Separating art from the artist

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Combing through Lo’s analysis and Sylvester’s response, It’s entirely plausible that some of the things Lo found are not accurate. Sylvester said the lack of bisexual men was an issue that “will be fixed in the next release,” and that to say there are no straight women in the game was “a naive reading” of the code. “From the player’s point of view, most women in the game are straight, since they never attempt romance with other women,” he said.

Sylvester added that the code is a “half-finished attempt to make an engaging game system based on a quick nonjudgemental survey of research data.” This research appears to be the root of the game’s issues with sexuality — Sylvester read survey data on sexual orientation that showed “women are substantially more likely than men to identify as bisexual,” and vice versa. He also cited research from a Notre Dame sociologist that indicated a larger proportion of women who identify as straight have engaged in bisexual behavior. The study’s preliminary findings were presented to the American Sociological Association (ASA) last fall. A representative for the ASA said the study has not been peer-reviewed.

It’s difficult for me personally to reconcile the argument of code being cobbled together with the argument that the code is backed up by research. And I suspect confirmation bias was at play with the research that was found and implemented. The figure Sylvester highlighted to show the huge gulf between male and female gay and bisexual rates was an estimation for the US. The international studies highlighted in the same paper put the split between bisexual and gay women at around 42-58. Some studies suggest there are more bisexual men than gay men, another suggested there are more gay women than bisexual women.

The point is that these are all just estimations and not something on which to base your worldview. Sylvester told Reddit last month that he “made an honest attempt to understand the reality, and applied that to the game as [he] learned it.”

This back-and-forth goes on for almost every point in Lo’s article. Lo said colonists with disabilities are found less attractive; men are eight times as likely as women to attempt a romance; physical beauty is the only trait that governs attractiveness; there are no bisexual men; there are only bisexual or gay women; women find men younger than them unattractive; men consider women 15 years older than themselves unattractive; no matter how old a man, a non-gay woman can find them somewhat attractive.

A chart from Lo’s article showing how women view attractiveness.

Sylvester typically said the issues raised by Lo were the result of code being misunderstood or misrepresented, a symptom of a game in development, or a bug. The full counterargument is on Reddit for anyone to read, but regardless, Sylvester told me that to try and derive his “personal, real-life moral beliefs” from reading decompiled code “would not be reasonable,” adding that “those who have tried so far have been radically off the mark.”

I’m not sure if, on its own, a developer’s naivete when it comes to gender and sexuality is enough to put me off playing a game, especially if he’s committed to fixing many of the issues. But, as tends to happen on the internet, tweets from Sylvester soon began circulating, highlighting what appears to be the developer defending Gamergate idols and, more upsettingly, an abhorrent game that involves gunning down members of the Black Lives Matter movement, which it “satirically” calls a terrorist group.

Sylvester categorically denied supporting either GamerGate or the alt-right when I asked him. Regarding the BLM game, he said he “never expressed support for its content.” Instead, he said he was expressing “the belief that megacorporations like Google should not shut down unpopular speech.”

I told Sylvester that my home country (the UK) has laws that, while supporting free speech generally, restrict the use of racist, hateful or threatening communication. He said that restricting freedom of speech “sounds great when it’s controlled by people you agree with,” pointing to Donald Trump’s election win as evidence that this won’t always be the case.

“Speech controls sound great when you imagine they’ll be controlled by people you agree with — but when you realize they’ll also someday be wielded by people on the other side, they sound very, very bad.”

The result of all these events is that I don’t know exactly what or whom to believe. As a big RimWorld fan, Lo’s article was very disconcerting, as were the tweets that surfaced. Also worrying was Sylvester’s initial reaction. Prior to the more-measured Reddit post, he had commented quite combatively below Lo’s article, calling it an “anger-farming hit piece,” a “moralistic witch hunt” and “the worst kind of click-bait.” While I accept that, due to my line of work, I’m overly sensitive to this kind of attack, I feel strongly that this is not an appropriate response to criticism.

I understand that, for many people, the behavior or opinions of a developer, or, indeed, the political content of a game, are inconsequential. But my opinion of RimWorld was tarnished by Lo’s article, the furor that followed it, and especially Sylvester’s standing up for the makers of a horrifically upsetting game. Tarnished to the point where I no longer wanted to play the game. As Sylvester explained to the alt-right publication Breitbart last month, while discussing developer trust: “There’s the old adage, right? Don’t listen to what people say. Watch what they do. And that’s how you really get to know who people are.”

But why shouldn’t I play RimWorld? Sylvester is accused of no crime. He simply created a game with a flawed portrayal of sexuality, and holds some views I disagree with. Do I really need to like a person to enjoy something they’ve made?

RimWorld, in so many ways, is an equalizing game. Sure, I have been frustrated by aspects of its relationship mechanics, especially regarding bisexuality, but given that it’s still in active development, I figured these were things that would be fixed. In general, I saw RimWorld as a game in which a person’s gender and sexuality are often inconsequential. Indeed, unimportant enough that I often lost track of which of my colonists were male or female, gay or straight.

But I think that’s where my problem lies: I played this game, believing that it offered a neutral outlook on society, and it didn’t. While I would never claim that this was Sylvester’s intention, I worry that I misled myself. I worry that the game was indoctrinating me to change my views.

I’ve held that fear before. I was 8 years old, and entirely unaware of Vanity Fair‘s existence, when “Mia’s Story,” an article examining the private life of Woody Allen, was published. Over the following 15 years, I probably watched Annie Hall, Manhattan and other Allen movies dozens of times. By the time I came across the allegation that Allen had sexually abused his adopted children, I had venerated him as a director, writer and actor.

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