Early access game RimWorld’s developer lashed out at gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun after they published an in-depth report on how his game portrayed gender and sexuality. Tynan Sylvester claims the article unpacked the game’s base code in order to embark on a "moralistic… witch hunt" and later went on to refute the article, point by point, on Reddit.
RimWorld is a colony simulation game available through Steam’s Early Access program. Released just this July, it was immediately met with both critical and popular praise, and has been compared to another famously complex game: Dwarf Fortress.
Having spent time with both RimWorld and Dwarf Fortress, I can tell you that that comparison is an apt one. (Another similar game might be The Sims series or, to a lesser extent, Fallout Shelter.) What makes RimWorld, and games like it, so unique is that while you can tell the little people running around on the screen what to do, you can’t tell them how to feel.
You can make them build a structure to keep themselves warm, have them dig a pit to burn their trash or fire up a forge and smelt metal for tools. All of these things have the potential to make their little lives better, make them more comfortable and helping them to succeed in a hostile game world. But you can’t get in their heads and make them more happy or less sad.
Many players of Dwarf Fortress have stories of dwarf colonists that have gone mad. Some even start murderous rampages, completely emptying out a fortress that took weeks or months to build up. Sometimes, the only solution for dealing with a mad dwarf is to wall them in and hope they don’t find a way out of their cell. There’s even a very popular mod, called Dwarf Therapist that, at least the last time I got deep into the game, was considered an essential add-on.
There have been similar issues reported by the community of players that enjoy RimWorld. In particular, they have to do with the sexual preferences of virtual characters in the game — which are generated randomly. It seems that characters that identify as gay or lesbian in the colony simulation are sort of a problem, in a purely mechanical sense. Specifically, it’s very hard to ensure that they’re happy and productive.
One of these conversations was surfaced by Twitter user @____leone.
fwiw, the rimworld thing is an ongoing topic, affecting the gameplay and storytelling in -=~less than ideal~=- ways pic.twitter.com/A7c7Gp3lve— Esca (@____leone) November 2, 2016
What makes the conversation among players so disturbing is that instead of imprisoning a mad, homicidal dwarf, RimWorld’s players are openly discussing executing homosexuals.
This is clearly a bad look for a game.
Rock Paper Shotgun writer Claudia Lo went into the code of Rimworld to investigate how sexuality was coded into the game. What she claims to have uncovered is the following:
- Men are about eight times as likely as women to try and start a romance.
- Pawns with disabilities will always be found less attractive.
- Beautiful pawns are always considered vastly more attractive; ugly pawns, vastly less. Physical beauty is the only trait that governs attractiveness, aside from sexual orientation.
- Straight men always find men unattractive. Gay men always find women unattractive. There are no bisexual men.
- Women may find women attractive. Gay women always find men unattractive. There are only bisexual or gay women.
- All men consider partners aged 20 to their own age most attractive. If they’re under 20, they’ll find pawns 20 or over most attractive, with no regard for pawns that are a similar age to them.
- All women consider partners the same age and older most attractive. Partners slightly younger than themselves are very unattractive, and partners that are 10 years younger than them are always considered unattractive.
- All men consider any pawn 15 years older than themselves to be unattractive.
- There is no "old age" cutoff for women. No matter how much older a partner is, women have some chance of finding them attractive.
Lo is quick to point out that RimWorld is not finished. It’s in essentially an alpha state, and being clearly sold as an incomplete product via Steam Early Access. Nonetheless, it’s a troubling feature of the game.
"Any game system that tries to represent or model complicated real-world scenarios necessarily has to make abstractions and sacrifices, and human relationships might be one of the most complicated things you could possibly portray," Lo writes. "But we are not analyzing RimWorld on the basis of what it might be in the future. The question we’re asking is, ‘What are the stories that RimWorld is already telling?’"
Where things began to take a turn for the worse is when Tynan Sylvester, the developer of the game, waded into the comments. He called the piece an example of "anger-farming" and objected to what he calls "blatant lying." The entire response is worth a read, as is the original article. But here’s some highlights.
From an email he says he sent to the author prior to the article’s publication, Sylvester says, "You're analyzing a broken system :/ Also, this system is just something slammed together to get the game working in a basic way. It's just barely functional enough to fill its role. It's never been intended as any kind of accurate or even reasonable simulation of the real thing."
Later, however, Sylvestor injects his own thoughts on why the broken system nonetheless conforms to his understanding of how sexual identity and gender roles actually work.
"I've known some bi women," he writes, "and a large proportion of the nominally straight women I've known have discussed bi impulses or experiences they've had. In contrast, every bi man I've ever known has ultimately ended up identifying as gay. These patterns seem to apply even in very gay-friendly social contexts. Of course I'm sure bi/bi-curious men exist, but the research and what I've seen supports the conclusion that they're rarer than bi women. Conversely, gay women seem to be rarer than gay men."
Sylvester also takes a swipe at the integrity of the author, and at Rock Paper Shotgun as a whole.
"Now onto the 'journalism,’" he wrote. "There's no attempt to get an explanation or understanding of why the code works as it does. The decision was specifically made to not ask me any question, or understand why these decisions were made, or comprehend the research or meaning behind them. It's purely written in the style of a witch hunt — point at the heretic, maliciously misinterpret everything in the most moralistic, angry way possible, and harvest the resulting anger for clicks."
Rock Paper Shotgun Editor-in-Chief Graham Smith also entered the fray, stating below the story that, "[Sylvester] was contacted for comment but refused to participate in an interview unless we ceded editorial control. I wasn’t willing to do that." Smith told Polygon that Sylvester requested that the full transcript of the interview be published, rather than be edited for length.
"We had wanted quotes that we could seed throughout the article to add context, rather than running a straight Q&A, but more broadly we don't let interview subjects dictate terms like that," Smith told Polygon. "It's a fundamental principle in order to maintain editorial independence, but also a practical matter. If he had said something libelous, say, we would have had to immediately go back on said promise. So we didn't make that promise and didn't do the interview."
The entire affair spiraled out into social media from there, with various parties taking shocked stances that someone could have such an anachronistic view of human sexuality and related LGBTQ issues, while other parties bemoaned the state of journalism both specifically and generally.
Shortly thereafter, Sylvester went to Reddit and, in a lengthy post, refuted the Rock Paper Shotgun author’s analysis of his code point by point. He says that his game "scarcely defines gender at all" and allows "males and females" to perform all of the same in-game roles, from fighting to cooking.
"The only asymmetry is in the probability of starting romance interactions, but even there there are no ‘strict gender roles.’ Women propose to men, and hit on them, and so on. Women do all the same behaviors as men. The only difference is that the game applies some probability factors to romance attempts based on the character doing the behavior. That’s it. Every character can still do everything behavior (except one case which is being fixed for next version). So it’s simply wrong to say there are "strict" gender roles in the game."
Rock Paper Shotgun has added a link to Sylvester’s Reddit post as a post script to their article. However, they’ve also reaffirmed the accuracy of their original story, saying that they "stand by the accuracy of the article entirely."
RimWorld remains available on Steam’s Early Access program. The $29.99 game is available for Linux, Mac and Windows PC and features elite packages of downloadable content for as much as $555. It’s review score is, to use Steam’s vernacular, "overwhelmingly positive."