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The Web is not a post-racial utopia

Just see what happened when white players of an online game were assigned black avatars

May 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

Rust, a 2013 indie survival game from Facepunch Studios, plays like a cross between Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto. Players find themselves “born” into a mysterious wilderness, naked and alone, forced to forage for resources and to craft clothing, supplies and shelter for themselves. They must contend with starvation, hypothermia and animal attacks, but by far the most dangerous threat comes from other players who roam the island.

When the game was first opened up, all players were given the same default avatar: a bald white man. With the most recent update, Rust’s lead developer, Garry Newman, introduced different avatars of different racial origins into the mix.  However, they did so with a twist — unlike typical massively multiplayer online role-playing games, Rust does not allow players to choose the race of their avatar. Instead, they are assigned one at random. Newman explained the change in a blog post:

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 color or your face. It’s actually tied to your SteamID [a randomly generated number assigned to each account that is associated with the online software distributor Steam].

Right now your avatar is randomized via three things: skin color, head mesh and head material. We only have two face textures and two face materials, which means there are four possible combinations. We will be adding more of these later on (at which point your face will probably change).

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. 

Digitizing race

There are two major threads running through gamers’ reactions to their avatars. First, there were those who declared that it was not so much their specific assigned skin color that aggravated them. Rather, they were upset at being denied the opportunity to choose their race, something they were used to being able to do in games.


However, as other players pointed out, players had never complained about their lack of choice before, when the only available avatar was a white man.


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. The backlash also confirms a theory posited by new media scholar Lisa Nakamura that, on the Internet, there is a tendency to assume that, in the absence of direct statements to the contrary, the people that we meet are white.  Indeed, as Nakamura writes in “Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet”:

Until lately, the structure of the Internet has been such that it has greatly facilitated covering [or passing]; early utopians especially lauded and adored the Internet’s ability to hide or anonymize race as its best and most socially valuable feature. The Internet was just as much a machine for not-seeing as it was a machine of vision, at least in terms of race and gender identity.

In other words, by reintroducing the visualization of difference into the virtual world, Rust is making gamers question their racialized assumptions about the people they are interacting with online.

The second major rhetorical thread running through the Rust community appears at first to be more tolerant of the possibility of difference. They reflect a desire on the part of the commenter to create a post-racial environment online, a space “beyond” real-world concerns such as racism and discrimination.


These commenters are employing a rhetorical tactic that fantasy writer Rachel M. Brown calls “the invocation of strangely colored people,” an argument gamers use to “emphasize just how much they don’t care about race.”

Of course, in trying to prove just how “colorblind” they are by making reference to these fantasy skin colors, these gamers conveniently opt out of real-world discussions of race and racism. They imply that the way to end discrimination is simply to ignore it, that the best way to pursue a post-racial virtual utopia is to erase the existence of people of color all together and to replace actual racial diversity with a rainbow of fantasy races, all of which are treated equally and none of which faced a long — and, to white gamers, potentially discomforting — history of institutional oppression.

The next social experiment

The Rust community is still reacting to the change. Already Newman has noted both positive and negative developments. In an interview with gaming blog Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson, Newman said he observed “a definite uptick in overtly racist language,” adding, “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.”

However, Newman said he has observed some interesting emergent community dynamics that suggest players are taking responsibility for maintaining their own anti-racism honor codes, with other members stepping in to chastise users who bandy about racist language.

Furthermore, Newman has indicated that more changes are on the horizon. Will a future online game randomly assign the sex of player avatars? Will one randomly generate disabilities or other genetic differences for players? Those of us who are interested in diversity and equality online will simply have to continue watching this particular social experiment to find out. In the meantime, Rust’s experiment reminds us of the dangers of colorblind discourse, especially in online spaces where, in the absence of visual data, it is easy for the privileged to pretend that everyone they meet looks like themselves.

Megan Condis got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the fall she will be joining the faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She writes about masculinity and sexuality in gaming culture. A video game version of her dissertation is available to play for free at her website.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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