Overwatch delivers diversity alongside racist stereotypes, still does better than rest of AAA gaming [LONG]

Overwatch, the hit new shooter/MOBA released by Blizzard has been taking the internet by storm lately. (That is, until the internet collectively lost its damn mind over Pokemon Go this past week[1].) As of mid-June, they had already accumulated more than 10 million active players, no mean feat considering that it was released less than two months ago.

Since the beginning of its development, one of the major talking points that has been emphasized in press pieces is that Blizzard was trying to design with an eye to diversity. Like the piece on Kotaku proclaiming that Blizzard wanted to “do women better”, which showed Widowmaker displaying a whole lot of ass cleavage:

Meanwhile over on Polygon, there was a piece with the headline: “Blizzard wants its diverse fans to feel ‘equally represented’ by Overwatch’s heroes“. Which, by the way, only featured quotes from a press conference given by Blizzard, and which completely failed to mention any of Blizzard’s previous problems with representation in their games to date. (*cough* Hearthstone *cough* Worldofwarcraft *cough*)

I’ve written about Overwatch before. (In fact, people talking trash about my Overwatch posts are still a reliable source of occasional traffic spikes from Reddit, which is a bit surprising two years later.) And the game’s recent release, along with the fact that it seems diversity is still being used as a talking point to promote the game – as evidenced by this piece published just 3 days in advance of the release, made me think that it would probably be worthwhile taking a second look at Overwatch to see how it’s shaped up.

Overwatch Characters and Gender

The last time I wrote about Overwatch, 6 out of the (then) 14 characters that had been announced were female, however, 1 character – Bastion – was genderless. If you don’t count Bastion, that made for a roster that was 46% female – not too shabby. At the game’s release, it featured 8 female characters out of 21 characters that have a gender – which was only 40%. However, as of yesterday, a new female character was announced – Ana – which brings the ratio up to 9 out of 21 gendered characters, or 42%.

icons-gender

So, you know. It’s not fifty-fifty, which is disappointing from a game that says it wanted to “do women better”. How hard would it have been to make one of the weirdo characters, like Winston or Zenyatta, female? And sure, 42% is still a damn site better than almost every game I’ve ever bothered to review numbers for on this blog. But I tend to think that to “do women better”, you should at the very least reflect their levels of representation in the actual world. And we won’t even talk about how there are ugly or weird looking male characters, but all of the female characters except for one are in their mid-20s and have flawless skin – except for Ana. And even then, the only concession to her age is white hair and maaayyybbbbe a hint of an eye wrinkle.

It’s worth noting that all of that completely ignores the issue of queer and nonbinary gender identities. Since the canon doesn’t say otherwise, it has to be assumed that all 21 of the gendered heroes are cisgender, which is – again – disappointing from a game that seems to be trying to sell itself, at least in part, on the diversity of its character’s designs and backgrounds.

But overall, those turned out to be minor irritants compared to the embarrassing levels of racism (with a sprinkling of ableism) in the hero backstories and alternate character designs. Hooray!

Character Backstories

Lucio

So out of a lineup of 22 characters, you have exactly 1 black person – Lucio. And YES I get that there are other characters who are visible minorities – Symmetra, Pharah, Hanzo, etc. But what about McCree and Soldier 76, who are both from the United States? Or Tracer, who is from the UK? Or Widowmaker, who is from France? Or Mercy, who is from Switzerland? All of these are countries with diverse populations! Black people live in all of these countries! Coding all of the Western first world nations as white is problematic as hell. (And no, Widowmaker does not count as a PoC because she’s blue.)

So with all of that in mind, it is doubly problematic that Lucio – the only black guy – is a black guy from the slums. And sure, he’s from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. And sure he was “fighting the man”. But the core concept was “black DJ from the slums who stole things”. And when your go-to backstory for the only black guy is “poor thief”, that is super fucking problematic. The stereotype of black people as thieves and criminals is the reason why real actual black people get profiled by police and followed in shops and stores. And the fact that the video games industry is more than 87% white makes all of this even more problematic.

