Nasty, brutish and short – Rust and the state of nature

Facepunch’s violent, vile Rust isn’t an obvious starting place to learn about philosophy. You might explore virtue ethics with the Ultima series, or free will with Bioshock, or concepts of self and moral worth with Soma. Even when looking at political philosophy, you’d perhaps be more inclined to stop by the totalitarian bureaucracy of Paper’s Please, or Crusader Kings II’s massive variety of governmental forms, or Eve Online’s+ unique democracy/tribalism.

But Rust…? Rust, a primitive world of dingly-dangly dongs and caved-in skulls? A transient land of ramshackle fortresses and roving gangs of hostile thugs? What can we hope to learn from that?

To get an inkling of an answer, we need to look more closely at what Rust is. In Rust, life is nasty, brutish and short. Players are born naked and impoverished into a world full of other humans. Every player starts with a rock, which can be used for gathering scarce resources or cracking other player’s skulls.

Normally, a new player will be killed fairly soon. Not by the game’s hostile wildlife or by starvation or thirst or cold, but by another player. Mostly players kill each other in pursuit of any resources they may have gathered. Sometimes players just kill each other because they can, or to remove competition for recurring local resources. From the word go, your fellow players are both an economic and physical threat to you. Cooperation to improve your situation is plausible and rewarding, but the necessary trust is hard to acquire.

In that sense, it parallels an old philosophical concept – that of the ‘state of nature’, the putative starting point where mankind’s society was formed. First posited by the Dutch jurist Grotius (Hugo de Groot), it posits that mankind started as individuals or small groups attempting to live off the land, who had a natural right to self-preservation; but that without the rule of law they came under threat from other violent humans.

In that picture of groups and individuals struggling to survive in harsh conditions, in competition with one another, it is easy to see a reflection of Rust. However, the connection to the social contract runs deeper. In a server-based multiplayer game like Rust, the social contract is present as an actual contract – the End User License Agreement (EULA).

This agreement to a set of rules laid down by a higher authority has something in common with Thomas Hobbes’ position regarding the state of nature and the social contract.

Hobbes had survived the English Civil War and seen the static, hierarchical society of 17th century England – which had survived the religious troubles of the 16th century relatively intact – collapse into roving battles between armed bands, with the king executed for treason by parliament, whilst the poor of the country scrabbled a living from the dirt in between the depredations of passing soldiers. For a current pop culture touchstone, think Game of Thrones.

Given that background, it’s not surprising that Hobbes took a more negative tone when considering Grotius’ state of nature. Hobbes agreed that people had a natural right to protect themselves – against each other and against the sorts of cynical monarchs Niccolò Machiavelli had advocated. However, he specified that, in the state of nature, there is anarchy and misery – that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – and that the fear of death and of each other passionately motivates the people to improve their situation, which impels them towards a new idea. That idea is a new type of ‘social contract’, which involves transferring all of the people’s power to a sovereign, who makes the law, and enforces it with a monopoly of violence. It’s an irrevocable deal.

In Rust, that could manifest as the people on a server agreeing to give just one man all their weapons – or, perhaps, more reasonably, buying a game key and signing a license agreement as part of the installation process in which they agreed to abide by the developer’s terms and conditions in return for access to the game, and an understanding that the developer can alter or restrict their level of access at any time, in order to protect the experience of all players.


However, some gamers don’t abide by the EULA. They cheat. They hack. They rebel. “Rust is a game that requires time and effort to ‘succeed’ in.” says Craig Pearson, an ex-RPS writer, now at Facepunch. “Servers currently last for a month, so when you hack to gain advantage, you can destroy days or even weeks of work. Hackers can see through walls, aimhack, and see a huge amount of game data, like where resources are, if they’re being watched by another player, or where things are buried.” Get caught and the absolute power of the developer ejects them from the game.

These gamers seem to be following a diferent interpretations of the social contract and state of nature – that of John Locke, a contemporary of Hobbes. Locke disagreed with Hobbes’ characterisation of the social contract and felt that the state of nature was more of an ideal state, like a co-operative farming game, such as Harvest Moon (Amccus, 1996) or Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe, 2016). Here people were naturally free and equal, and used their reason to understand what their purpose was in life. In this model, people chose to enter a political society via a social contract to avoid those occasions when the ideal state would degenerate into power struggles and theft – and hence to maintain their natural rights.

