All is not well in RimWorld, the popular space colonist simulator released in July. Yesterday, a Rock, Paper, Shotgun writer opened up RimWorld's code and published some surprising revelations about how sexuality factors into its gameplay. RimWorld's developer, in response, has gone on a tear, denying that the game mirrors the "sexist expectations of romance" described in the recent article.
RimWorld is only in Early Access, but it's already a hit on Steam. In the space sim, players construct and manage a space colony. The goal is to develop the colony, which entails, well, romance between the colonists, called "pawns". Pawns all have distinct personality traits, like an aptitude for botany, being a night-owl, masochism or homosexuality. RimWorld's presentation of queerness is what's on the stand.
In an article headlined "How RimWorld's Code Defines Strict Gender Roles" writer and academic Claudia Lo dug into RimWorld's code and found that "there are no bisexual men, only gay or straight men; there are no straight women, only gay or bisexual women." Women are also eight times less likely to hit on men. A few other items, like how men are less attracted to older women (but not the reverse), and how physical beauty is the only measure of attractiveness, stood out to Lo. These things are real-life issues that can negatively impact real-life people. To Lo, it was strange for a sci-fi game developer to intentionally insert them into his game.
She wrote that RimWorld's model for sexuality is "flawed in a way that perfectly mirrors existing sexist expectations of romance, with such specificity that it is hard to view it as unintentional".
RimWorld's developer didn't take Lo's article very well. In a comment below the piece, developer Tynan Sylvester described Lo's article as an "anger-farming hit piece" and said that some of the things she cited about the game's code aren't true to how things actually play out in the game. Ever since, in Rock, Paper, Shotgun's comments and on various RimWorld forums and social media, Sylvester has been defending RimWorld's code and what it means for pawns' expressions of sexuality - and, in the process, his belief system.
Citing research he'd done for RimWorld, as well as his personal observations, Sylvester said that bi-curiosity is "quite asymmetrical between sexes". Bisexual men are uncommon in his experience and, from what he's seen, end up only dating other men. According to research he cited in his comment, many women who identify as straight are often actually bisexual, and, according to anecdotal evidence, many men who identify as bisexual are often actually gay.
"The game simply attempts a very rough approximation of some patterns from real life," Sylvester explained. (Of course, plenty of people may dispute his understanding of real life or the cited research.) He added that, in any case, men and women in RimWorld are equal in many other categories: Cooking, fighting, emotional aptitudes and so on.
He implied that the exclusion of bisexual men from the game is a bug and, over email, told me it is being fixed. Sylvester also recently added "gaydar", in his words, to prevent straight male colonists from hitting on lesbian women.
Sylvester claims that RimWorld was never intended to simulate real life. It's a science-fiction game. "My goal is to non-judgmentally simulate, in a simplified way, a flawed group of people in a brutal, backwards environment, tuned for maximum drama. In no way are the characters in RimWorld meant as role models to follow, or as a vision of an ideal society," Sylvester told me over email. Earlier this year, a controversy ensued in RimWorld's forum over whether "gay" should be a pawn trait at all.
Lo did not respond to Kotaku's request for comment.
RimWorld's code does not seem to allow for the existence of straight women who only find men attractive. Nevertheless, Sylvester says the women in the game tend to mostly wind up with men. That's due to the code making it more likely for men in the game to approach the people to whom they are attracted. The men court women and wind up with them. So, in RimWorld, it appears that most women are straight, despite how Sylvester coded the game and what Lo says in her piece.
Sylvester seems focused on how the characters express themselves, not about what the code suggests about who they might be. That idea of an internal life isn't relevant to a video game character, he said: "People tend to think of game characters as people, but they're not. They don't have internal experiences. They only have outward behaviours, and they are totally defined by those behaviours, because that's all the player can see, and the player's POV is the only one that matters."
In real-life, internal experience does matter. It's the truth of who we are. A woman attracted to other women may not engage romantically with them for a variety of reasons, including fear of social repercussions. Perhaps a bisexual woman only dates men. Observers may draw one conclusion about her, but that won't necessarily be true to who she is.
Sylvester's distinction between a pawn's code and her outward behaviour raises the question of why he programmed female colonists in this way to begin with - a question that, over email, Sylvester dodged. Does it matter that he coded RimWorld's characters to reflect, in Lo's words, "sexist expectations of romance" if those characters, a lot of the time, behave differently?
"Everything was fine," Sylvester wrote on Reddit, "up until this author decided to decompile my code and then start interpreting emotional impulses from data. The way the game plays is what matters. Not the calculations behind the scenes."