Many games let you choose your character's race, but not Rust. The chaotic survival game is doing its best impression of the gene pool—randomizing who's white, black, and everything else—and players have reacted in unexpected ways.
Prior to this, everyone in the game was white and looked more or less the same. The changes to race and other physical features were added semi-recently with a simple announcement:
"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 Steam ID."
So the game decides your appearance for you, more or less randomly. Usually when games don't have you play as a pre-written main character (think Mario or Lara Croft or Master Chief or whoever), letting you choose your race and face is a no-brainer. Rust lead Garry Newman, however, decided to try something different:
"We wanted a way to recognize people beyond their names, kind of a fingerprint," Newman told me via email. "We already kind of have this; players recognize each other via their voice, and that's pretty interesting. So we wanted to push it further."
At the moment, there aren't many face textures, materials, or skin tones, resulting in only a few combinations. "There's a lot of skin colours in the world, and it's really easy to appear racially insensitive when doing this," Newman wrote. "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."
The plan is to make the in-game gene pool nearly bottomless, a swirling palette of possibility. "It's going to be an ongoing effort," Newman told me. "Our ideal scenario is one in which no two players look the same, so you'll recognize someone in game by their face to the extent that nametags will be redundant."
However, with the addition of race—especially race people do not have direct control over—come some issues. Largely, said Newman, the change has been received favorably, but it hasn't been without its growing pains. Some people have protested the fact that they suddenly sport skin colors that aren't theirs (via PCGamesN):
There's also been a definite uptick in overtly racist language:
"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)."
Rust has always been, for better and worse, a sort of "anything can happen" frontier game world, and that won't change here. Newman continued: "Seeing this kind of thing play out made us realize that these aren't just 'real life' issues that we need to block. They're issues that we need to invite into the game to let people explore."
He hopes, too, that people might learn a thing or two from living a virtual life as somebody who doesn't look exactly like them, somebody who wades through very different brands of social and systemic bullshit day in and day out.
"I would love nothing more than if playing a black guy in a game made a white guy appreciate what it was like to be a persecuted minority," said Newman. He added, however, that Rust is currently set to distribute different skin tones more or less evenly, and he believes the likelihood of in-game racism will be lower if there are no minorities—at least, on a purely numerical basis. Of course, the real world has a way of bleeding over into the games we play no matter what, and let's face it: racism has never made a habit out of adhering to things like "logic" and "common sense."
On that point, Newman acknowledged that—while his intentions are good—he's not necessarily the best at seeing this stuff coming.
"People have a strange need to play someone similar to themselves in games," he said. "That's not something I understand. I don't think I'd have enjoyed Half-Life more if Gordon Freeman didn't have glasses or a beard. I don't think I'd have enjoyed Tomb Raider more if it featured Larry Croft instead [of Lara Croft]. But maybe the curse of being a white 32 year-old male is not seeing these problems."
Rust, then, is bound to be a learning experience for many, Newman included. The game still has quite a ways to go in development (it's currently in Early Access, coming off a complete restart on its codebase), but it's finally at a point where Newman and co can focus on adding new features again. How will it all pan out? Who knows. But then, that's kinda the whole point of Rust: it's unpredictable. Players, additions to the game, the experiences you'll have, the color of your skin—all of it. Maybe you'll find it fun, maybe you won't, maybe you'll prefer older versions of the game over new ones. But Newman and co hope that, at the very least, you won't be bored.
"[Rebuilding the game] has taken longer than we thought it would," Newman said, "and a bunch of similar (and probably better) games have been released while we've been doing this. But we're really excited with some of the stuff we want to try out."