Plenty of people play games to escape their real lives, and the character creators some games offer let us imagine ourselves in whatever image we'd like: realistic or idealized, some version of ourselves. Or someone entirely other — not just a chance to invent your very own fantasy character, but to live as them, in a sense.
I know a couple where one partner always builds one edition of the other in any game they play that allows for character selection. Isn't that romantic?
I'm also intrigued by the idea a game might take that choice away from me — where every player has a different avatar, but it's not up to us. Like being born, almost, where we can't choose how we enter the world. Not everyone feels that way, apparently. My colleague Nathan Grayson has just covered the fascinating situation of Rust, where some players are upset to have lost control over their race.
Rust is a popular multiplayer game about surviving in chaos — I don't play it myself, but my friends tell me haunting stories about scrabbling for resources, fearing one another in the dark. Now, thanks to a recent update, player appearances will be randomized, in order to create a diverse and natural look to the world, and also to make individual players more distinct from one another.
The avatar's physical features will be tied to players' IDs on Steam, the service they use to play Rust, so it'd take a disproportionate effort to attempt to get a new look. Reactions have been mixed, project lead Garry Newman told Grayson — although apparently most players embrace the interesting change and band together against those who are so against playing with a different skin color that they'd raise problems:
"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)."
Grayson's reporting appears on Kotaku's channel devoted to issues facing the Steam userbase, itself an interesting area of focus as the platform and community of choice for most computer players (myself included).
Also on Offworld: Tanya D. looks at how people of color are represented in the Dragon Age universe.