Opinion: How Facepunch failed to communicate gender assignment in Rust

By adopting an (unintentionally) dismissive tone and hand-waving away gender as a nonissue in Rust, the Rust developer revealed a fundamental lack of understanding toward its community.

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Last week, I stuck my foot in my mouth.

I wrote about Facepunch Studios' choice to automatically assign players of Rust, its open-world survival game, a male or female character based on their SteamID. In explaining why I disagreed with the implementation, I inadvertently trivialized the blood, sweat, and tears developers pour into making even the smallest, simplest games. "Facepunch invested the time and energy to create female character models," I wrote. "Surely creating menus full of sliders that let players customize those and other features can't be that much harder to build. At the very least, a screen with two buttons—Male, Female—is in order."

I've written about game design and culture for over 12 years. I know better than to undervalue the effort involved in creating something as complex as a suite of customization options. There's more involved than slapping together a bunch of sliders and rolling out a patch, because nothing in game development is simple. That was ignorant.

Since my original news story, more information has come to light. While I now possess a better understanding of what Rust's developers were going for, I believe they failed to communicate their goals on two fronts. The first: tone.

At launch, Rust assigned all players a Caucasian male character.

If you missed it, the kerfuffle started when Rust devs Garry Newman and Taylor Trotter wrote a blog post explaining the gender system's implementation: rather than let you pick male or female, Rust assigns a gender based on your SteamID—no ifs, ands, or buts. "We understand that you may now be a gender that you don't identify with in real-life. We understand this causes you distress and makes you not want to play the game any more [sic]. Technically nothing has changed, since half the population was already living with those feelings. The only difference is that whether you feel like this is now decided by your SteamID instead of your real-life gender."

Rust's gender-assignment system sparked debate on various outlets and r/Games. That spark grew into a wildfire when Newman responded to Eurogamer's request for an interview. "You are who you are. Before we added different races and genders you played as a bald white guy - you never had a choice," he explained, referring to the fact that at launch, Rust assigned players a single character model because the studio couldn't justify spending hundreds of hours building an elaborate customization tool. "So we're not taking a choice away from the player, we're just adding more variety to the player models. I don't believe that playing as a different gender/race detracts from anyone's enjoyment of the game."

Over the next 48 hours, Facepunch was flooded with Reddit comments and emails from players on both sides of the debate. Two days after announcing the change, Newman wrote a piece for The Guardian in an attempt to explain the controversial decision. He outlines the economic concerns that informed it, and cited continuity and verisimilitude as equally important: the team didn't like game-y conventions like player names floating above heads, and they didn't want unscrupulous survivors to be able to attack someone, then come back later with a different face and pull the same con again. Players will still be able to trick fellow survivors, but they'll have to work for it by fashioning disguises and/or planning attacks, playing to the game's intended goals of carrying out survival tactics to get by.

As Friedrich Nietzsche observed, the tone used to express an idea goes a long way toward its acceptance. Many people interpreted the tone of Facepunch's announcement of how Rust would handle gender assignment as, "We know lots of you won't like having this choice taken away from you. We just don't care."

The tone of Newman's explanation on The Guardian sat better with me. Games cost money to make, so you've got to triage important elements and bump others down (or off) the list. As a bonus, Facepunch orchestrated a fascinating social experiment that conveniently stimulated awareness of its game.

I'm a proponent of authorial control: Just because your players don't like something—like, say, the ending—doesn't mean you should cave to their complaints. As a matter of fact, you don't owe me or anyone else an explanation. It's your game. Do what you want. Realize your vision. But there's a right way to communicate changes, especially those likely to elicit an emotional response. Facepunch went about this change the wrong way.

Which brings me to the studio's second failure. "Ultimately the decision comes down to gameplay," Newman wrote in his editorial. "We don't believe that letting you choose your race and gender would improve the game. On the other hand, randomising 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."

With respect, Mr. Newman got it wrong. Gender and other variables stemming from identity and representation do matter in games, even ones driven by gameplay over narrative.