So. You know. What the actual fuck, Blizzard?

Reaper

Similarly, Gabriel Reyes AKA Reaper is the only Latino in the game (you know, despite the fact that it actually would have made more sense to make McCree Latino instead of making him white). And what’s his backstory? Well, according to the Overwatch wiki:

Reaper admits to being a high-functioning psychopath, having a passion for murder and vengeance and is willing to kill even without a solid motivation. —Overwatch Wiki

And this is shitty for pretty much exactly the same reasons that making Lucio a black thief from the slums is shitty. When news coverage of Latin@s is 1% of total coverage, despite the fact that they make up 13% of the US population? And 66% of that coverage is about Latinos as criminals? Making THE ONLY LATINO in your game an actual fucking psychopathic murderer is shitty and racist.

Symmetra

Symmetra’s backstory and concept doesn’t read as racist to me, although I’ll admit to not being conversant enough with those particular stereotypes to be able to spot something that’s not completely obvious. However, where her backstory does fall down is a WHOLE LOT OF FUCKING ABLEISM. And sure, it’s obvious that it’s at least well-meaning ableism? But there is a lot of hinky mental health and neurotypical stereotyping going on. Again, according to the Overwatch Wiki:

Symmetra may be on the autism spectrum as implied in A Better World[1]. In it, she says it used to “bother her” when people would ask where she fit on the spectrum; further, she appears to have what could be described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, namely her preoccupation with “perfection”, such as when she can’t resist fixing a crooked picture or how she notices the perfection of a child’s face. Traits common to OCD are also associated with autism.[2] —Overwatch Wiki

For fuck’s sake.

First, if you want to have a character who is on the autism spectrum, EITHER DO IT OR DON’T. Don’t say well she miiiiiiight be, but then maaaaaybe not. Because what the fuck is wrong with having a heroic character who is autistic? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Second, fixing crooked frames or noticing a perfect face isn’t OCD – unless you spend your entire day checking and re-checking and re-checking every picture frame to make sure it’s straight, or obsessively scanning people’s faces looking for flaws, to the detriment of actually getting anything done. OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder, emphasis on the disorder. If it doesn’t interfere with your daily life and ability to function, then it’s not OCD. Being particular about how things are placed or wanting things to be just so? That’s not fucking OCD, and it’s really shitty trivializing OCD that way.

Character Designs: Racist Tropes and Culture as Costume

Mercy

So I’ve written before about how it’s really problematic making the character who is coded as “angel” blonde. But you know what’s even shittier? Making your angel character blonde, then having an alternate skin named “Devil” and giving that skin black hair.

Not following why that’s problematic? Well, allow me to quote myself:

Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.

Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.

DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies [aka: the trope of making evil races have dark skin] mentioned above.

That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! … you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft. The good elves are purple and the bad elves are blonde. (Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.)

When you tie the idea of “good” to traits that are White and “evil” to traits that are Not-White, THAT IS RACIST.

Mercy-angel-devil

The irony is that Mercy’s other alternate skins depict her as a Valkyrie, which honestly I like about a million times better than either her default skin or her “Devil” skin. Boobplate aside, they did a great job of translating the character concept into a design appropriate to the character’s cultural background.

Zenyatta, Roadhog, and Pharah

Zenyatta is a bit of a tricky case in that he is a robot (who is gendered as male) monk who is never explicitly called out as being a Buddhist monk. But his backstory says he wanders the Himalayas, and the Saffron robes as well as descriptions of Zenyatta’s approach to philosophy make it pretty clear that he is supposed to be a Tibetan Buddhist (robot) monk. And, you know what, cool. There could be some cool elements about robots deciding to investigate humanity and ending up identifying as a particular gender and culture.