Crucially, Locke argued that to give a ruler absolute authority would be an act of self-destruction on the part of the population, who would be submitting themselves to the jaws of “lions” in order to avoid “what mischiefs may be done to them by polecats or foxes”. The liberal Locke felt that if that the government went against their goods and rights, then the people have the right to tear up the rulebook – a justified revolution that would involve civil war and violence.

In the context of games, this refusal to be devoured by lions could be interpreted as an unspoken agreement between players that if the developer works against their interests, they can breach that EULA.

In Rust, each server resets on a monthly basis. Building a society in this hostile context is a challenge. Hackers attempt to mitigate that, and they’re not alone – non-hackers work consistently alongside them. Each time there’s a monthly reset of their in-game progress, these identifiable groups of players regroup quickly, often hacking to speed up their initial building and development. These larger numbers of players have made their own choice about this social contract – and chosen to quietly dissent, if not outright revolt. If caught, these collaborators face a mere server ban – whilst the outright-banned hackers will sign up with a new Steam account, and they all regroup on another server.

What can we learn then, from Rust? It is the closest analogy to the state of nature games have. To emerge from the state of nature, to enjoy the game to its fullest extent, players must form societies. But Rust’s power structure works against that. The game’s authority – the developer – resets the servers on a monthly basis. So some players rebel. They hack and collaborate with hackers to have societies that last a little longer, that are more dominant, that are more advanced. And this society escapes the game’s limitations, continues between server resets, thrives.

Rust gives us a choice, then, between two views of government and of man. There is the Hobbesian view that man is fundamentally bestial and requires restraint by an absolute force – that Rust’s hackers require suppression by the developers to ensure the game is enjoyable for all. Or there is the Lockean view, that man is naturally sociable, and that they should dissent with and perhaps overthrow leaders who are a net-drain on their happiness and freedoms – as Rust’s hackers and their wider communities do, by rejecting the constraints of the monthly server resets, and moving as coherent groups amongst the game’s servers.

It’s arguable that this difference of opinion on the fundamental nature of humanity, between Hobbe’s solitary and bestial man and Locke’s sociable and pacifistic man, persists today in the conservative and liberal political movements in many countries. There are other ideologies, of course, such as socialism, marxism, and neoliberalism, which have displaced liberalism to a degree, and have different conceptions of what it is to be a moral man in society. And other games, like A Tale In The Desert, Papers Please, and Eve: Online, which are rich explorations of them. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Dan Griliopoulos is a writer. He used to write tons of stuff for RPS, and he’s also worked as a co-writer with Alec on various games. He’s currently Lead Content Editor at massive simulation firm Improbable. He also loves philosophy and has co-authored Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us: (about life, philosophy and everything) with Jordan Erica Webber.


  1. juan_h says:

    Interesting stuff. One question, though, as I don’t follow Rust: what happens when you die? Do you respawn on the same server? If so, how quickly? I ask because as long as death is an inconvenience rather than a permanent end to things, no game can replicate a state of actual (as opposed to philosophical) nature.

    • Uberwolfe says:

      You respawn wherever you have placed your sleeping bag or bed. I think you can respawn every 2 minutes. Whatever you were wearing or carrying when you died can be retrieved before your body despawns after 5 minutes – that’s if it all hasn’t been stolen.

      If you don’t have a bed you respawn randomly on the map.

  2. Ruigi says:

    Speaking of Rust and philosophy: link to

    Although, one of the few things the veteran community can mostly agree on is not wanting FP to draw lines in the sandbox. The high tension, adrenaline pumping “highs” of the game come from the absolute brutal nature of the game and the toxic community. Nothing is ever safe. Most everyone will shoot on sight and some of the few that don’t are playing a long con. This self perpetuates as I’ve seen many a wide-eyed optimistic roleplayer eventually clan up and start playing the meta. I’ve been genuinely thankful for people stopping just short of being complete and utter sociopaths. “Yeah, he downed me out of nowhere and took all my scrap but he picked me up and left me with my rock! Nice guy.” I’ve also been quite pleased with a quick death verus ear-bleeding screams and getting picked up only to be shot back down. C’est la Rust. What really draws me are those fleeting moments where people go against better instincts and don’t kill you for whatever bit of loot you’ve managed to scrape together. You might say there’s something seriously flawed in the game design and community when simply not being a complete dick is a positive encounter but that’s Rust. GIT GUD

    Also, bring back froggy boots! REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

  3. Dr. Why says:

    Good Read, Thank you.