In his editorial, Newman labeled the response to Rust's gender system as "extreme." Transgender players understandably found the system "unpleasant and uncomfortable." More than a few players accused Facepunch of pushing a political agenda. Many female players reacted with pragmatism. They've been playing dudes in games for decades; Rust making them play as a dude was par for the course.

Maybe it shouldn't be. Kelsey Schmitz, a graduate student studying how players form identities in games as part of her PhD program at University of Ottawa, told CBC News that women have to adapt their expectations when playing games due to most games putting them in control of male characters. Giving players a say in choices like gender and race, Schmitz pointed out, creates an opportunity to put them in someone (or something) else's shoes.

Setting aside personal choices such as transgenderism, many players simply lament being told what type of characters they must play, opining that it prevents them from bonding with their avatars. In 2012, Nintendo caught flak for not including Princess Peach as a playable character in New Super Mario Bros. U. "In Super Mario Bros 2, Princess Peach had her own unique moves and animation," director Masataka Takemoto explained to Now Gamer. "In this series, we want all the players to have the same moves and animations as Mario, and Princess Peach isn't suited for that."

Isn't she? In Super Mario Bros. 2, Peach (then Toadstool) could float, Luigi jumped highest, and Toad ran fastest. Nintendo had no problem homogenizing Toad and Luigi for inclusion in New Super Mario Bros. U; only Peach was sidelined, her levitation ability deemed inexplicably inoperable.

True, Rust is a sandbox game where players tell stories through the actions they choose to take. But the telling of their story can and often does revolve around who they are in the game. Auto-assigning gender strips players of a major component of their agency—ostensibly the foundation of open-world games, especially those predicated on survival.

Max Birk is a PhD student at University of Saskatchewan who recently published a paper on the relationship between player motivation and representation. His findings were clear: players who identify with their virtual selves feel more authority in game worlds, and tend to spend more time playing—an outcome high on any developer's wish list.

To be fair, Birk's paper also makes a point in Facepunch's favor. While players may not identify with an avatar at first, overcoming adversities can strengthen that bond or create one where none existed.

Still, the argument boils down to representation. Rust and its developer have a habit of making choices for their players: an earlier update assigned ethnicity based on external factors. And to a certain degree, that is the studio's right. Facepunch created Rust. They can make decisions and harness the consequences as they see fit.

They would be wise, however, to consider limiting how often they take matters into their own hands, and the matters they decide. Just because a game is predicated on gameplay over traditional narratives does not mean gender, ethnicity, and related characteristics have no bearing on these games. To some players, gender is as important to them as the weapon they carry into Rust's post-apocalyptic world.

It matters to them, because it matters.

Long Reads Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    April 18, 2016 5:00 PM

    David Craddock posted a new article, Opinion: How Facepunch failed to communicate gender assignment in Rust

    • reply
      April 18, 2016 5:07 PM

      I still disagree with your opinion. The developer can put forward whatever vision for their game they'd like and implement that decision. It does not, and should not be, design by committee approach.

      If you don't like it, then don't buy the game or support their vision and move on to something that fits more in line with your personal wants.

      "It matters to them, because it matters." can be said for any small minutia involved in making game development choices - it does not mean it actually matters to the developers.

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        April 18, 2016 5:49 PM

        Pretty sure I covered that. I'm a proponent of authorial control: Just because your players don't like something—like, say, the ending—doesn't mean you should cave to their complaints. As a matter of fact, you don't owe me or anyone else an explanation. It's your game. Do what you want. Realize your vision. But there's a right way to communicate changes, especially those likely to elicit an emotional response. Facepunch went about this change the wrong way.

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          April 18, 2016 6:01 PM

          Well this way of thought did not work for the ME3 devs lol

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          April 18, 2016 6:21 PM

          You then undid the entirety of that point by finishing the article leaning in to the opposite. This article seems solely to exist to have the final word against those who gave you shit for the first article.

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            April 18, 2016 7:06 PM

            Just because I think they're wrong doesn't mean they shouldn't have authorial control, or change the game for me. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

            Damn, man. The world isn't binary.

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              April 18, 2016 8:17 PM

              You keep calling their handling of their own design decisions as failures, which to me means you don't truly agree with them having full authorial control.

