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Are You Your Avatar?

By Conner Gordon
17 Jun 2015

The online world has always been one of seemingly endless possibilities. In this space, it has been said, anything can happen and anything can be changed, including one’s own identity. And while this has been the case with many games, others have upended this model entirely. One of them, the online survival game Rust, is doing so to provoke debate about a topic rarely considered: race in the online world.

After a recent update, Rust’s players were able to spawn into the game as usual. However, one key factor had changed: whereas the character models up until that point had been white, players were now spawning in with dark-skinned characters at random. Those who tried to reset their settings also found that the change was permanent – a black character in-game could not be turned back into a white character, and vice versa. Nor would the settings reset after the player’s character died – every time they respawned, players would have the same randomly assigned skin color as their first character.

The resulting outcry has spotlighted the game and its developers in a growing debate on race online. Some gamers have argued that the update has forcefully injected unwanted political themes into an otherwise apolitical game. In response, others have pointed out that the choice highlights the double standard in gaming that leads many gamers to assume that their fellow players are white by default. Through it all, Rust’s developers have maintained that the update is meant to mimic real life, where “you are who you are — you can’t change your skin color or your face.”

The developer’s actions, and the justification behind them, spark larger debates about the role of the self in online gaming. For within these games, especially online multiplayer games, a user’s character can act as an online representation of their identity. Is it ethical, then, to force a player into a certain character depiction? And where is the line between player and character drawn?

Rust is not the first game to pose this question. In 2007, the popular life sim Second Life drew controversy after one of its users, who was married in real life, married another player’s virtual character in the game. While his wife considered the virtual relationship to be cheating, the man drew a distinction between reality and the online game. It was just a game, he said, and his actions in it did not translate into a real-life transgression.

By this argument, then, a line is drawn between the user and their character; though the user may control the character, her or his actions in the game are not ultimately representative of her or him in real life. In many ways, this makes sense. Most gamers certainly would not consider actions in games like Grand Theft Auto V to be reflective of their true selves. Games offer us the ability to do things we would not legally, morally and physically be able to do, and as such the actions of our characters in those games are not necessarily reflective of reality.

Though their actions may not translate into the real world, what about character appearance? After all, the primary argument against Rust’s developers was that they were limiting gamers’ discretion over the way they are represented in game. Character creation plays a significant role in allowing gamers to express themselves and connect with the online world, even if it is not based in reality. Limiting these options, it could be argued, stifles players’ attempts to express their identity online. Is it ever ethical to do so?

As Al Jazeera’s Megan Condis points out, this question has a lot to do with race. While it may seem unethical, the experiences faced by white gamers in Rust is one that non-white gamers face all the time. Underrepresented by character choice options, these players already are faced with an environment where their character is typically an inaccurate representation of themselves. It appears, then, that the answer to the question of virtual representation is highly intertwined with that of online privilege.

Additionally, it must be noted that developers have always restricted character customization in some form. While some games, such as Bethesda Game Studios’ The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, feature particularly complex character creation options, it could be argued that no game currently allows realistic character depictions for every possible player. Developers ultimately choose which features gamers will be able to customize, and which will stay constant across all characters. Additionally, many single-player games, like Nintendo’s famous Legend of Zelda series, do not allow character customization beyond the character’s name, forcing players instead to use a single, unchangeable protagonist – one that is often white.

As a result, it becomes clear that the choice Rust’s developers are making is not without precedent. Games have long limited player choice when it comes to their own depiction – a discretion that Rust’s developers are using to start a critical debate about representation in gaming. In this regard, it appears that their decision is ultimately a justifiable one.

Does this mean, then, that game developers have no ethical responsibility to offer diverse characters and representations? Not at all. While they certainly have the right to limit character choice, developers must use this power responsibly. Unethical examples of this can be seen in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, in which developers refused to offer female multiplayer character options because of the added work required to produce them. The critically-acclaimed The Witcher 3 has also been criticized for excluding nonwhite characters entirely. While developers certainly have the right to do so, limiting character choice to the straight, white, cisgender male identity that has dominated gaming is both ethically irresponsible and poor business practice.

In the case of Rust, though, the developers have harnessed character limitations for a positive end. Far from shutting out marginalized representations, Rust mandates them in a way that encourages players to think about the problematic representations in gaming. This discretion is a powerful tool. And, while it should be used in a way that ultimately promotes ethical and diverse representations, requiring that players adhere to it is hardly unethical.

Conner was a Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute from 2016-2018. Conner's writing focuses on memory, politics and culture. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon.
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