Player choice has always been a big issue in gaming, whether it be single player versus multiplayer, dedicated servers versus peer-to-peer, or being able to design your own character right down to the color of the freckles on their butt. Some games do it better than others, and some games just don’t make sense to have a lot of choice, like a story-driven single player game such as Tomb Raider or Uncharted. Out of all the game types, RPGs and MMOs have always been the best for player choices in character creation, design, and appearance so it was a surprise (to me anyway) when the developers of Rust announced that they were going to continue to randomly assign player avatars after the release of female character types. Even in game franchises without the normal character creation of RPGs, players have asked for more choice, as in the case of Assassin’s Creed Unity back in 2014, and we all remember the fairly pathetic (in my opinion) excuse that it was too hard to do.
When the developer of Rust announced, after the release of female models, that character creation would not be part of the game, and players would continue to be randomly assigned a gender and race permanently for their avatar, it generated some of the expected outrage but also support from some surprising sources. Unsurprisingly there are a few gamers that prefer to play characters that look like them, especially in MMOs and RPGs. Whether it’s guys who want to play male characters, or women who want female avatars, or even people of various races and nationalities that want to make their avatar look like themselves. On the flip-side of that are players that like to play characters that are different than themselves. For me, depending on my mood, the character type, and game, I may choose to play a female character when I play RPGs, but in all of these cases, player choice is the key element. There is an increasing number of players that want more choice, want to see more characters like themselves, or just want the option to decide, which is why it surprises me that a newer RPG has put such a limit on something that is almost an expected feature in games of this type. I have the same gripe with Black Dessert, a game I currently play, which limits character creation by tying class to gender so that if you want to play a berserker or wizard, it will always be a male, while valkyries and tamers are always female. Again, limiting player choice when I would have preferred to play a female barbarian berserker when I first started playing the game.
Another group that has spoken out about this, and often one that is ignored when people talk about the developer’s decision, is the trans community. A group of people who feel that life stuck them in a body that isn’t their own to some degree, and are seeking ways to become what they feel they are meant to be, or feel they should be, and this developer has essentially said if you want to play the game you could be stuck in an uncomfortably similar situation. I imagine it’s not uncommon for people to play an avatar that looks like the ideal them, what they would want to be rather than what they are in real life, and Rust takes that option away from them. Gaming is often a way for people to express themselves in an image of what they want to be, not only gender, but often it allows socially awkward people to become outgoing, or people with disabilities to play people with extraordinary abilities. They can allow someone who is not happy with their appearance to become someone different, or a person who does not feel their birth gender is correct to live a virtual life that feels more comfortable. All of this choice is non-existent in Rust.
The other part of the argument around this boils down to ‘why now’. Rust has always randomized race and appearance, but now that a new gender has been added why are people complaining now? Well, from what I’m seeing it’s not a new gripe, but now the media has gotten involved. It’s gotten more attention from people who don’t play the game, who may not have known about the randomization, or were waiting to see if it changed as the game got closer to full release. The Steam forums, reddit, and discussion boards are full of people discussing this, from complaints to support, and everything in between but I think the impression that this is a new complaint is way off base. It all boils down to how the media is covering the announcement, and that brings me to the most surprising reactions.
The games media, who is usually on the forefront of supporting more diverse choices in gaming have suddenly developed an attitude that’s been called problematic in the past. The response to diversity, or requests for more variety in games, is sometimes met with statements like “You should be able to empathize with any character despite their race or gender,” or “If you don’t like it don’t buy it.” Sometimes these statements fit the context, and other times they are just excuses to avoid the topic. In either case support of more player choice is never a bad thing in my opinion, but suddenly no choice at all seems to be the best thing to ever happen to gaming. I’m seeing people use the same ‘problematic’ responses now out of some sort of cheerful vindication, but gleefully giving up their own choice in the matter, which honestly confuses me.
Garry Newman stated the reason for the decision was:
We felt that player customization had got a bit out of control in other games. And we didn’t want to spend six months making a player customization tool – we wanted to concentrate on the game. 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.
Which sounds a bit too much like the excuses for not having a female character in AC: Unity to me, but no one in the major games media is pointing this out. Instead it’s being lauded as a statement about gender and race in gaming, which of course brings its own sort of baggage when anyone tries to discuss games. When is more diverse choice, more player options, and more player control of their own experience ‘out of control’? In an era of so much opportunity and so much discussion over giving players more representative imagery, why is it suddenly so acceptable to leave out one of the features that gives players the ability to create exactly the representation they want? Unfortunately because the media has made it about the issue of diversity rather than choice, one can’t be against this decision without being labeled sexist or racist in many circles. It’s muddied the waters even more for any discussion about diversity and greater player choice in gaming.
The worst of the entire drama though has been the sites using this to, once again, take shots at male gamers and the stereotypes surrounding them. One headline from the Daily Dot, that has since been changed, states, “For the first time in gaming history, men are forced to play as something they’re not.”
Not only is this demonstrably false, but how does this in any way further the discussion of inclusion and player choice? Let’s not forget that Rust isn’t just forcing men to play what they’re not, the game forces women and trans players to sometimes play what they’re not as well. If the developers had stupidly decided to not include female models at all we’d be reading headlines about how female players are once again forced to play male protagonists, and it would be a valid criticism. Some women still are in this game, but it seems more important that men are getting hit with it? This headline sounds more like being happy about getting revenge than furthering any sort of progress in gaming. It is also written by someone who clearly cares more about making a ‘political’ point rather than stating facts. After quite a few gamers pointed out all the female protagonists throughout gaming history the headline was changed.
Unfortunately, none of this matters to some folks. Some will say not liking this idea means I hate women or something, when all I really want is more player choice in as many games as possible with less of this political BS muddying the discussion. I’m tired of the media using every opportunity to shit on gamers, and I wish every developer focused on giving players as many options as possible. I want discussion about these issues to be possible without all the name-calling and tribalism. We’re really all one community and when the media and developers set us on each other for clicks and sales, it’s really us who lose.