In a March update to 2013 indie survival horror game, Rust, the devs explained a new change: the assignment of skin tone.
Writing on the game’s official blog, they said:
Everyone now has a pseudo unique skin tone and face. Just like in real life, you are who you are – you can’t change your skin colour or your face. It’s actually tied to your steamid.
Right now your avatar is randomised via three things. Skin colour, head mesh and head material. We only have 2 face textures and 2 face materials, which means there’s 4 possible combinations. We will be adding more of these later on (at which point your face will probably change).
There’s a lot of skin colours in the world, and it’s really easy to appear racially insensitive when doing this. This is compounded by the fact that everyone is really used to seeing this guy as a white guy, so when you see him as a black guy it feels like he’s just “blacked up“. So we’re spending a lot of time trying to lessen that effect.
Race is a complicated issue in a world where people are still judged, targeted and marginalised – even in first world countries – because of their skin colour. Many people would like to believe we are beyond it, but unfortunately, we are not. And this is precisely what scholar Megan Condis tackles at Al Jazeera:
The reactions to Rust’s unprecedented experiment were swift. Many gamers were aggrieved by the skin tone automatically assigned them. Others felt drafted into racial discourses that they preferred to ignore, and lamented the entrance of social justice activism into what they saw as a blissfully post-racial online world. But the backlash only underscored a disturbing reality: By insisting that race doesn’t or shouldn’t exist online, such attitudes ensure an online status quo in which people of color remain marginalized and invisible. (Emphasis added.)
This continuation of marginalisation arises from gamers’ insistence race doesn’t belong in a review; in sites focusing more on what characters’ smoke than why there are no people of colour.
— Tauriq Moosa (@tauriqmoosa) May 25, 2015
It’s everywhere and people who loudly proclaim to be totally not racist perpetuate this toxicity through erasing our concerns.
While there were blatant racist responses to Rust’s decisions, there were also those who believed it an “enforcement” of issues. What’s striking, however, is that so many people forget how often people of colour are forced to play white people; how often gay people play as straight people; and so on. The straight white male lead and focus is ubiquitous in gaming – and a lot of media. This ubiquity leads to those identity aspects becoming invisible. As Condis puts it:
Why is it that the supposed lack of choice with regards to the player’s avatar only became a concern after people of color were added to the game? The reactions reflect a failure on the part of some gamers to recognize that whiteness is a race at all. These players appear to think of whiteness as a neutral type of embodiment, the universal category of humanity against which all those who do “have” a race (anyone who is not white) are compared.
Many people often respond to us people of colour’s concerns about race with frustration and anger; it’s particularly awful when, consistently, white people ask me to stop talking about race. I’d really love it if, instead of telling me to keep quiet about race, white folk interrogated this anger – not at systems of oppression, but at their own boredom, their own frustration at us, and how it adds to an environment we keep saying is unwelcoming to us.
Consider that when we write “Gaming culture is unfriendly to those who are not straight white cis men”, we have straight white men swear and harass us to… disprove this? It’s as if the articles about how minority groups face oppression get comments that prove the necessity of those articles.
The industry and culture is hostile and part of that hostility is privileged people who claim to be not racist or sexist telling the rest of us to chill out, quiet down, stop overreacting. We have given so many examples, shown so many ways – it’s not a question of evidence, it’s now a question of why privileged people don’t want to accept that evidence. It’s their refusal to self-reflect on their anger at us, rather than the systems and culture we point to that hurt everyone.
I, and other people of colour, can’t do that acceptance for them, neither can any other minority person who is frequently the target of hateful but privileged angry people. As Condis highlights in her piece, ubiquity of particular types of people has led to invisibility – and, because we don’t fit into that ubiquitous mould, that so-called “target demographic”, we become targets, not members, of yet another space.
This isn’t just gaming. It’s every day life. We shouldn’t want invisibility, we should want safety.
No one is forcing you to participate in these discussions. If you really don’t care, fine: don’t read, don’t participate. It’s a pity though that so many would rather pretend race doesn’t exist and isn’t an issue than try make games more inclusive, diverse and accepting. Games themselves talk about race – why won’t gamers?
— Tauriq Moosa (@tauriqmoosa) May 24, 2015