What is definitely uncool is tying Zenyatta strongly (if implicitly) to one culture, and then using other cultural costumes as alternate looks:

Zenyatta

Look. This is a theme that I’m going to come back to for the next few designs, but I would think that after the stink that gets raised on the internet and social media every October, people would start getting the hint that using cultural attire or cultural dress for the sake of looking “cool” is not okay. Culture is not costume.

This gets even more problematic when Native and Aboriginal cultures are the ones being used as costume, because there is a global history of white people oppressing Native and Aboriginal peoples and then appropriating their culture.

Take Roadhog, whose has two alternate skins that show him in Maori dress:

Roadhog-Maori

And. Man. Here’s where I admit that things get real fuzzy and hard to tease out. Because while it’s not commented on officially, it’s possible that Mako is of Maori descent:

“It is highly likely that Roadhog is of New Zealand Maori heritage due to his real name (Mako) and alternate skin titled “Toa” which is the Maori word for “Warrior”.” – Overwatch Wiki

And honestly, I keep going back and forth on whether this is problematic or not. Roadhog’s pale skin reads more “white” than “Maori” to me. But then, the long struggle of Metis and non-status Native Canadians to be recognized as “legitimately Native”, makes me feel like that might not be a valid criticism. Except, Roadhog is said to come from the Outback of Australia – and the Aborigine people of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand are two different peoples – or at least as far as I’m aware.

So. I think for me the tipping point, the deciding factor of “is this okay?” is the fact that there are so many other examples of stereotyped depictions and appropriative costumes. This isn’t a singular misstep in a game that otherwise did its homework and tried to be respectful. Because if it was, you wouldn’t have something like Pharah and her alternate skins:

Farah

Pharah is explicitly, canonically Egyptian. And yet two of her alternate skins are explicitly North American Native – titled “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird”. And that is just such an obvious, straight-forward case of “what do we do for a cool alternate look for Pharah?” “I dunno, make her Native?” that I just can’t even.

Symmetra

And here’s the last example, the reason why I’m really not inclined to give the Blizzard development team a lot of slack on the question of “did they mean to be offensive” or not. Symmetra, who comes from India, has two alternate skins – which cost a lot of credits to unlock – that depict her as the Hindu goddess Kali:

Symmetra-goddess

It’s hard to overstate how gallingly tasteless and appalling this is. Hinduism isn’t like the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods. While using Ra as a skin for an implicitly Tibetan character is tasteless, it’s nowhere near on the same level of awful, because you’re talking about a dead religion. There are somewhere around 1 billion Hindu people on the planet, which makes this roughly equivalent to having a male character who can “level up” into Jesus. And obviously, game developers would never consider making Actual Fucking Jesus an unlockable skin, because that would be disrespectful. But because Hindus are mostly brown people, that makes having Actual Fucking Kali – who is a god that real actual people actually worship right now – somehow okay? No. Just. NO.

Conclusion: Overwatch has problems, but it’s still better than the rest of AAA gaming

As horrible as all this stuff is, Blizzard at least gets the absolute minimum of points for trying. Which is something that the rest of the AAA game industry is emphatically not doing, as evidenced by yet another year of Scowly McWhiteGuy being mostly the only thing on offer at E3.

SO. MANY. WHITE GUYS.

So. You know. Reluctant kudos for trying? But “slightly less racist than the rest of the AAA game industry” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement that Blizzard should be proud of.

[1] I am unspeakably bitter that Pokemon Go has yet to be released in Canada

Blizzard tries to “do women better”, completely misses the point

(I didn’t mean to go nearly two weeks without a paid post! However, the PhotoShopping for the last part of this post took significantly longer than I thought it would, and I lost a lot of evenings this past week to rehearsals for the play I’m in. Alas!)

Quite a while ago, this drifted across my tumblr dash (courtesy of Bikini Armor Battle Damage – which is a great tumblr that I love), and I facepalmed:

arg

It’s almost like… Blizzard has a complete lack of awareness of how and why their games were failing at women in the first place. No, wait, scratch that. It’s exactly like that. Because that’s what it is. That’s exactly what it is.

