kind of shadow that harassment and GamerGate have passed over game criticism. It’s scary, it really is.”
Although Lo has been thrilled about the thoughtful ways she has seen people engage with her piece, and the new connections she’s made in the few days since it was published, she already foresees the challenge of publishing future critiques in the gaming community.
“I’m incredibly happy and I’m really really excited, but at the same time, in the back of my head, there’s just some voice that keeps going, ‘When is it going to come crashing down? When is the backlash going to come?’” she said. “I want to have my name out there, I want people to know who I am, because I think I’m doing good work and want people to read it. But how much is it a risk to my emotional and physical safety? Is it worth it to link my Twitter and my blog if it’s going to make me panicky and anxious for weeks?”
The real-world implications
Lo believes that code should be just as fair game to critique as the visible aspects of a video game, and she’s been heartened to see other developers engage in conversations about how “unconscious bias feeds into the way you structure and design the things.”
Sylvester’s choices reinforce some harmful myths about how human interactions play out in the real world. For example, the way Lo’s female pawn was constantly being pursued by the male pawns despite being gay mirrors the way real-world women are often subjected to street harassment like catcalls or other unsolicited “compliments.”
Research has found that being constantly subjected to these kinds of comments makes women feel angry, annoyed, disgusted, nervous, and scared. In one survey, only 14 percent of women said that these comments made them feel “flattered,” and only 4 percent said the comments “didn’t bother” them.
Sylvester’s game design reinforces the myth that it’s no burden on women to be subjected to this kind of treatment. The fact that it’s actually the male pawns who suffer from being rebuffed communicates to players that women somehow owe men something when they find those women attractive.
Likewise, Sylvester’s justifications for the limited portrayals of sexuality simultaneously fuel both bi erasure and biphobia. Eliel Cruz, an outspoken bi activist, told ThinkProgress that RimWorld doesn’t come close to getting it right.
“Statistically speaking, in most studies, bi men typically make up 1/3 of queer men while bi women make up 2/3 of queer women,” Cruz said. Research on the bi community is still limited, but he expects that these stats will actually increase “as acceptance of bisexuals grows and makes it easier for bi people to come out.” Though it is true that there appears to be fewer bi men than bi women, “it is not justifiable to completely erase the community altogether.”
Sylvester may be adding bi men to the game, but Cruz isn’t convinced the designer actually believes they exist in the real world, as he claims. “His experience contributes to bi-erasing tropes that bisexual men are ‘bi now, gay later.’ It’s insulting that he would perpetuate this offensive bisexual trope that is used to delegitimize bisexual male identities in a response to accusations of bisexual erasure.”
Likewise, Cruz worries that RimWorld’s over-representation of bi women, particularly in the absence of bi men, reflects how bi women tend to be more accepted in culture because of the way they are over-sexualized by straight men. “This sexualization contributes to the disproportionate amount of violence against bisexual women,” he explained. “For bisexual men, we’re close to nonexistent because we do not appease a straight male gaze. This is evident in the coding of RimWorld.”
Affecting the evolution of games
Unlike television shows, movies, and the platform games of yore, modern-day games are not static; they are constantly being remade.
The way that RimWorld was released as “incomplete” but playable, and was then repeatedly iterated upon, is becoming an increasingly typical model for games. RimWorld may never be “complete” if Sylvester keeps devising ways to improve and expand it, and if players keep coming back for more.
Because games constantly evolve through patches and new releases, reviews and critiques do have a unique role to play. As Lo’s article has already demonstrated, they can shape how a game changes in the future — or, if critiques are not well-received, they can shape how players perceive a game or its creators. They can significantly impact both the identity and the future financial success — or failure — of a game.
For that reason, the way Sylvester reacted suggests that there may actually be a journalistic ethics issue in the gaming community, but not in regards to what reviewers might write, but how developers and players interact with that commentary.