  4. Shiloh says:

    Interesting read, but ultimately a bit pointless, because until death is a permanent mechanic in this (or any other) videogame, it’s merely an inconvenience, rather than the ultimate sanction.

    Also, can players kill each other in Stardew Valley?

  5. Gothnak says:

    The only way you can simulate real world dynamics is to have the game world more dangerous than other players, and for death to be truly damaging. For example, look at Eve, everyone can be a chaotic killer there, but it actually benefits groups to work together rather than be a mass of thousands of individuals.

    Someone should make a F2P MMO where you only get 1 life :). Of course no one would play it, but if you did, by god would everyone be careful!

    • Seafoam says:

      Permadeath is one thing, but it wont make killing someone one of the most demoralizing actions one can make.
      Let’s think about a paid multiplayer game that deletes itself from your game library forever after you die.

      Killing would be more like winning a game of high stakes poker, of course you can feel kinda bad that they lose money but they signed up for it and you won fair and square.

      But I suppose it could also make killing because one feels like it and killing by cheating more genuine acts of disgustingness. If it were up to me I’d use that sort of game to tune user honor systems to keep those people off other games.

    • Deadly Habit says:

      Haven & Hearth is that MMO.

      The PVP is incredibly rewarding and tense.

      • indigochill says:

        Last I played it, I seem to recall Haven and Hearth being pretty much exactly like what I understand Rust’s cycle to be. The server resets occasionally and in the span between resets people try to build a society (and although at the start, things like bears are murder, I seem to recall player raids being the big threat in mid/late-game). If you die you start over with nothing, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been able to retrieve my corpse/inventory in some cases. Am I just misremembering? Have things changed?

        • Deadly Habit says:

          It’s permadeath so months of grind for skills and xp etc go bye bye which is the main punishment. Your corpse decays and items persistent (though everything does have a decay system to it). The shear time and grind alone has caused many a rage quit due to getting killed.

          You don’t only get 1 character ever limit though.

          The only thing that has really given me a feel like that (besides Salem) is EVE.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      I believe The Castle Doctrine has a mode like that. It’s already permadeath, but there’s a server(?) with “perma-permadeath,” where you can only ever make one character per account.

      • Deadly Habit says:

        That’s the second mention I’ve seen of that game in recent time with the other being the dev of Golden Crone Hotel on /r/roguelikes.
        Gonna have to check it out.

        Is Catch Me on Steam a chinese clone by chance?

  6. punkass says:

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like this article isn’t saying that any putative ‘state of nature’ was like Rust, so it doesn’t matter whether death is permanent or not. It’s more a political comment – is man content to be kept in a permanent degraded state by the strong, or do they strive to rebel and better themselves together:

    Rust gives us a choice, then, between two views of government and of man. There is the Hobbesian view that man is fundamentally bestial and requires restraint by an absolute force – that Rust’s hackers require suppression by the developers to ensure the game is enjoyable for all. Or there is the Lockean view, that man is naturally sociable, and that they should dissent with and perhaps overthrow leaders who are a net-drain on their happiness and freedoms – as Rust’s hackers and their wider communities do, by rejecting the constraints of the monthly server resets, and moving as coherent groups amongst the game’s servers.

    I have unfortunately commented so I have less than 4 minutes to write a coherent follow up to this tying it to Zizek’s idea of the modern power that compels us to ‘Enjoy!’

    Are Rust’s developers saying that we need to be kept down in the dirt and can only find satisfaction in our primal drives? Do the hackers represent cheaters trying to ruin the fun of others or are they obeying the other human imperative, to work together to better the lives of all? In short, if you are forced to get your happiness by fucking over all the others, as capitalism *may* entail, is it correct to cheat?

  7. Vasily R says:

    You’re confusing your philosophers. Hugo Grotius never mentioned a “state of nature” in his writings. Instead he discussed the idea of “natural law.” The first to discuss the “state of nature” as a philosophical idea was Thomas Hobbes. And Grotius isn’t usually considered the first philosopher who talked about natural law either. That is attributed to the Chinese philosopher Mozi. Now what Grotius is known for is how he was the first to explain natural law as a theological concept.