Rust is an indie survival horror game currently in alpha testing on Steam. In a thematic twist that's sort of a cross between Minecraft and Resident Evil, you start the game buck naked and have to craft everything you need to survive, from shelter to the clothes on your back, and try and survive as long as possible. It's a multiplayer game, so if the monsters don't get you, another player might!
Last week, the developers of Rust issued an update to their game. It has some of the usual features one would expect: bug fixes and the like. It also added a new cosmetic feature: randomized skin tones.
As the developers explain on the official blog:
Everyone now has a pseudo unique skin tone and face. Just like in real life, you are who you are – you can’t change your skin colour or your face. It’s actually tied to your steamid... There’s a lot of skin colours in the world, and it’s really easy to appear racially insensitive when doing this. This is compounded by the fact that everyone is really used to seeing this guy as a white guy, so when you see him as a black guy it feels like he’s just “blacked up“. So we’re spending a lot of time trying to lessen that effect.So what happened? Players lost their ever-lovin' minds! As Megan Condis writes:
The reactions to Rust’s unprecedented experiment were swift. Many gamers were aggrieved by the skin tone automatically assigned them. Others felt drafted into racial discourses that they preferred to ignore, and lamented the entrance of social justice activism into what they saw as a blissfully post-racial online world. But the backlash only underscored a disturbing reality: By insisting that race doesn’t or shouldn’t exist online, such attitudes ensure an online status quo in which people of color remain marginalized and invisible.Yes, in addition to the sad but predictable racist reactions, there were also plenty of white gamers who insisted that they didn't have a problem per se with playing a black character, but thought that the randomized possibility of your in game avatar having black skin was forcing racial diversity or taking them out of the game experience by making them play someone that they couldn't identify with. This is a bit of a head-scratcher for me, because if that's how they felt about possibly getting a default character who's black... why wasn't there a similar outcry when the game's avatar was only a default white guy? What about a woman player who must play video games as a male hero? What about a gay or bi gamer playing though a game with romance options that can't romance characters of the same sex?
As Condis puts it, it's due to most white people just sort of unconsciously accepting "white" as "default" because that's also what society does:
The reactions reflect a failure on the part of some gamers to recognize that whiteness is a race at all. These players appear to think of whiteness as a neutral type of embodiment, the universal category of humanity against which all those who do “have” a race (anyone who is not white) are compared.I agree. Default choices are choices. As a white guy, living in a culture that prioritizes white men, there are lots of things I don't actively have to think of or worry about because I see a lot of people who look like me as the default. I don't have to consider other ways of living in my day to day life-- what it's like to live as a black man, or a gay woman, for example. It's like the fish that lives in the ocean, surrounded by water, not realize what surrounds it. It's this sort of thing that leads to marginalized and minority groups not only being dismissed, but often just flat-out not even being thought of in the first place. As Tauriq Moosa writes in Polygon about the lack of people of color in current AAA title hit The Witcher 3:
Let’s look at a few uncomfortable facts. Almost every Witcher 3 review I came across was written by a white man — excellent writers and all of whom I respect. But games media itself is, like the tech world, a very white-male dominated area. This is why we got a hundred articles confronting the Witcher 3 devs about less pretty grass physics, but not a single article asking them about no people of color. As a person obsessed with graphics... downgrade questions concern me, too. But I’d hope more folk would be asking questions about entire races not existing in a game world and why. But the lack of persons of colour, and the lack of questions about our absence, comes from ignorance rather than animosity. It probably just wasn’t even considered. That is itself the major issue. It’s not just that people of color weren’t in the game, it’s that so few people in the gaming press noticed.So how and why does representation-- making sure people of color can seem themselves in games matter so much? Why does leaving them out, even it's it's "just an oversight" become so harmful? As Moosa explains:
By creating digital representations of people who aren’t white, it indicates a culture and industry who view us as people. It counters the status quo that dehumanizes us by erasing us or casting us as a non-human. We want to be seen as people, too. There’s little more to it, for me. But seeing angry responses to this simple request speaks volumes about the kind of culture we’re creating by not diversifying races, genders and so on. Consider: In Witcher 3, all humans are white and every other being is non-human. That’s not exactly friendly or inclusive of people of color. A game can include diverse number of monsters, but not a diverse number of skin colours or races for humans? And then we see panic and anger when white gamers may be asked to play as people of color in Rust. The double standard is rarely addressed. Being white is apolitical, being a person of color, even simply by existing, is threatening to some players.Many geeks and gamers want to uphold the idea of gaming as a welcoming and inclusive hobby. But when when can have a AAA title released with humans and dragons but not a single person of color, or when gamers act like they feel threatened for even having a character avatar whose skin might be a little brown... we're obviously a long ways away.
Fellow white folks: listen to gamers of color. Work to include them. We may not be able to change a bigot's mind, but we can certainly do what we can to make gamers of color amd other marginalized people considered, listened to and welcome so that just existing in this gamer space isn't considered some sort of radical act.