Benjamin J. Villarreal is a doctoral candidate in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University who studies the use of games as texts in College English. His dissertation is a multimodal autoethnography of the topic, the findings of which he is writing as a digital interactive narrative. This would probably go faster if he spent less time playing Overwatch.
Earlier this year, I presented my dissertation research in the Game Studies area of the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association conference; the community among these interdisciplinary scholars was so great that I ended up sticking around for almost every panel on games for the rest of the weekend. And I was struck by a common theme: Blizzard Entertainment’s team-based first-person shooter Overwatch (2016) came up in almost every one! And the general consensus was that while Blizzard still has some work to do, the game is an important example of how to “do” representation in games. But because it’s so high profile, it also has a responsibility to be better at representation going forward.
If you’re unfamiliar, Overwatch players choose from a roster of characters with different play-styles who also represent different genders, ages, body types, races, nationalities, and neuro-divergences to battle over maps with specific objectives. At this year’s D.I.C.E. (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Games Summit, the game’s director Jeff Kaplan (as cited in Variety, 2017) gave a keynote addressing the question he often hears: whether this diversity was a goal of the design team. He answers, instead, that they simply wanted to make a game any player could see themselves in and a world any player would want to live in.
While arguably not a great answer, Overwatch matters because of how nearly Blizzard has succeeded, making strides but also stumbles in diversity along the way.
“Never accept the world as it appears to be.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Overwatch is the game to have most consumed me this past year, and if that strikes you as odd, then you and me both. I’ve spent the last year teaching, conducting research for, and writing my dissertation on the use of narrative-driven video games as texts for College English—having students parse the narrative implications of video games and discuss the emotional and aesthetic affordances of new games with a greater diversity of creators, characters, and fans. So a first-person shooter (a genre characterized by burly dudes mowing down waves of enemies in gritty, Saving Private Ryan-esque brown and red tones and shaky cam) is the last thing I ever thought I’d find myself playing at the same time.
But when I saw Overwatch‘s cinematic trailer (PlayOverwatch, 2014) last year just after the game’s release, I was curious. Set in a museum dedicated to a defunct UN-style team tasked with ending a robot uprising, a disaffected teen leads his younger brother around exhibits just before a firefight over one of the museum’s pieces breaks out. Everything about the trailer looked like it was straight out of Pixar, from the bright colours, exaggerated facial features and body types, to the cheesy one-liners. Indeed, when it started, I thought I was looking at the trailer for the recently confirmed Incredibles 2! And just as I loved The Incredibles for its heroes condemned for just trying to help, I was taken by the message of the trailer—that these were heroes who had been disbanded but still stepped in when needed. As the cover hero for the game, Tracer, says at the end of the trailer, “The world could always use more heroes!” At the time, I was unaware of the game’s diversity, including that an undisclosed character would be part of the LGBTQIA community.
I finally decided to get it based on my youngest brother’s recommendation, if only to have something new to play with him from across the country. But when I started playing, I began to see Overwatch for what it is, what it could be, and what (as well as who) it represents.
A year later, with a pile of other research-related games to play, I find myself just about every evening back in Overwatch for a few matches. However stressed or exhausted I may be, I can escape into that world, brightly coloured in every sense of the phrase, from race to sexual orientation to culture. Overwatch is a vision of a world in which those from all walks of life come together to solve the world’s problems.
“Never stop fighting for what you believe in.”
Admittedly, this may seem hyperbolic, and it’s easy to look at Overwatch on the surface and declare it “just a game.” Indeed, the game itself has no real narrative beyond the lore of the world established in transmedia sources (comics and animated short films), and these can be easily ignored in favour of just shooting stuff. But that hasn’t stopped fans from falling in love with the world and its characters, creating art and fiction.
For this reason, great attention has been given to why the game has built such a large fanbase (of both players and non-gamers) even before the game’s release, but less has been leveraged on whether this is significant or unique. To be fair, at least part of this lies in that Blizzard still got a lot wrong when the game launched. The majority of the female characters are sexualized in their design (McWhertor, 2016), with supermodel body shapes, and many were featured as in-game magazine pin-ups at beta (Grayson, 2016). Issues of cultural appropriation are still prevalent a year after the game’s release – e.g., Pharah, an Egyptian woman in a flying suit of armor, who was inexplicably given two costumes modeled off of indigenous artifacts (D’Anastasio, 2017). Symmetra, an Indian scientist, didn’t have voice lines in any of her nation’s many languages besides English at release (Khosravi, 2017).
