Separating art from the artist

Should a developer's politics ruin a game I love?

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    December 2012. That's the last time I listened to a Lostprophets song. They were never my favorite band, but a few tracks were in my regular rotation until that month, when The Guardian broke the news that the band's frontman, Ian Watkins, had been charged with child sex offenses. As the terrible nature of his crimes slowly unraveled, I came to associate every drum, every chord, every lyric, with the horrors I had read about.

    The question -- can you detangle creativity from its creator? -- is an old one. It's often argued that we should judge a work on its own; that to tie it into an author's views or politics is wrong. But I've always struggled to separate the two. Recently, that struggle was brought into sharp focus. Since July, I've put 71 hours into the sci-fi colony simulation game RimWorld. It is far from perfect, and aspects have frustrated me, but as a whole, I deeply enjoyed it. Until, that is, an article, a response and a few tweets made me stop playing.

    It started when Rock, Paper, Shotgun published an article by Claudia Lo, an academic and journalist, titled "How RimWorld's Code Defines Strict Gender Roles." In it, she pulls apart the game's underlying code to reveal issues with how its relationships function. Lo claims that, rather than being realistic or neutral, the game is imbued with the beliefs of its developer, Tynan Sylvester. Bisexual men don't exist in RimWorld, and all women are either bisexual or gay, she said. There are also issues with how women and men react to romantic advances, and how colonists perceive disabilities. Sylvester has disputed almost all of the claims, both publicly via a Reddit post and through an interview with Engadget.

    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.

    Initially, I didn't see an issue with enjoying the films while despising the man. Then, the doubt started to creep in. That throwaway dialogue about finding underage women attractive; the scene that blends sexuality and a father role; or seeing "the Allen character" dating someone far his younger; it all began to make me extremely uncomfortable. None of these things really stood out for me before I knew of the allegations. But now, I feel like, at least a little, Allen normalized these behaviors for me. I don't recall the last time I watched one of his movies.

    While writing this article, I reached out to Lo, whose background is in comparative media study including queer and feminist theory as it applies to video games, to see if she could help me make sense of things. I wanted to know if it was unreasonable to struggle to separate creator and creation.

    "Knowing what I now do about the romance system in RimWorld does affect my enjoyment of the game," Lo said. What she could once write off as curiosities or quirks she now interprets "as a reminder of systems that have been designed in order to make certain situations more common than others." The quirks of the random number generator were just a system working as expected. "And what the system has been designed for," Lo continued, "is a world in which stories and experiences that I value do not exist."

    "With the knowledge that the code of the game limits the scope of possible scenarios, it's harder for me to excuse those uncomfortable phenomena as just a quirk of the random number generator."

    Like myself, Lo bought the game without knowing about the developer or his views. She argues that RimWorld "serves as a very clear example that the biases of the author can, and do, influence how their work is produced."

    Lo, however, said it was important to not dismiss works off-hand just because you disagree with their creators. She talked of studying Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who was a member of the Nazi Party, of watching the films of D.W. Griffiths and of reading texts by early suffragettes who were homophobic or racist. "The point was not to automatically dismiss everything they said or did, but to see if there was anything worth salvaging, or if there were any points made that were worthwhile in spite of their various political affiliations."

    I struggle with that. Griffiths' The Birth of a Nation, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will -- these are perhaps the two most important films of their era, and yet both are full of hateful ideology. I can't fully appreciate Riefenstahl's innovative techniques because I know what she used them for.

    There is a reason why I can watch Riefenstahl's Olympia, however uncomfortable it makes me, but not be able to listen to Lostprophets. It comes down to knowledge. Ian Watkins, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and every recent fallen idol -- their disgraces and infractions came after I'd been introduced to their work. I felt cheated. Duped into accepting the creation without understanding the creator.

    Time makes a big difference. H.P. Lovecraft's works contain a worldview that is deeply troubling. There are brilliant tales in there, though, and ideas that have birthed a generation of fantasy writers. The Lovecraftian stories that are being written today are typically not driven by racism and classism, but by an appreciation of the original concepts. Modern authors are using his art to build their own stories that represent their own ideals.

    RimWorld is not a book, nor does it have a narrative. Like Lovecraftian mythos today, it's more of a sandbox for people to shape their own tales. But while authors are able to excise Lovecraft's outmoded archetypes from their stories, Sylvester's misconceptions of gender and sexual orientation actively restrict the scope of the fiction that you can build within the game. As Lo put it to me, "RimWorld is telling stories about a certain vision of the world, and the code is the way it is because its writer believes that this is an accurate reflection of how the world works."

    Sylvester disagreed that RimWorld limits players' abilities to experience a full breadth of human relationships through their colonists. "There are a full range of gay and straight lovers, marriages, breakups, divorces, cheating and reconciliation, family loyalty and rivalry, and so on, and there are no limits as to which character can take which actions," he said. "Of course there are some things we don't have the time or technology to simulate. But if you're looking for the breadth of human relationships, I struggle to think of a game that provides more, and we are always improving."

    This man clearly isn't a monster, and there are many (perhaps even a majority) who wouldn't find his views even remotely offensive. But the internet, and in particular platforms like Twitter and Reddit, gives us a window into the minds of the creators that we haven't had before. It shows us the flaws in our idols, and forces us to either brush them aside or disconnect.

    RimWorld won't be the last game that pushes me away, and Sylvester won't be the last creative to disappoint me. So can you detangle artist from their art? That's an intensely subjective question. With time, and enough separation, I do regain some ability to objectively judge things on their own merits. But in the here and now, I find it almost impossible.

    A full transcript of the Q+A with Tynan Sylvester is available here.

    Image credits: Andrew Benge / Redferns via Getty Images (Ian Watkins photo), United Artists (Manhattan still), Ludeon Studios (RimWorld screenshots).

    Aaron writes about design, technology, video games and whatever “culture” is supposed to be. In his spare time he enjoys scouring the world for beautiful furniture, taking long walks on the beach, training orphaned dolphins and making up facts about himself.

    Ethics: Aaron's partner is an employee of a video game publisher. She also writes various games, comics and other fiction. Aaron will never have input on coverage related to that work.

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