Adrienne Shaw on Race, Rust, and Game Mechanics: More Thoughts on #GamesSoWhite

rust men

Just wanted to pass along this amazing piece by Adrienne Shaw of Temple University called “Unpacking Rust, Race, and Player Reactions to Change”

Here is my favorite bit:

The way the race was introduced in the game actually helped make it feel arbitrary. Indeed, in the announcement of the change they call race arbitrary: “It’s quite pleasing to see different races working together in game, and makes you realise how arbitrary race is.” Race in the game is an aesthetic addition so people can tell each other apart visually. That isn’t what race is, which is why “color-blindness” has never been an actual anti-racist goal.

I think this is especially interesting given that Rust is played via a first-person perspective.  So the addition of race and multiple kinds of faces allows you as a player to tell others apart.  But there is also some anxiety, I think, around players being seen in their new bodies.  You almost never see your own body when you are playing Rust because you are looking out through its eyes.  Rather, the idea that others might be perceiving you differently than you want them to is what is scary.  The ‘Net was supposed to be this utopian space where geeks could break free of the body and project whatever kind of personality they wanted, a place where people would be judged according to their merit and not according to their fashion sense or their muscles or their weight or their disabilities.  Rust is intervening in this fantasy.

And yet, I have to point out, this fantasy was never available to people of color in the same way that it was available to white folks (and women and queer gamers) due to the lack of diversity that has plagued gaming (and gaming culture) for most of its history.  The idea of disappearing into a fantasy body is someone more strained when the fantasy body that you want to construct remains a stigmatized body within the community, when you are warned not to discuss race and racism lest you be drummed out of the group.  These issues create a kind of double-consciousness wherein gamers both find pleasure in escapist fantasy and yet are constantly reminded that this fantasy was not designed with them in mind.

Rust is introducing a similar kind of double-consciousness to its player base, although this one operates in reverse in that the virtual body that they are assigned may or may not conform to the escapist fantasy body they would construct for themselves and it may or may not be a point of contention within the community they find themselves in.  Thus, players are encouraged to think about new ways of organizing that community in order to make room for different kinds of avatar-bodies.  And indeed, developer Garry Newman told Kotaku that players have already begun this work, as players began to rally together to drive overtly racist players off of their servers.  Since the update, he says,

There’s… been a definite uptick in overtly racist language:

“It makes me wish I’d set up some analytics to record how many times the N-word was used before and after the update,” Newman said. “It was used quite a bit from what I’ve seen.”

Newman and the rest of the Rust team considered taking action against people who throw around racist language like so many sticks and stones, but then they observed an interesting trend:

“We debated internally whether to start censoring it, whether as the curators of the game we should be stepping in,” he explained. “What we found was that when someone was being racist they were always in the minority and more often than not the other members of the server stepped in and took action (i.e. they all worked together to hunt him).”

Those of us who study gender, race, and sexuality in online culture would be wise to watch how these micro-cultures function, how they determine what values will be upheld on their servers and how they discipline members who attempt to disrupt the communities they’ve created.

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