Amanda L. L. Cullen is a PhD student at the University of California-Irvine in the Department of Informatics. Her research occurs at the intersection between game studies and fan studies, with a focus on how marginalized players labor to achieve visibility in game culture. Currently she is working on a project examining these efforts in spaces like livestreaming and esports.
Kathryn E. Ringland is a PhD candidate at the University of California-Irvine in the Department of Informatics. Lying at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction, Disability Studies, and Games Studies, her research examines how children with disabilities gain access to social play through a variety of technological platforms.
Christine T. Wolf, JD, PhD, is a Research Staff Member at Almaden Research Center, IBM Research, whose work investigates how people make sense of (and transform) emergent technologies through everyday practice.
Video games, like any other cultural product, reflect the cultural values that influence their creation; these values then influence perceptions on what is normal and acceptable in a social context (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014). Mass media shapes the perceptions of disability by influencing the language used to talk about disabilities, including what is (or -perhaps more significantly-, what is not) covered by news outlets and other mass media (Haller 2010). The invisibility of those with disabilities continues to be normalized when they are left out of media such as video games. As Carr has described (2014), the problem in games is that they produce contexts in which disabled persons are represented as social others that are dangerously deviant from the neutral, normal, and able-bodied. This trend extends to invisible, psychosocial disabilities as well; an ambiguous explanation of insanity is frequently deployed as a motivator for video game villains and reinforces the idea that being disabled is indicative of being defective and dangerous (Lindsey 2014). However, positive representations of disability in games can combat these negative images. Much of the time, this happens in grassroots efforts by those who are disabled. For example, people in disability communities use social media platforms to shape and change disability discourse by offering alternative narratives about disabilities and reminding people that disabled individuals do exist (Ellcessor 2016, Haller 2010). Such efforts are not typical in major games companies and diversity in games is even viewed as an unnecessary risk (Kocurek 2015; Salter and Blodgett 2017).
However, Blizzard Entertainment’s portrayal of people with disabilities in the canon Overwatch is a step in the right direction that establishes a precedent for other major companies in games to embrace diversity. An online FPS (first-person shooter) with gameplay focused on competition between teams of players, Overwatch has been praised for its effort to promote diverse representation in its characters. In the week following the game’s release in May 2016 it had seven million registered players; in October 2017 Overwatch announced that there were over 35 million registered players (Overwatch 2017). One reason the game is so popular is due to the aesthetics of the world and the diversity of the cast of playable heroes- as of January 2018, there are 26 hero options in the game and they represent a variety of nationalities, ethnicities, ages, sexualities, and abilities (Villarreal 2017).
This range of representation among playable characters makes Overwatch unique among FPS games and continues to be a topic for discussion among players and games journalists as new heroes are added or new information is released about old heroes. But how is disability represented in Overwatch, and what are player reactions to these representations of disability? We interpret Overwatch characters as having a disability if they show signs of physical (e.g. amputation, low vision/sight) or psychosocial (e.g. autism, mood disorder) impairment. The impairments of Overwatch characters are interpreted as disabilities- that is, impairments that diminish their ability in the context of Western society. As evidenced by Overwatch gameplay and lore, however, these impairments are not necessarily disabling or remarked upon as disabilities in the social context of Overwatch.
Representing Disability in Overwatch: Ana and Symmetra
Of the Overwatch heroes with disabilities, two in particular have been discussed by players and fans as positive representations of disability: Symmetra and Ana. Based on the character models, official character descriptions, and gameplay videos available on the Overwatch website (Blizzard Entertainment 2018) we also suggest that Doomfist, Genji, Junkrat, Torbjorn, Roadhog, and Tracer can be read as disabled. Doomfist, Genji, Torbjorn, and Junkrat have replaced parts of the body with prostheses; Roadhog requires a breathing apparatus; Tracer is dependent on a device she wears on her chest to stabilize her temporally unstable chromosomes. However, we focus on Symmetra and Ana because they are unique and positive representations of disability that are not commonly seen in video games.