Sylvester’s response when Lo reached out for comment demonstrates the disconnect. As Lo paraphrased it, he said, “Yes you can interview me, but I’ll only answer your questions if you will promise to print them in full, without any editing — my answers and your questions — no matter what I say.” As the note on her piece explained, her editors at Rock Paper Shotgun rejected these terms, so the interview never happened.
“We don’t let interview subjects dictate terms like that,” Rock Paper Shotgun Editor-in-Chief Graham Smith told Polygon. “It’s a fundamental principle in order to maintain editorial independence, but also a practical matter. If he had said something libelous, say, we would have had to immediately go back on said promise. So we didn’t make that promise and didn’t do the interview.”
The offer was arguably a courtesy; Lo’s piece was commentary, not investigative journalism. “What I’m writing isn’t a review, and it’s definitively not an interview. It’s a piece of criticism — fairly limited in scope even,” she said. “In no other media form do we harp on the right of the creator to respond to criticism so much. Were I writing a criticism of some big blockbuster film, nobody would be agitating for me — ‘How dare you not speak to the writer! How dare you not speak to the developer when you criticized this film!’ — because that’s not what we understand film criticism as needing.”
“If it’s available for public consumption, surely it should also be available for public critique,” and that should include a humanities scholar like her critiquing the coding of games. “We don’t ask that every food critic be a restaurateur or chef before they can criticize food.”
“If you do games criticism, suddenly it’s a different standard. You must let people defend themselves, or rather more insidiously, all criticism is taken as personal attack. Couple that with the history of harassment… and it’s a really frightening atmosphere to work with.” Jumping through all the hoops, she said, just “doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be safe.”
Hope for the future
Despite the drama her article has stirred up, Lo is encouraged by the positive reactions she has received or even just the people who “aren’t completely separating the creator from the work that they create.” They’re going through the process of reconciling a game they might like with its creator’s views, which they might find abhorrent, or at least questionable. “I think that’s an important thing to do.”
She hopes that designers like Sylvester can learn to take constructive feedback. She had already been enjoying RimWorld for two years before she had the chance to look at the code and write about her findings, so her goal wasn’t to ruin the game or destroy Sylvester’s reputation. She wanted to make it better, in part so that it can be more accessible to more players, and also so that other designers can similarly be more thoughtful about their games as well.
Gaming cultural commentators like Lo certainly have a long uphill battle ahead of them to make games more inclusive. As she pointed out in her original piece, the highest rated thread on RimWorld’s Reddit channel remains, “Strategies for dealing with attractive lesbians?” And though she has managed to shield herself from the backlash so far, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been one, as comments on her article and other platforms show.
— MadiraNofo (@MadiraNofo) November 3, 2016
— Elliott Holt (@HoltHere) November 4, 2016
Welp never reading @rockpapershot again. Claudia Lo's article on Rimworld is a disgusting piece of personal agenda mixed w/ lies & slander.
— NihiL (@NihiLTV) November 4, 2016
But many people have also encouraged Sylvester to hold his game to a higher standard. Others who had never considered that the code could be held to scrutiny in this way and are open to exploring that kind of critique further.
To clarify, what RimWorld did is silly, just – I have a fascination with what code could tell you about what person believes.
— James Hostetler (@metkis) November 3, 2016
Rimworld stuff is a (slightly ugly) snapshot of why games made by tiny teams can be so much more meaningful: Fragments of self, in the code.
— Matt Lees (@Jam_sponge) November 3, 2016
Breathtakingly excellent unpacking of the idea of "mechanics as metaphor" & the price of inattentive design: https://t.co/nkY025j0Um
— Adam Osborn (@adamcosborn) November 2, 2016
The roadblocks of GamerGate — shutting down challenging discussions with harassment — might actually be diminishing. The gaming community might not yet be a perfectly safe and open place for conversations about diversity and representation, but like the games themselves, it might just be growing a little bit more inclusive.