The online survival game Rust was recently changed to randomly, and irreversibly, assign a gender to players based on their Steam ID. It's a fairly natural evolution of a system that already assigns faces, skin tones, and—for those who have them—dongs in an identical fashion, but it was nonetheless not a popular decision with everyone. In a column in The Guardian, Facepunch Studios boss Garry Newman described the reaction to the system as “extreme,” but said the change is all about gameplay, and gave no indication that it will be reconsidered.
“Rust is not a game about identity. The objective in Rust is to survive,” Newman wrote. “You will survive better if you’re a part of a group, but this takes a lot of mutual trust. If you kill someone you’ll be able to loot their corpse and take all their food, medicine and weapons. This makes the game very interesting socially, since players struggle with trust and slowly build up relationships with one another.”
Newman said the studio wanted to avoid wasting a lot of time and resources on what it believed would be an unnecessary character customization tool. More interestingly, it also saw the permanent race and gender assignments as a way of tightening up the social aspect of the game by making it more difficult to avoid the consequences of bad behavior. “A survivor shouldn’t be able to attack another then come back later with a different gender or race and befriend the same player,” Newman wrote. “They should be recognizable consistently and long-term—so anyone likely to commit a crime would be more likely to wear a balaclava or a face mask.”
While "most complaints about being black in the game have generally been from Russian players," Newman writes, criticism of game-assigned gender is more of a universal thing. The studio has been accused of pushing a political agenda and “feminist ideals,” and some transgender players have also been critical: One suggested that assigning an unchangeable sex had echoes of real-world transphobia. Female players, on the other hand, have been generally less worked-up about it, because, as Newman noted, “they've already been playing Rust as men for the past two years” anyway.
“Ultimately the decision comes down to gameplay. We don’t believe that letting you choose your race and gender would improve the game,” he wrote. “On the other hand, randomizing everyone’s gender and race meets all our requirements. 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.”
Newman's Rust column can (and probably should) be read in full at The Guardian.