I’ve been playing a lot of RUST lately, and it’s left me reflecting on both the works of Joseph Conrad and the various interpretations they’ve inspired. We talk a lot in games about how the subject of violence deserves far more scrutiny in whatever form it takes- Jingoism, Gore, Abuse, but we have a strong tendency in critical analysis to overlook the systematic violence that is perpetuated through the context of the material itself.
If Metal Gear Solid and Spec Ops: The Line are anti-war critiques, then I would wager that the likes of Far Cry 2 or Cryostasis are more in line with the original thesis of Conrad’s subtext, one also found within the core of Coppala’s interpretation: the prevailing focus on the liminal and transformative nature of warfare. One cannot go through war, either as an individual or a society, without drastically altering one’s super-ego (the self-critical consciousness) and their general perspective on life and the world at large.
MGS2’s AI is set adrift by it’s pursuit of expedient context and post-truth narratives that nearly deprive Raiden of his humanity. Far Cry 2’s Jackal has the arms trade dissociate his expectations of humanity, precipitating his loss of faith in the system and his choice to instead accelerate it to it’s oblivion, offering the refugees untouched by the corruption of the authorities a chance to build new worlds in their image after the ash has settled.
Heart Of Darkness and it’s various derivative works are an attempt to grapple with the idea that all people are, in many ways, a self-domesticated animal which retains vicious survival instincts. This perspective is inseparable from the notion that our super-ego suppresses this darker side in order to maintain our composure as social creatures so that we can work towards a common good. Given the right circumstances an individual could find themselves at risk of being compromised by the darker urges of the psyche they refuse to accept, and with a lack of awareness comes an inability to contain. (The well-deserved post-colonial criticism of the novella’s exceptionally problematic portrayal of Africa and the destructive nature of European Colonization is far beyond the scope of this article, but worth mentioning.)
While there exists a plethora of written and filmed media, or single player experiences that explore this concept at length, rarely is this lens included as a tool at our analytic disposal to assess how online multiplayer spaces fit within the framework of this theory. While there are countless candidates that could benefit this analysis, it’s hard to think of one that is a better fit than RUST.
RUST is a game of contrasting social behaviors. It’s not hard to find (like in any multiplayer game) those who come across as intrinsically altruistic or inhospitably cruel and sadistic, but far beyond simple griefing, tormenting your fellow players in RUST is regarded as a part of the game unless specified otherwise by the rulesets of individual servers. The most experienced players have a tendency to gravitate towards either the jaded cynicism and nihilism evocative of Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, or the enlightened perspective of those gifted with a zen-like patience and innate altruism that flourishes within the few who can navigate the chaos without succumbing to its pitfalls.
While most of the playerbase finds itself plunged into the darkness with no way out, it’s the bitter Kurtz-archetypes that have become so proficient as to assume the mantle of the warlord, amassing followers and mastering this darkness. In time, this leads the Marlow-archetypes of the game to pursue their counter-parts, and only after witnessing the long, cruel journey towards power by inhumane acts do those walking in the footsteps of Marlow realize that no amount of game-driven tension justifies treating each other with such petty disregard or abhorrent hostility. Those who fulfill the role of Kurtz may be a natural outcome of the game’s mechanics, but there’s no moral justification to be found in their playstyle The only reward they truly attain is hollow prestige and the fear of all who know of them.
There is a distinction to be made as online competitive experiences continue to diverge in methodology; we must take into consideration the extent to which developers implicitly endorse or permit actions within the game. A permissive system that allows for great cruelty is not on par with the one that incentivizes it, after all a game that encourages an attitude of “Might Makes Right” has a higher degree of moral culpability for its players’ interactions than one that doesn’t. We can point to the likes of micro-transactions and other anti-social mechanisms in video games as likely catalysts for anti-social behavior in its players as all stressful or tense situations can potentially result in inherent hostility and a degradation of comradery. However, the game that relies on anti-social mechanics to cultivate players that are more susceptible to emotional manipulation in the name of suggestive purchases is the same system that produces a generation of socially unrefined individuals with toxic behavior that is not only now normalized, but largely rewarded.
In Conrad’s novella, Kurtz is an incredibly efficient producer of ivory for the colonial authorities, outperforming nearly all of his competitors. Upon meeting him at the end of Marlow’s expedition, it is revealed that Kurtz has achieved this feat by casting aside his humanity. Like Kurtz, the best performing players in the acidic environments of esports and other highly competitive games have their inhumanity commodified, producing champions for our entertainment at the cost of their empathy.
RUST largely doesn’t incentivize expediency any more than the majority of other sandbox games, unlike, for example, most Battle Royale style games. In RUST it is entirely possible to take up a cooperative mindset and reach great heights with your fellow players. The open ended nature of the mechanics provides a fascinating experiment in understanding why many players choose to be toxic by relying purely on their base instincts, as opposed to being led down that path by the game itself.
In time, we may explore more in-depth the social ramifications of the integration of competitive ranking schemes, matchmaking, and the destruction of the anti-toxic moderated server. Until then, we leave you with a thought: Prior to asking how complicit the industry is in normalizing physical violence, we should ask how much of a role it plays in ripping apart social bonds and the individual’s capacity to relate to their humanity. This is not to say that there are those who cannot navigate these environments with their civility intact, but prolonged exposure to social hostility is taxing and will wear down the defenses of even the most prepared individuals, resulting in outbursts or burnout in the long run.
If we permit profit to colonize, commodify, and further entrench this mindset within the medium, we may find ourselves confronting the greater social ramifications in the long-term as it continues to increase in popularity and saturation. The Internet is a place that has existed conceptually long before the inception of early BBses; it is a non-physical continent that can and has been largely colonized without regard for its residents or their agency. In the race to monetize this rich fertile land, we must stop and ask what we are sacrificing ourselves and what we are taking from others. If you do not refuse to participate in the exhaustive pursuit of the heart of darkness, you may find your psyche subsumed or scarred beyond recognition.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice