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A new dawn: Rust’s controversial new rule

Rust, a multiplayer online PC game created by Facepunch Studios, places players in a harsh and dangerous open world in which they can be killed by almost anything they encounter, including dehydration, wildlife, radiation and other players. Characters start their game with next to nothing in their possession and no specific goals to achieve. The game’s objective is simple: survive. This makes meetings with other players an unusual experience, as they can interact in whatever way they choose – trust each other and cooperate, or kill each other for resources that allow them to continue in-game survival. It’s not Rust’s unusual gameplay dynamics that have landed it in the spotlight, though. The developers’ decision to randomly dictate the gender and race of players’ characters, rather than the player designing their own character as is typical of similar games, has become a point of contention for fans and yielded some unusual and occasionally disturbing results.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Garry Newman, Rust’s lead developer, spoke about the strange reactions to this unexpected alteration to the game. “We made half of our players, picked at random, play as women. We also made some of them black. The response has been extreme.” Initially, the most shocking result of this change seems to have been the race-orientated complaints directed at the game developers by a particular section of the game’s fan-base. Newman explains that complaints about playing as a black character in the game “have generally been from Russian players”.

Gender-orientated complaints were much less geographically concentrated. Male players commonly complained at the inability to choose their characters gender and, while this could initially seem like a strange complaint, the argument that players want to be able to relate to their character, and hence design the character in a way that encourages this, is not an entirely invalid one. Newman maintains though that identity within the game is secondary and many agree that he is right; at risk of repetition, this game is all about survival, plain and simple. There is no character development or role playing element in Rust, so why are male players so desperate not to play as women, and why are Russians seemingly so desperate not to play as a black character?

Newman, understandably, seemed to adopt a stance of not legitimising the race question with a response in the face of Russian qualms. However, speaking more generally on depriving players of character customisation, the developer said that the decision was entirely rooted in gameplay. He noted on the game’s blog page, in reflecting on the character-gender debate, that “technically nothing has changed, since half the population is already living with those feelings”. Many players didn’t share the qualms that dragged Rust into the media spotlight, however, some claiming that the lessening of character customisation added to the experience and suited the game. After all, Rust admits proudly and immediately on the game website that “Rust’s world is harsh”. It’s one in which the player does not dictate how the world and events around them develop and unfold; instead, the player has to adapt to the world and attempt to avoid its dangers.

The third point on the unusual trident of criticism now levelled at Rust’s developers comes from the transgender community. Some transgender players argued that the lack of choice echoed transphobia in reality, one describing the new experience as “horrifying, unpleasant and uncomfortable”, and this criticism seems more difficult for the game developers to deal with. However, in the wake of these changes Facepunch Studios have, so far, stuck to their guns on the change and claim it adds to the overall game experience. It certainly does suit the game’s self-styled ‘harsh’ environment, but whether criticism will eventually force the developers to return to a more conventional system remains to be seen.

Image: Facepunch Studios

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