To their credit, Blizzard has made after-the-fact moves to address these problems in ways that clearly show they’re listening to their fans and critics, but many of these have taken the form of skirting the issue rather than changing it: fans felt that the sexualization in an over-the-shoulder victory pose for Tracer (the game’s bubbly cover hero) was out of character, and developers (who agreed) cut it (McWhertor, 2016), a move which suggests that sexualized characters are okay if they’re written that way (indeed, similar poses abound for Widowmaker, the game’s femme-fatale). In the Overwatch Christmas comic (Chu & Montlló, 2016), Pharah is seen eating dinner with an older, dark-skinned man somewhere with heavy snowfall and Canadian hockey on the TV, leading many to assume that her father is an indigenous person from the Pacific Northwest. And one could argue these mistakes lead to better representation than had Blizzard not made them in the first place, but it’s just as easy to argue that an even more diverse design team would have solved both of these issues.
Responding to this in an open letter to Jeff Kaplan, indigenous games writer Dia Lacina (2017) decries the vague “Pacific Northwest” description now given Pharah’s father and heritage as after-the-fact diversification to explain away those random “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird” skins:
You say diversity and inclusion is difficult. That it’s a process. And I agree. But you can absolutely make that process much easier by talking with people who actually know and taking their advice seriously. Until you can do that you’ll never get better at representation.
Lacina closes by explaining that Pharah’s retcon is just another in a long line of examples of indigenous culture being defined by the colonizers.
And this is why Overwatch matters, because of its shortcomings; the proliferation of diversity of the designers, characters, and fans of indie-studio titles has led to greater diversity of designers, characters, and fans, something larger studios have not kept pace with despite greater funding and resources. Marginalized groups begin to move from the margins when they see themselves in the spaces from which they’ve been historically discouraged. A major release like Overwatch tries to create a world of which any player can and would want to be a part, both in-game and in its development. But to improve representation in the former, Blizzard has to improve it in the latter, as well.
“Back home…I should go drop by the bakery.”
Another perfect example of why is back in that same D.I.C.E. talk (Variety, 2017), when Kaplan tells the story that when designing the Mexican map Dorado, midway through development, they realized they had not actually been using a Mexican city as a visual reference when someone on the team recognized the reference material as Italian (though not as not-Mexican). Having committed so many resources to it, they went ahead, and he jokingly reassures that one day they’ll design an Italian city using Mexican references, as if the two cultures can be so easily swapped. A more diverse design team might have not only avoided such an obvious pitfall but created a more authentic representation of Mexico, which raises questions about the other cultures depicted in-game.
Granted, I immediately did and still do like that map; having grown up on the Texas-Mexico border, surrounded by my family’s Mexican heritage, it represents a kind of fairy-tale Mexico I never got to see growing up and still don’t. And as Lacina (2017) points out, perhaps I accept this because I’m also “starved for representation” of my culture in the medium I love. Learning that the developers created it by accident spoils that, but that speaks to why Overwatch with its diverse cast matters.
First, in the wake of Gamergate, I’m still shocked that such a video game representing so much diversity even exists; I could never have imagined that two of my favorite video game characters would be a 60-year old Egyptian mother and support sniper or a Latina hacktivist. That the game continues to be popular in the wake of global political campaigns built on racism, intolerance, and the denial of basic human rights is nothing short of a miracle. Despite every troll who went to Twitter to decry (Jackson, 2016) or deny the comic revealing that Tracer is queer (Chu & Montlló, 2016) and that the developers should stop trying to ram a liberal agenda down their throats with pandering, the game’s fanbase has only grown. And having recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, Overwatch shows no signs of slowing down. My two favorite characters mentioned above, Ana and Sombra, are two of the four heroes added in the year since the game’s release; the third is a robot designed by 11-year old Efi. All three characters are women of colour. The fourth character, a businessman turned mercenary called Doomfist, is also West African, like Efi. So yes, Overwatch might be escapism, but it attempts to create experiences for groups traditionally excluded from games.
Some of these fans’ diverse identities and desire for a better world don’t end when they log-off. In January, Polygon (Frank, 2017) broke a story around pictures of the Women’s March in Seoul, South Korea, featuring pink flags with Overwatch character D.Va’s trademark bunny logo on them. A little digging showed the banner was for the National D.Va Association, a group of feminist gamers who united under D.Va’s image to discuss the impeachment of the country’s first female president for shocking corruption charges. But post-impeachment, they have continued sharing the message of feminism that D.Va champions.
