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photo via Rust

I’ve been watching the saga of the indie survival game “Rust” for the past few weeks now with some interest. Like a lot of indie games, it’s in “early access”, and has been for several years now. This just means that the developers have been selling it and letting people play while they continue to work on it and add features. Most recently, the developers decided to add black people and women to a game that had previously been populated entirely by identical bald white guys.

The rub being: you don’t get to decide which race or gender you are in the game. The game decides that for you randomly, and permanently. This has made a few people upset.

The lead developer, Garry Newman posted an eloquent response to the uproar in the Guardian on April 13th, and its still filtering through social media. Click on the graphic of the four heads above to read it. In the letter, Newman lays out the reasons for this feature (mostly to require people to have a fixed, recognizable identity and reputation in the usually anonymous internet landscape). He also lays out some interesting tidbits about the response (Russians are the angriest about suddenly discovering they’re black people. Everyone, everywhere is equally upset about not being able to choose their own gender, though women are the least bothered by it, since, you know, they’ve had to play as men in games for years.).

Whether you’re interested in games or not, there are some issues about what it is to be an artist in general here, and I wanted to write this review of sorts to talk about them.

The gaming world can be a contentious place for discussions, and Rust’s new policies have provoked many accusations of sexism, racism, feminist political agendas, and anti-trans hostility. Most of those who are unhappy seem to see some kind of political agenda in Rust’s new player identities, but that opinion is not really accurate.

Giving people a random, not-easily-changable gender and race at the moment they’re created isn’t a political agenda. It’s just reality. It’s the reality each and every one of us is living, right now. What Rust is doing here, whether intentional or not, isn’t pushing their personal view of the world. It’s just forcing players to confront an uncomfortable aspect of reality.

All it’s doing is telling the truth.

To me, that elevates the game to the level of Art.

Works of art that push a political agenda or biased viewpoint are propaganda at best. They’re art with a small a in the sense that they’re something someone made to be beautiful or evoke something, but they fall short of capital A Art, which has to get at some truth or some essential nature of things. Propaganda may use the same methods and tools as capital A Art to sway people’s opinions, but it isn’t really Art. It may be pretty or fun, but the creator hasn’t really been tough enough on him or herself, and refined his or her ideas enough to make something great.

Great work doesn’t really need explanation, or justification. If it’s the truth, people will recognize that, and feel it, even if what they mostly feel is anger, like here. It does need to be defended though, because not everyone is ready to hear the truth, and waking up one morning to discover that say, they’re now a tiny black woman, and will be treated as one, might not sit very well with them.

The fact that millions of human beings have been waking up every day to discover that, yes, they’re still a tiny black woman, may not occur to them for a while.

For me, being someone very different has always been part of the fun in the game world. I once modded the Sims once so that all the families in my little neighborhood were Xingu people from the amazon jungle, but I recognize that that’s a little weird, and most people wouldn’t do that. Even if they did, it would be a thing they *chose* to experience, not one that was forced upon them. I might be just as annoyed myself if my online face suddenly changed against my will, because a lot of the reason I dive deep into a game world is to exist for a while in a place where I can be whatever I want.

Rust is taking that away from people. They seem to be doing it with eyes wide open though, and if players don’t like it, well, there are plenty of other indie survival games out there to escape into.

If you’re the kind of person who cares about things like race and gender, it’s tempting to want to berate people who are mad at suddenly being brown, or female, and force them to look at their hypocrisy. Most responses I’ve seen to the game have been in this vein. Here’s the thing though: the game is doing that just fine without your help.

Nietschze once suggested that books were better teachers than people, because people will be completely vulnerable to the ideas in a book, but will defend their pride when confronted by a person. I tend to think this is insightful in regards to any kind of art. If you’re making art, writing, creating hoping to change people’s minds or make them see a deeper truth, at some point, you need to get out of the room and let the art do its job. People won’t listen to you as closely as they’ll listen to the work. Because you’re a stranger, and let’s be honest, even if you’re not, you can be a jerk sometimes. People take what you say with a grain of salt. You do the same with them.

The power of good art, good writing, even a good game, is that it doesn’t tell you what to think– it just puts you in a position, and forces you to figure out how you want to respond to that. There’s no narrator to mistrust, or disagree with. You’re just a black woman now, former white dude. In whatever small way, that’s now who you are. What are you going to do?

What rust is doing here is something that no living person, no argument can accomplish. It’s forcing white dudes who have never thought about race very much at all, to wake up one day in the body of a black woman, and have to live in that body, and decide what they want to do with that. Even if it’s just for a few minutes in a game. Some people will respond to that gracelessly, but I don’t think there’s a *wrong* response to it.

Whether the hypothetical white Russian out there embraces his game life as a black woman, or turns off the game in disgust, or lives with it and hates it, or discovers that suddenly everyone treats him differently, and he can’t figure out why, the game has still forced him to respond to that identity. It’s changed him in some way, and made him see things through a different set of eyes.

That’s not much, but it’s a powerful thing.

It’s not a satisfying thing– it doesn’t give you the power of judging or educating someone, or let you see an uncomfortable idea violently forced into his head. Our dialogues and arguments today focus a lot on gratification. On getting off a good zinger, or “destroying” someone with a slick argument. Even if you fail to change their mind in any way. Even if they hate you afterward.

Art is usually not gratifying at all. It’s not a club to beat someone over the head with. It doesn’t make you feel strong. But it is a seed, that takes root, and grows, until one day, if the conditions are right, you don’t have to educate anyone, because they already discovered the idea growing inside them. They had an experience, and drew their own colclusions from that. You don’t need to convince them, or prove anything, because it’s not your idea anymore. It’s theirs.

Rust is available on Steam

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