              They were very clear in their responses to the backlash because apparently the best use of the internet today is to be enraged about everything and everything like this need some type of "offficial response" so people can put down their pitchforks and go get upset over the next thing that causes them internal strife.

              The game remains in Early Access, and is in the perfect place for them to try different things until they are satisfied with the end product.

              You lean in to saying its within their right to do exactly as they've done, but then if "they were wise" they would do something completely different. While the world isn't binary, your opinion carries less weight because you don't truly stand behind it.

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                April 19, 2016 5:42 AM

                So film critics who pointed out the myriad problems with Batman v Superman were implicitly saying Zack Snyder shouldn't have been allowed to make directorial decisions? I'm not seeing the connective tissue in your argument here. Criticism isn't a denial of freedom.

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                  April 19, 2016 7:52 AM

                  Ultimately that's what people intimate specifically in your example - zack snyder fucked up and the movie would have been better without him making those decisions because they were the wrong ones based on the final product.

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                    April 19, 2016 11:31 AM

                    Sure, but believing it would've been better under another director isn't quite the same thing as saying that whoever the director is shouldn't have authorial control. I'm getting a bit tripped up over the notion that criticizing a decision from a creator is tantamount to questioning their validity as a creator.

      • reply
        April 18, 2016 7:35 PM

        That vision better be communicated clearly before anyone pays for it.

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          April 18, 2016 7:47 PM

          They were pretty clear about it when they announced it last year, though I guess you could argue that they talked only about gender and not race.

          "To clear up some confusion, when we it does go live you won’t get a choice of whether you’re female or male. We’re not “taking the choice away” from you. You never had a choice. A man’s voice coming out of a woman’s body is no more weird than an 8 year-old boy’s voice coming out of a man’s body." https://playrust.com/devblog-69/

          Also since it's still an Early Access title, if people want to ensure they're happy with the mechanics of the final product they might consider waiting until there's a final product of some sort.

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            April 18, 2016 7:52 PM

            Ah - I didn't realize that. In that case people need to stfu.

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            April 18, 2016 7:53 PM

            Like you said, they were very clear in their stance. Its a survival simulator, not the Sims.

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        April 19, 2016 6:56 AM

        You act as if developers are in some magic position where they don't have customers they need to listen to in order to earn a paycheck.

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          April 19, 2016 10:36 AM

          Games used to be made without that at all. Things like Diablo came out with literally no customer base in place and it exploded. I think it's more of a risk and now with things like early access we have definitely blurred a lot of lines.

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          April 19, 2016 10:52 AM

          Listening is good obviously, but they don't have to react every time someone doesn't like something. It's a balance between their vision for the game and making something people are willing to buy. Given the game's rather large success so far I think they're doing alright.

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        April 19, 2016 11:05 AM

        Totally agree, they should implement as they see fit. Or do as Ark did, and leave ways to implement workarounds or mod the game to the settings you prefer afterwards. That’s what has saved the ARK community.

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      April 18, 2016 7:38 PM

      Also (still) disagree, for pretty much the same reasons ashkie laid out. If customizing your character's race/gender/features is important then Rust isn't the game for you. I can understand why players want that kind of choice, and there are plenty of games that cater to that desire. Rust isn't one of them, by design, and I find that to be really interesting and something that sets it apart.

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      April 18, 2016 7:47 PM

      I still think you're wrong and expecting to be handled with kid gloves WRT to the "tone".

      Beyond that, you said what should have been the entire content of the article.

      Facepunch created Rust. They can make decisions and harness the consequences as they see fit.

      If you don't like the game and its limitations, don't play it.

      But hey, I bet this'll get page views!

    • reply
      April 19, 2016 12:15 AM

      I don't give a shit what gender my character is, as long as its a great game.

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      April 19, 2016 1:41 AM

      To some players, gender is as important to them as the weapon they carry into Rust's post-apocalyptic world.
      It matters to them, because it matters.


      If it matters for reasons that we (the developers, in this instance) disagree with, don't we have a duty as artists to use our chosen medium to try and educate them?

      Y'see, that's what I kind of disagree with about this article. While I understand the need for PR people and community managers in any money-making venture, it does rather insert a level of corporate greasiness into what should otherwise be a purely creative venture.