Ana is a woman of color, a mother, elderly, and a disabled veteran due to the loss of one eye during her military service. She is a sniper and a soldier in the game and the lore, but she is also a support character and the mother of another hero in the game, Pharah; references to this relationship can be seen and heard in-game.
Motherhood, advanced age, and disability are three characteristics that make Ana a unique and prominent example of the diversity exhibited in the playable characters of Overwatch, but she also exemplifies the intersectionality that is possible in the characters of genres like the first-person shooter.
During Ana’s military career as a sniper, she had relied on the use of a bionic eye to improve her performance, but she lost that eye in a sniper duel. She chose not to replace the eye and opted to wear an eyepatch instead. This is unusual in an imaginary future where missing or damaged parts are frequently replaced with technologically advanced prostheses. But Ana resists the idea that she must be repaired, as evidenced by in-game dialogue that occurs between Ana and another character, Mercy:
Mercy: You know Ana, there are procedures we could look into to repair your eye.
Ana: You’re very kind, but I’m comfortable with who I am now. It’s a good reminder.
This in-game dialogue reveals how disability (and the markers of disability) are a part of Ana’s identity. This serves to remind us – the players- that disability is a lived experience, interwoven with one’s identity rather than something that everyone desires to “fix” or “cure.”
Symmetra, however, is an interesting example of how players also influence what becomes part of the official Overwatch canon. In March 2017, an Overwatch fan on Tumblr shared the response to a letter he had sent Jeff Kaplan, the Director of Overwatch, confirming a fan theory that Symmetra is autistic (HolyRomanHomo 2017). The theory is based on a soliloquy made by Symmetra in the Blizzard comic “A Better World.”
Symmetra as autistic in the Overwatch canon was a significant development for many players and fans; not long after news of the letter spread, a thread on Reddit about Symmetra garnered over 1,500 responses (Mulkerin 2017), where players made comments like, “As a 23-year-old on the spectrum, this warms my heart SO much.” Another Overwatch fan started a thread on Reddit where he described his perspective on Symmetra as a player with autism, stating:
“I feel that Symmetra is a hero in more ways than one. Not only does she represent a portion of the population that is vastly underrepresented in media, but she does so in a way that shows how being with high-functioning autism is like. … Good on you Blizzard, for not making her make a big deal of it. That’s the kinda representation I’ve wanted.” (XeernOfTheLight)
Symmetra as neurodivergent provided opportunities for players with autism to talk about their lived experiences and for others to learn from those conversations. Symmetra and autism became part of the larger discussion surrounding Overwatch’s representations of diversity. Symmetra and Ana are two examples of heroes who exist as intersectional individuals with disabilities in the official Overwatch canon provided by Blizzard. Further discussion about disability in Overwatch is taking place on the level of player-to-player on forums, where disabled players are also offering their own interpretations of additional disabled heroes in Overwatch (Prodigy 2017).
Community Reactions to Representation
In order to further understand how players reacted to representations of disability in Overwatch, we visited the Battle.net forums for Overwatch in October 2017 and conducted searches for the keywords “disability” and “disabled.” All forum threads which appeared in the first ten pages of results for each keyword were visited and read in their entirety. Comments made in these threads relating to disability were collected and then analyzed, revealing tropes relating disability to concerns with interface and mechanics, the inclusion of disabled players and characters, and conversely the disparagement and exclusion of disabled players and characters.
Expressing their enthusiasm for the inclusion of disabled characters in a mainstream game, many players begin threads on the forum with statements like, “I love the vast diversity among the characters in the game. There are characters from both genders, there are robots and people with different views of them. There are even characters with disabilities!” (Prodigy 2017). By making note of a character’s disability, these statements encourage other players to participate in discussions of disability and representation in Overwatch. Symmetra was often praised as an example of Blizzard’s commitment to promoting diversity in general and awareness of neurodiversity.