In the game, D.Va is a teenage, professional Starcraft player who pilots a pink mech for the military. D.Va is also a young woman. It’s unlikely D.Va’s gender is an accident; in a country and industry in which female competitive gamers are a rarity, D.Va represents another view of a more inclusive society than our own. Indeed, only a few months prior, Kotaku (Ashcraft, 2016) had reported a story about 17-year old competitive Overwatch player Geguri, whose record is so impressive that opposing teams were convinced she was cheating. They demanded proof, one player threatened violence against her, and they offered to quit the game if they were wrong. Blizzard quickly verified her skills, which she also proved by live-streaming herself playing, and her accusers either quit or had their teams disband. Many fans were quick to point out that the male gamers’ skills as competitive players were accepted without question, while Geguri’s had to be proven. Meanwhile, in the world of Overwatch, a teenage Korean girl can be both a celebrity gamer and a war hero.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Geguri’s character of choice is another woman subverting gender norms – Zarya, a pink-haired Russian weightlifter who left the world championships on the eve of expectant victory to defend her nation. Many fans have made Zarya into a champion of the gay rights (D’Anastasio, 2016) currently denied in Russia, where that comic revealing Tracer’s sexuality is banned (Chu & Montlló, 2016). For all these reasons, Overwatch is an important milestone in the industry and culture of games, if not for what it has achieved then for what it has paved the way.
“The world needs us now, more than ever!”
Recently, I stumbled across a YouTube video posted by TriforceSamurai (2016), aptly titled “Playing with the cutest 7 year old teammate in overwatch.” The video features TriforceSamurai discovering one of his randomly assigned teammates is a little kid who adorably offers commentary (“There’s a McCree that gonna be at top. Oh, jk, I just killed him.”), talks smack (“There’s a Lucio on the point.” *kid kills Lucio* “What Lucio?”), and is just a kid, making funny noises. And together, they are playing a game in which 11 of its 26 heroes are women and at least 11 are people of colour; read another way, only 6 are white men. A recent update even added to Tracer’s in-game dialog a reference to her girlfriend Emily. Blizzard deserves credit for these advances in representation; children and young adults playing Overwatch are growing up with a more complex view of the world than those of us who grew up before it.
But it’s still important to ask why they took so long or why so much is relegated to other media! We still only see Symmetra identify as on the autism spectrum (Kriss, 2017) in a comic. And while all but one of the new characters added to the game have been people of colour, they were added and not a part of the original build – this despite that Doomfist was mentioned in the game’s first trailer and Ana is Pharah’s mother. Even though I love this game, it has to be recognized that Blizzard’s best efforts at representation have been reactive to a diverse fan base that demands more through their art, fanfiction, and critiques.
But it is inevitable that following both Blizzard’s initial and continued success from listening to fans and the community, other game companies will follow suit with greater proactive efforts at representation. And the next generation will see themselves represented in their media, take it for granted, and question why it was ever done differently. It has already begun; in a 2014 Overwatch press conference (Grayson), designer Chris Metzen describes watching cinematics from World of Warcraft with his daughter when she asked of the female characters, “Why are they all in swimsuits?” He describes not being able to give her a real answer, yet there were still so many pitfalls two years later with Overwatch’s release. It’s not enough that Blizzard acknowledges the problems in their project, however successful it still is. Instead, big developers need people like Metzen’s daughter on their design teams, people who will look at old video games and ask, “Why are all the heroes white? Why are they all men?” People who will ask at the beginning of development, “Why is our Egyptian character wearing vaguely indigenous costumes? Why aren’t we using Mexican reference material for our Mexican map?” And they will ask, and Overwatch matters, because a queer, female protagonist told us, in the first trailer for a major studio release, “The world could always use more heroes!”
Ashcraft, B. (2016). Korean woman kicks ass at Overwatch, gets accused of cheating [update]. Polygon.
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Chu, M. & Montlló, M. (2016) Reflections. Blizzard.com.
D’Anastasio, C. (2016). Zarya from Overwatch has become a gay icon, ironically. Kotaku.
D’Anastasio, C. (2017). Blizzard may have clarified Pharah’s controversial background in Overwatch. Kotaku.
Frank, A. (2017). Overwatch’s gamer girl hero inspires a feminist movement. Polygon.
Grayson, N. (2014). With Overwatch, Blizzard is trying to do women characters better. Kotaku.
Grayson, N. (2016). Blizzard patches masturbation gag out of Overwatch. Kotaku.
Jackson, G. (2016). The internet reacts to Overwatch’s Tracer and her girlfriend. Kotaku.
Khosravi, R. (2017). ‘Overwatch’ gets a lot right about diversity, but totally fails with Symmetra. Mic.com.
Kriss, A. (2017, February 27). With Symmetra, Blizzard raises the bar on representing autism in games. Kill Screen.
McWhertor, M. (2016). Blizzard is removing a sexualized pose from Overwatch, citing player feedback (update). Polygon.
PlayOverwatch (2014, November 7). Overwatch cinematic trailer [Video file].
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