      Game developers aren't doctors handing down terminal prognoses - they shouldn't have to sweeten the pill (at least so long as their game is in early access and technically still in development.) Maybe I listen to too much rap music but I think there's a certain beauty in an artist saying "this is what I've created and if you don't like it, don't buy it".

      After all, you wouldn't critique the Sex Pistols by saying "I think that this group needs to better communicate their anarchic ideals - people feel attached to their lifestyles and Nevermind the Bollocks would probably sell a lot more copies if they included a verse about how both beliefs are equally valid"

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        April 19, 2016 2:19 AM

        Love the sex pistols analogy

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        April 19, 2016 5:41 AM

        "this is what I've created and if you don't like it, don't buy it"

        That's sorta the reason this is even an issue for people. They bought the game ages ago and JUST had their gender switched through a patch. It doesn't bother me very much (though I like roleplaying *options* as a general rule), but I can totally get why some people are irked about that.

        The same quote applies both ways.

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          April 19, 2016 5:47 AM

          This is just one of the many reasons I don't think Early Access is a good thing. Paying money for unfinished products is a risk, and one that most people don't seem to think much about before doing it.

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            April 19, 2016 5:51 AM

            Yeah. Rust is literally the only early access game I've ever bought (have a bunch on my wishlist, I just keep an eye on their progress). It renders at least a portion of the complaints moot, the game changes radically all the time.

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          April 19, 2016 5:49 AM

          What do people think they're doing when they buy early access games? They are, by definition, incomplete.

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            April 19, 2016 5:54 AM

            That's fair, and if you want to attack my argument by saying "those who bought the game shouldn't complain about their gender reassignment because it's early access," you are welcome to. I think that's a bit shorsighted for such big topic as gender and character-- ie who you ARE in the game, but I can't really refute what you're saying. Early Access has that price.

            • reply
              April 19, 2016 6:51 AM

              I'm not attacking your argument about gender and character, I'm sidestepping it. Early Access provides almost unprecedented feedback between developer and customer, and I think it's a fantastic process (of course, like anything, it has its flaws).

              But just because there's a feedback loop doesn't mean the developer needs to react to, or appease anybody because of it. And while "if you don't like it, don't buy it" is certainly dismissive, it's not necessarily flippant, rude, or anything like that. Tons of ideas and criticism is summarily dismissed and rejected during the development of a game. That's exactly why I think "if you don't like it, don't buy it" is a completely acceptable response.

              TLDR:
              * If you are disappointed in the product as a customer because of the change, that's perfectly understandable. Don't support the dev in the future.
              * If you are disappointed that your feedback was not wholeheartedly taken into account and incorporated into the game, tough titties. "We don't want to do that" is just as acceptable of an answer as "Great idea, we'll put that in our game".

              • reply
                April 19, 2016 6:59 AM

                Completely agree on your TLDRs. Gotta disagree on one point though: "If you don't like it, don't buy it" doesn't work for EA games because you bought it before said feature. It is assholeish, and It's just not the right thing say if you have a problem with the product in that scenario. "You should be more careful with early access" is a better response.

                But aside from that we're just splitting hairs. Rust is my only EA game in my library and I don't even really have a complaint about it in the first place :p

          • reply
            April 19, 2016 6:46 AM

            Yeah the Steam page for EA titles usually feature a huge 'THIS SHIT IS PROBABLY GOING TO CHANGE BECAUSE IT'S NOT DONE YET' box right next to the 'BUY' button.

            I have a hard time feeling sympathy for people who don't really heed warnings like that.

        • reply
          April 19, 2016 6:55 AM

          This is the big thing right here.

          Imagine waking up one morning to find your car changed (Color / Design etc), because the company you bought it from decided to do "something different".

          People would certainly have an issue with that.

          • reply
            April 19, 2016 7:03 AM

            Except when you bought your car they made it explicitly clear that they might need to change the color and design at some point and if that's not cool with you then you should probably wait to buy the car until it's in a more finished state.

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              April 19, 2016 7:05 AM

              All of that is well and good, but the complete inability to sympathize with someone who just had the color changed makes you seem like a robot or something.

