Video game mechanics are not real. They are mathematical computations devised by programmers — intended to deliver a gameplay experience, creating challenges and emergent behavior.
When Rock Paper Shotgun published an article about how the popular indie game RimWorld was sexist, game journalists and social justice warriors piled on the hate wagon aimed at shaming its sole developer, Tynan Sylvester.
The developer’s neutrality toward the GamerGate movement, which was emerging in 2014, may have soured their views toward him. Recently, Sylvester held multiple interviews about his game with Breitbart, which hosts the GamerGate-friendly Milo Yiannopoulos. And in a public conversation with Kotaku blogger Jason Schreier, Sylvester drew a line between fair and honest reporting and what he calls “journalist activism,” which refers to the social justice narrative pushed by the countless news articles, game reviews and thinkpieces published within the past few years. Sylvester found himself at odds with Schreier, who disagreed with him every count.
In the RPS article, its author Claudia Lo asserts that RimWorld, a title still in a very early phase of development, depicted a problematic view of human relationships. Like other titles in the genre of strategic simulation games, RimWorld procedurally generates events and situations through programmed probabilities. Nothing in the game is scripted.
Given that it’s far from complete, much of its code consists of placeholder data that only exists to pad out some of its unfinished mechanics.
Lo took issue with some of its code, which programmed male characters to be predisposed to either homo or heterosexuality, with far less of the former. Male characters were also more inclined to initiate relationships compared to females. This ignited a storm of criticism towards the developer, with claims that he was erasing bisexual men and offering a politicized, conservative view of human sexuality. Essentially, the author is upset that the game isn’t coded to be “progressive.”
The author also claims that the game is ableist — or biased towards people with disabilities — by making them less attractive mates. In reality, there is no “disability” flag. According to the developer, romance probabilities go down for characters who can’t speak or move, which can be caused by injury, drunk or near-passed out, or simply ill. The game does not have a factor for physical handicaps.
Finally, the code posted in the RPS article was not written by Sylvester, but rather by the author herself. Whether this was done out of malice to the developer or not is beside the point — it’s misleading. The author calls it “pseudocode” but fails to indicate that she added the comments herself, based on her interpretation of his programming.
In response to the post, Sylvester says much of the relationship system is broken, and any analysis of it would only be misleading.
“This system is something slammed together to get the game working in a basic way,” he wrote. “It’s never been intended as any kind of accurate or even reasonable simulation of the real thing.”
One of the article’s biggest contentions is how male characters, but not females, must be consoled after having their sexual advances turned down. The developer acknowledged this to be a bug that has already been fixed in a newer version.
The developer, who had been contacted for his input on the article, said as much in his e-mail to her before its publication. Despite this, the author chose to present his unfinished work as a possibility of the game’s final state. Sylvester further states that the author made no attempt to understand why the code is what it is, or comprehend his motivations. The developer issued a series of rebuttals in a post on Reddit, clarifying his position in the issue.
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.
The editors at Rock Paper Shotgun have since claimed that the developer wanted them to cede editorial control to him, but he says that they insisted on editing his responses, so he declined to be quoted in the article, and states that the author pretended to not to know things he informed her about.
Since its publication, other websites like Kotaku and Polygon have picked up the story to condemn Sylvester and the game’s “troubling” mechanics, regurgitating the misleading claims about its depiction of gender and sexuality.
The worst of them comes from ThinkProgress, which outright attacks Sylvester for “defending programming misogyny, biphobia, and ableism into characters.” It’s author, Zack Ford, says Sylvester’s defense of his own game mirrors the GamerGate movement, in that he must be a misogynist for disagreeing with her lack of journalistic ethics. Ford further asserts that Sylvester’s programming “reinforces harmful myths about how human interactions play out in the real world,” as if anyone should base their ideas of sexuality from a simulation.
In the end, Sylvester himself says it best in his Reddit post, where he writes:
RimWorld’s depiction of humanity is not meant to represent an ideal society, or characters who should act as role models. It’s not a Star Trek utopia. It’s a depiction of a messy group of humans (not idealized heroes) in a broken, backward society, in desperate circumstances. Some RimWorld characters have gender prejudices, some enjoy cannibalism or causing others suffering. Some are just lazy or selfish. Many of them come from medieval planets, others from industrial dictatorships, others from pirate bands or brutal armies. They’re very very flawed, and not particularly enlightened.
The characters are very flawed because flaws drive drama, and drama is the heart of RimWorld. Depicting all the RimWorld colonists as idealized, perfectly-adjusted, bias-free people would make for a rather boring social simulation, in my opinion. So, please don’t criticize how the game models humans as though it’s my personal ideal of optimal human behavior. It’s not.