Curious to see what the other characters were like, because I hate myself and like being angry, I went digging for a character roster and found this:

lineup-wide.1z8E7
CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW

Now, looking at it, I’ll admit that this does do better than WoW and Hearthstone, in that 5 out of 12 characters are gendered as female. However, given that Blizzard’s modus operandi is to clearly delineate female gendered characters with BOOBS, I think it’s a safe assumption that the four characters without immediately discernable gender (Robot Monk (front), Giant-ass Robot, Heavy-Armor Gorilla, and Mech-with-the-Bird[1]) are going to be gendered as male.

Especially when you consider that Blizzard character designers operate under the assumption that characters are either interesting or female, but never both.

Granted, 5 out of 12 characters is 41% female representation – which is much better than Hearthstone’s batting average of around 22%. But still! You’d think that if a game company is going to trumpet that they’re trying to “do women characters better” (and really, I hope that was Kotaku’s phrasing and not Blizzard’s, because that’s a really unfortunate choice of phrasing), this is the low hanging fruit.

It’s not hard! TWELVE IS AN EVEN NUMBER. Half of twelve is six. If you want to NOT FAIL AT WOMEN CHARACTERS, you should maybe, I dunno, HAVE HALF OF THEM BE WOMEN. (At least.)[3]

Even then – even then – I might have been happy with this as a sign of progress if the character designs weren’t so uniform, or if they didn’t fall into all the same design pitfalls as their other games. Looking at the above image, the male-gendered characters cover every body type imaginable, while the women are all slim (some impossibly so – I call bullshit on the angel’s ribcage), all present as femme, and all fit standard definitions of pretty. And then of course, things get uglier when you start looking at the character designs more closely:

overwatch women
TOP, L TO R: Widowmaker, Tracer, Pharah BOTTOM: Mercy, Symmetra

Widowmaker (top left) is bullshit, for obvious reasons. Why the fuck would you wear that to a gunfight? Her boobs are about to pop out any second, not to mention the massive ass cleavage in the first screenshot. (Seriously, her suit looks like it must be lodged in her colon. WTF.) Tracer (top middle) is… yeah, okay, I guess she’s okay. I mean she’s skinny as fuck, but maybe that’s part of the tomboy vibe? We’ll come back to her.

Symmetra (bottom left) is yet another instance of Blizzard’s obsession with designing characters that wear dresses with thigh slits that go above the hips, no pants, and stripper boots. But at least she fares better than Mercy (the angel, bottom left), who not only doesn’t get pants but also has some of the most ridiculous fucking boob armor I’ve ever seen. You want to “do women characters”, Blizzard? How about you don’t put them in fucking boobplate?

Lastly, there’s Pharah. Initially I was pleased with her design, even if I was miffed that she didn’t get to be big and bulky like the male heavies. I actually like the contrast of her femme presentation (especially the eye makeup) with the heavy armor. And then I spotted THE BATTLE THONG.

Seriously, look at the male armored characters. None of them have ridiculous armor cod-pieces, so what gives? It’s like someone tried to give her a strong design without sexualizing her, until some studio head came in and said “yeah, yeah, that’s great, can we put her in a thong?”[2].

And all of this is just the obvious issues with the individual character designs! None of which are helped by shit like this piece of promo art here:

Overwatch-67
(I didn’t realize until I started writing this post that there’s a 5th male character squeezed in between the cowboy and the angel, which properly makes the ratio 2 out of 7.)

Oh hey, look. Two out of seven characters are women, and neither of them are in any way focal. So that’s good. Nice to know that Blizzard is still committed to women not being important to anything ever at all.

And remember Tracer? The one “yeah, I guess she’s pretty okay” character? Well don’t worry, because Blizzard made sure to sexualize her as well. So far there is only one Overwatch statue available and it’s this one:overwatch-tracer

Ridiculous boobs and butt pose? Check. Ass cleavage (seriously, who is it on the design team that is so obsessed with ass cleavage? That’s just weird), check. Distorted anatomy? Check. Phew! For a second there I almost thought Blizzard was going to manage to not screw that one up!