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                April 19, 2016 7:07 AM

                To me it makes me feel less like a robot and more that the people upset about their currently-in-development game changing are kind of entitled suckers.

          • reply
            April 19, 2016 7:22 AM

            A car on the lot is a finished product, not early access.

    • reply
      April 19, 2016 2:26 AM

      Have you polled any Rust players? I honestly think the majority do not care.

    • reply
      April 19, 2016 4:19 AM

      Why should the player choose their gender? I think it's a cool mechanic that they don't get a choice.

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        April 19, 2016 5:14 AM

        Yeah, I think it's awesome

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        April 19, 2016 5:18 AM

        me too, particularly with the survival aspect of it. I want to try to recognize players that have wronged me before, and try to disguise myself if I'm on the other end

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          April 19, 2016 5:23 AM

          I'm of two minds on it. For example in something like DayZ someone might kill me while I am playing as one character and since I've pretty much lost everything I can start a new character, with a different look, and make some attempts to find the person who killed me and befriend them before turning on them and murdering them lol. On the other hand, if I was on the otherside of the equation, it would be good to know/remember what that person looked like to NOT let them try and get close to me.

          Granted DayZ has limited models and everyone basically looks the same anyway but still. I think there are pros and cons to both sides of it.

      • reply
        April 21, 2016 12:11 PM

        Right? I mean, people make certain assumptions/treat people differently due to things such as race and gender, so if you let people choose, it'll end up influencing gameplay- so unless we want to go back to the whole "everyone's a white male" thing, this is really the _only_ way to go about it.

    • reply
      April 19, 2016 5:36 AM

      I feel that auto assigning a gender (or auto assignment of any of your characters looks) is a bad way to go for such a roleplay heavy game like Rust.

      It's definitely an interesting social experiment, but an interesting idea does not necessarily make for a good feature.

    • reply
      April 19, 2016 6:52 AM

      I think the worst part about this, is how it would have affected people already playing the game. Let's say you bought the game, knowing you would be a "generic white guy", etc. Logging in the day after the patch to have a different gender / sex, could dramatically affect your "like" for the game.

      The fact that this is tied to your steam id is even worse. I considered buying this game when it was generic. The fact that my Steam ID could dictate me getting "assigned" a character I won't enjoy playing would 100% put this on the "no" list, unless they came out with a tool to show you what you're going to get PRIOR to purchasing the game.

      Most games you play, you can either fully customize your character, or the character you are going to be tied to for several hours, is the person on the box. Typically, we know going into it. When it's something that's randomly generated, you can usually delete and re-roll - which is something you can't do here.

      I agree with the writer and most of the negativity, in that it really feels like they don't care, and they don't think this should really matter. Well, personally, I'm on the side of the fence where this affects me to the point of not buying the game unless they make some kind of change.

      • reply
        April 19, 2016 7:04 AM

        it doesn't. fucking matter. just play with the character you get assigned.

      • reply
        April 19, 2016 7:54 AM

        If you can't handle playing a game as a black woman instead of a white male, you are a horrible person and should leave this website.

      • reply
        April 19, 2016 8:58 AM

        Buckle up homestuck, it's still early access :P

    • reply
      April 19, 2016 7:07 AM

      I just wanna know what kind of a penis/vaggie they made out of my Steam ID.

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      April 19, 2016 7:47 AM

      People like people that look like them. Want to play as such people in video games. Want to see such people on TV and in movies.

      Yawn.

      • reply
        April 19, 2016 9:09 AM

        And yet when women and non-white people have said this before, time and time again we have been told to stop being so sensitive and it's not necessary to be who you are in the game and our delicate needs of playing someone that looks like us is going to ruin gameplay experience.

        • reply
          April 19, 2016 9:35 AM

          Hey I'm on your side! People like people that look like them. Women want to play as women. White dudes want to play as white dudes. Asians get fairly upset when ScarJo white washes Major Motoko Kusanagi.

          On one hand you could say "many white men are furious" about Rust (Vox's headline). On the other hand Rust is *still* a top 40 seller after selling 3.7 MILLION (!!!) copies and it's currently the 10th most played game on Steam. Yup. Some people are upset. With that many players there's no change that can be made that doesn't infurate thousands of players.

