Rust video game players outraged after half given female avatars

Players of Rust, a survival-theme online video game, recently logged in to find their avatars, previously all male, had been randomly assigned a gender. The resulting fracas highlights the connection between video gamers and their in-game representations and what that means for game developers.

Survivor-theme game randomly assigns permanent gender to player characters

Some players of the online survival-themed video game Rust were unhappy to find that their in-game avatars had been a gender not of their choosing. (Playrust.com)

Players of Rust, a survival-theme online video game, recently logged in to discover their existing avatars, previously all-male, had been randomly assigned a gender.

Half of players' avatars became female, while the other half remained male, with no option to change genders. 

That proved to be too much for some Rust players, who took to the internet to complain.

"You've made me into a girl," tweeted one player to the game's lead developer. "Not happy."

"'Randomized gender assignment' assures that neither my son nor I or others I know will be playing #Rust," tweeted another.

Rust is available as an "early access" release, meaning that the game is still a work in progress and is constantly tweaked and updated.

In an editorial for the Guardian, Rust's lead developer, Garry Newman, acknowledged that "the range and strength of opinions [about the game] have never been this intense," but he defended his team's choice:

"Rust is not a game about identity," wrote Newman. "The objective in Rust is to survive."

"We felt that player customization had got a bit out of control in other games," added Newman.

It's certainly true that some games give players great latitude to customize the appearance of their virtual avatar. Fallout 4, an award-winning role-playing game, lets users customize their character far beyond gender. Age, ethnicity, facial structure, body type, eye colour, hairstyle, makeup and even skin blemishes and scars can all be tailored to a player's tastes.

At one with your avatar

Max Birk, a PhD candidate in human-computer interaction at the University of Saskatchewan and the lead author of a new paper on virtual avatars, said the gender debate in Rust illustrates his research findings.

Birk's research suggests that when gamers identify with their in-game avatar, they are more likely to become engaged in the game.

Gamers were either assigned an avatar or given a chance to customize their own. Players who reported that they identified with their avatar spent longer playing the game, despite being given the option to quit at any time.

A study from the University of Saskatchewan explored the relationship between video gamers, their in-game avatars, and their levels of engagement in a video game. (Max Birk/University of Saskatchewan)

"If you identify with your representation … you feel in charge, basically, of what you are doing," said Birk. "We also see an increase in intrinsic motivation, so people actually experience more enjoyment of the task."

Understanding how to increase player motivation is important to people designing games for educational or stress-reduction purposes, added Birk. Even if a player doesn't identify with their in-game avatar at first, though, Birk believes that overcoming in-game adversity can actually build a bond between player and avatar over time.

​Gender and video game avatars

The clamour over avatar gender in Rust has shades of the "#GamerGate" sexism scandal, in which female video gamers, game developers and game critics were subjected to misogynistic, violent threats and harassment.

For Kelsey Schmitz, who has researched how video gamers create digital identities online for her PhD from the University of Ottawa, the controversy over Rust's gender assignment is a good example of a double standard in video gaming culture.

"Women already have to [modify] their gaming experience, they have to adapt their storyline expectations around a pre-selected gender all the time," said Schmitz.

In her own research, Schmitz found that many female gamers were more willing to play as avatars who looked nothing like them in video game scenarios that are removed from reality.

"Sometimes when you play a game that suspends disbelief, it's sci-fi, it's Star Wars … it's OK to want to try an alien, it's OK to try someone that looks and sounds completely different from you," said Schmitz.

For male gamers, Schmitz found that gender selection was often a matter of strategy, and sometimes a matter of esthetics.

"If they were playing games like a role-playing game and they had to look at the character for an extended period of time, they chose female," said Schmitz. 

Race and avatars

This wasn't the first time that Rust players faced randomization of their in-game avatars. A previous update to the game randomized players' skin colour and ethnicity, which provoked a backlash from some Russian players who were unhappy to be playing as black characters, according to Newman, the developer.
The lead developer of the online video game Rust says he didn't assign a random gender to player avatars for political reasons, but rather to improve game play. (Playrust.com)

A later update went so far as to randomly assign different sizes to players' genitals. (Rust players begin the game naked, and must find their own clothing as part of the struggle to survive.)

One recent academic paper suggests that taking on a virtual avatar of a different race could actually reduce racial bias. In a virtual reality experiment with a group of 60 light-skinned Spanish women, subjects who were shown their virtual reflection as a dark-skinned body showed a decrease in implicit racial bias — although it was unclear whether that effect would last.

Still, the Rust developer believes randomly assigning race and gender to player characters is about game play, not social equality.

"We get an even spread of races and genders that make players more identifiable — while at the same time making the social aspects of the game much more interesting," wrote Newman.