Rust is a popular first-person survival video game where you start out completely naked, left to a barren environment to build yourself tools, weapons, and a home as other players try to do the same — and potentially try to kill you and steal your stuff. It's a tense game, one in which your friends can suddenly turn against you and basically ruin everything you worked for just for their own personal gain.
But it's not the betrayal and tension that has gamers upset with Rust. Instead, it's a new feature recently added to the game, which has 500,000 players each week, by developer Garry Newman: Your character's gender and race are now randomized. So even if you're a white man in real life, you now may be forced to play a black woman.
Men, particularly white men, are not happy. Newman explained the situation in the Guardian, characterizing the reaction to the change as "extreme":
For race, this seems to be a regional thing. For example, most complaints about being black in the game have generally been from Russian players. With gender it seems to be more of a geography-free complaint.
Here's one of the many messages we've received from disgruntled male players: "Why won't you give the player base an option to choose their gender? 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."
This is what women and minority gamers have been complaining about for decades
It's totally understandable that some people want to create their characters as they see fit. As someone who enjoys playing role-playing games, if I'm given the option I'll always create a character that I think looks cool. So I can, to some extent, sympathize with this sentiment.
Newman, for his part, says that he just didn't want to spend development resources on a character building tool. And he also sees it as valuable that people are forced to be of a certain race and gender for their entire play-through: Players "should be recognisable consistently and long-term — so anyone likely to commit a crime would be more likely to wear a balaclava or a face mask," Newman wrote.
What's odd, instead, is that these same complaints from male, white gamers would very likely fall on deaf ears if they were made by another group — by, say, a black, Hispanic, or female gamer. After all, originally, everyone on Rust was forced to play a bald white man — and there was no similar uproar.
Or worse, such complaints would fall on actively aggressive ears. Consider Gamergate: The movement began in part as a response to journalists trying to encourage more diversity in the gaming industry — not just by opening the door to more women and minority developers, but also making sure that games reflected the potentially diverse audience playing them. This was widely perceived as such a vitriolic concept to a large group of gamers that they rose up and harassed the journalists and activists pushing for this increase in diversity, which Gamergaters said was an attempt to ruin games with political correctness (which doesn't exist).
Given Gamergate, there's a bit of irony to the Rust controversy.
Take this feedback Newman received from one male gamer: "I just want to play the game and have a connection to the character like most other games I play." What this misses is that this male gamer is able to have a connection to the character he plays in most video games because he's a man. Meanwhile, minority and women gamers have for a long time just grown to accept that they're probably going to be stuck playing white male heroes if they pick up a mainstream triple-A game.
Newman made this point in his piece for the Guardian:
It's maybe understandable why some male gamers wouldn't want to play as women. They're just not used to being forced to. You could probably count on your fingers the number of major, big-budget games where you have no choice but to play as a woman, never mind having no choice but to play as a black woman. Female gamers are obviously more forgiving — they've been playing games as men for most of their lives.
It's not that these gamers are wrong to be disappointed that they can no longer play as the character they would like in Rust. I agree that character customization is great. The issue is that many of the same people complaining now would probably be rolling their eyes if a Hispanic man or black woman asked why they aren't well-represented in Halo, Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid, The Witcher, The Legend of Zelda, or almost any other triple-A title that's come out over the years.