          At this point there's no argument that hasn't been made. Women want more women. Dudes say stfu it's up. Rust race/sex happens. Dudes say wtf! Women say "hah see how it feels!". And now no one is happy.

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      April 19, 2016 9:08 AM

      I cannot wrap my brain around why folks are still writing about this.

      I'm also not reacting with "pragmatism" - I'm reacting with bafflement that somehow it takes getting randomly assigned a potentially non-white or non-male character to make people need to question this shit.

      Reading this article actually made me angry. I had been perplexed and confused, sometimes mildly frustrated, when I read about this a week or two ago or whenver we talked about it - but for some reason this one made me mad. I think that's because we're still talking about it and because if (and when) women and non-white people have brought this up before, historically, they have largely been ridiculed and shouted down.

      Seriously, I want to say "shut the fuck up and walk for a second in our shoes, you babies" but I understand that's beneath even my level of frustration.

      Still want to say it, though.

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        April 19, 2016 9:11 AM

        I don't mind being a woman in a game but a dude with a micropenis? That's fucked up.

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        April 19, 2016 10:02 AM

        i dont think she said micropenis

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        April 19, 2016 10:04 AM

        I can see why it is still being discussed. It's a pretty unique way of handling character assignment and obviously has deep implications both good and bad. It bears discussion even if you and I think it should be a non-issue.

        I see this as just another facet of the larger discussion of representation in games which I think we all agree is a discussion that is worth having. I don't see why this one is any less valid than the others.

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        April 19, 2016 4:56 PM

        I completely agree and think it is awesome that character assignment is essentially 'random'.

    • reply
      April 19, 2016 10:04 AM

      David Craddock posted a new article, Opinion: I didn't get shackpiled enough the first time so lets try this again

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        April 19, 2016 10:39 AM

        I'm always struggling to top myself, and I don't have to struggle very hard.

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      April 19, 2016 11:05 AM

      When did videogames get so fucking serious? I like playing as other characters--Mirror's Edge, for example is pretty far from my own appearance and ethnicity. Same with Remember Me and others. As long as it's in service of the gameplay/story/setting, it's cool. I also am ok with playing as a character or something that lands closer to my own image. As long as the stuff is fun, whatever. My fiance and I have talked about this numerous times and we both share similar opinions on it. People get so worked up over something that is just supposed to be a good time.

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        April 24, 2016 4:12 PM

        That's a question I'd like to ask too. It was never a problem with Tomb Raider, Mirrors Edge or the original Diablo. We couldn't pick and no one was offended by that.

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      April 19, 2016 11:14 AM

      "It matters to them, because it matters"

      I disagree. I don't think it matters. Even if I accept the argument that some people are so uncomfortable playing a game as an avatar who is not a particular gender that they cannot enjoy it, as long as this isn't the case with every game it doesn't matter.

      I think it's a pretty cool idea, and will force some people out of their comfort zone and lead to some interesting things. As long as people don't have to play it, and there are other more representative games available, then why should we be worried about it? Why is the dev "unwise" to continue with it?

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      April 19, 2016 2:40 PM

      I play Rust because at various times I have enjoyed the game. I don't care what gender, height, weight, race, or anything my character is. Neither should anyone else. It's a game, lighten up. Beat someone to death with a rock and take their wood already. It's Rust after all.

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      April 19, 2016 4:25 PM

      The logic behind what the devs says is soo flawed.
      They say half of the people playing the game is female, that is not true by a huge margin.
      Saying that they put a lot of effort into making new models as an excuse to enforce the gender of the character is another nonsense. Give the option upon character creation to choose and i'm 100% positive you will have far more female characters running around than the ones you have now after enforcing this change.

      The work around flawed logic and bad ways of doing / saying things. Normally i'll say they will fail hard... but hey, look at EA they are doing fine...

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        April 24, 2016 4:13 PM

        To their defense, they're probably not PR-trained. They'll trip on the easily offended's toes, for sure. I would too, because I can't understand what the fuss is about.