But beyond the character disabilities which have been introduced or confirmed by Blizzard in the Overwatch canon, players on the forum also discuss how they interpret the ability of other characters – and how the design decisions behind the characters impact the players’ relationship with Blizzard. For example, in addition to the characters we read as disabled based on their official profiles, players also included McCree, Hanzo, Lucio, and D.Va as examples of characters with physical disabilities accompanied by prosthetics and described Reaper, Widowmaker, and Bastion as heroes with various psychosocial disabilities. However, based on the discussions occurring on the official forums, the majority of disabled Overwatch players feel encouraged and supported by Blizzard’s attempts to appeal to the diversity of their player base, as evidenced by the following player quote:
“The characters in overwatch represent the thoughts and ideas and values of the dev team. So when we are happy about say, symmetra representing autism well, we aren’t happy about some ones and zeroes [sic] on a hard drive. We’re happy that someone who’s work we value has the integrity and empathy to represent everybody and foster a welcoming environment and community.”
A common sentiment among these players was that it was encouraging to see heroes with disabilities in a successful game like Overwatch. These players felt that it was important that a major video game company like Blizzard released a game like Overwatch with visibly (and invisibly) disabled characters and achieved success.
Blizzard celebrates reaching 35 million players in Overwatch
While Blizzard may be making efforts to include disability as part of their intersectional character designs, not all players appreciate their efforts to broaden the diversity of video game characters along any spectrum, including ability. One common argument against the representation of disabled heroes in Overwatch is that awareness of disability in a character does not affect the way the game is played or improve the performance of players, so therefore representation does not matter. This argument is deployed in any discussion of diverse representation in Overwatch and is often accompanied by suggestions that the quality of the game suffers due to concerns with political correctness and appealing to a broader player base (NuggyBear 2017). As exhibited by numerous posts on the Overwatch forums (Alpha 2017; BigProf 2017), players frequently use disability language to disparage other players by referring to imagined mental illnesses to cast doubt on their skill and “right” to play the game. Unfortunately, this reflects a broader trend in game culture to use autism as the basis for a slur (Ringland et al. 2015). And while Symmetra was for many players an example to be built from, other players have suggested that Symmetra fulfills a quota for representation and no more disabled characters like her in Overwatch are necessary. One line of argument in a forum thread also stated that because Overwatch depicts a future where advanced technology could be used to correct any physical impairment, disability should not exist in the game’s canon. Such arguments, however, fail to account for individual identity and autonomy ˗ and how speculative futures like the one depicted in Overwatch allow us expansion to adjust and challenge current societal configurations.
As we saw with Ana, despite the ability to “fix” her injured eye, she affirmed her impairment as a part of her identity now, a reminder of what she’s been through and overcome. Characters like Ana offer an alternative narrative – one shaped by biography (and self-determination in writing that biography) – rather than one dictated by dominant societal expectations of impairment erasure and “perfect” heroes. Doing so allows players to imagine possible futures where individuals are granted agency, recognized for their unique biographies and experiences, instead of asked to conform or “fit” into society.
It is important to recognize that growing numbers of players want to see intersectional and complex characters in video games that reflect a wide variety of lived experiences, including people with visible and invisible disabilities. Our findings show that video games released by major game developers can include diverse representation of marginalized characters that will appeal to players, as evidenced by the popularity of Overwatch.
In addition, the existence of characters like Symmetra and Ana, among others, creates opportunities for conversations between players about the lived experiences of people with visible and invisible disabilities. Disability is often rendered invisible by being ignored in most mainstream games, but Overwatch allows for a wide case of disabled characters and leaves room for fan-interpreted options as well. However, we wonder if video games will ever be truly representative of the experiences of people with disabilities until disability is incorporated into the gameplay. In Overwatch for example, heroes are not disabled during gameplay, allowing them to be read as able bodied by most players. Is a positive representation of disability possible if its impact is not felt in gameplay and is still rendered invisible in the game world? It is imperative to understand how these players form communities and interact with developers to express their identities, negotiating representation in spaces that too often can ignore, exclude, or render monstrous their experiences.
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