In a recent update, the popular Rust - a post-apocalyptic MMO (massively-multiplayer, online) survival game - implemented an unusual change. Whereas many other such MMO games let you choose the skin colour (and other external features) of the characters that players control, the developers of Rust decided to change this. Instead, the game now randomly selects players’ skin colours and facial features - and then locks players in, preventing these features from being changed.

Why is this interesting? Well, surprisingly, there’s been quite a strong backlash. In particular, a number of players are unhappy about the fact that they’ve been made non-white characters - and there’s been a strong surge of overtly racist language. Others are quick to claim that they are not racist, but simply prefer not to be black characters. Or say they would at least like a choice in the matter. Or some say, facetiously, that the logical extension must be to let everyone be any skin colour at all (green, purple, rainbow, what have you), to create some sort of post-racial online utopia.

Let’s analyse this:

  1. Before the update, Rust players were ALL forced to be white (and bald, and male). So there was no choice before, and there’s no choice now.
  2. As in real life, nobody has any choice about the genes assigned to them - and by extension, their skin colour. It’s the way you’re born and, for the most part, you can’t do anything about it.
  3. When all players were forced to be white men, nobody complained. Now that some players are black, or some shade in between, there’s suddenly an outcry - as though race only becomes an issue when there is a deviation from default, unquestioned “whiteness”.
  4. Those invoking fantastic skin colours - to emphasise just how colourblind they really are - are conveniently sidestepping real-world discussions about real-world skin colours and real-world racism. The way to end discrimination is most definitely not simply to ridicule it, or to ignore it.

Yes, it’s just a game - but it’s also a fascinating social experiment. Perhaps it'll teach people something about racial empathy, or something about how arbitrary race really is. I'm glad the game is doing something to provide broader, more realistic representation of people with skin colours other than white!