Oh, but I can’t forget to mention that the game’s role assignments are also horrendously stereotypical:

roles

That’s right. Two out of three healers are female, two out of four high-DPS/rogue-equivalent characters are female, one out of three defensive characters are female (the least-clothed female character to boot), and there are zero female tanks. Because women are just too dainty and fragile and shit. Or something. REASONS.

So basically, if Blizzard really was trying to make an effort to “do women characters” better, then they failed miserably. Yeah, okay, they didn’t fail quite as hard as they do in all of their other games! But touting this as some kind of achievement is like bragging that you only slap women a little sometimes instead of full on punching them in the face. You don’t get feminist cookies for not failing slightly less than you used to.

How could this be better? Re-examining design choices

If I’d followed my usual posting format, I could have rambled on for another 1,000 words easily about individual characters and problematic design decisions as well as problematic meta-patterns. But instead, I decided to do something a little different – I decided that I would PhotoShop the full-cast poster to actually show how easy it would be to have a character lineup that isn’t fucking terrible.

It turns out that this was a bit more a time investment, PhotoShop-wise, than I anticipated, mostly because the figures all overlap. However! The fact remains that more than half of the changes I made were purely cosmetic! Check this out:

wip2
CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW

So first, the easiest fix – the gender imbalance. Make one of the characters without obvious gender voiced by a female voice actor, and suddenly the problem is solved. I went with the gorilla, since that’s a character design that recalls other male archetypical characters (like Beast and others). Also, that way there would be a female tank, so win.

Next, looking at the design of the humanoid female characters overall, I was pretty pleased by the overall racial balance. Two brown ladies, a purple lady, and two white ladies? Rock on! Except. Mercy is an angel character with blonde hair. Which. NO. We’ve been over this. Always having angels be blond is some creepy white supremacy bullshit, okay? And sure, I could have shifted her skin tone as a fix, but part of the point of this exercise was to show HOW LITTLE WORK it is to fix this shit. (While I was at it, I also de-boob-plated Mercy’s armor and widened her waist enough to give her a fucking ribcage.)

Symmetra and Pharah were also changes that required almost no effort. I widened Symmetra’s thighs a bit because her torso is not totally skinny like Tracer’s. If she’s carrying more weight on top, then her legs should be more than just pipe cleaners, okay? I also gave her some fucking pants, because FUCKITY FUCK SHE SHOULD BE WEARING PANTS. As for Pharah, I resized her by about 50% to make her the same height as Really Huge Robot Guy, because at least one of the women needed to be a giant, with that degree of character size variance. (I also half-assedly got rid of the battle thong, although it was totally lazy and I can do better.) As for Widowmaker? I let her keep her bullshit costume, but I made her fat so that she’s fat, badass, and sexy. Now at least she reads as someone doing sexy for herself and not because she’s some game dev’s fetish/fantasy.

Lastly, looking at the humanoid male characters (Cowboy Guy, Dwarf Guy, Big Bruiser Guy, and Samurai Guy[4]), there was a serious imbalance in representation with only samurai guy arguably counting as Asian and the others all definitely coded as white. So since Mexican, Native, and Black cowboys are largely erased in anything that portrays cowboys ever, boom. Cowboy Guy is now Latin@.

I also wanted to make one of the other male characters Black, since I wasn’t positive that Symmetra read as Black. I wasn’t thrilled about my choices, but opted to make Dwarf Guy black by shifting the skin tone and desaturating his blond beard into a grey beard, operating on the “grandparents as PCs make anything better” principle[5]. Sure he’s an Angry Black Guy now, but in my head he’s a badass grandfather who’s just angry because people are trying to fuck with his teammates, and when they have downtime he tells awesome stories and makes pie or whatever.

And there you have it! I won’t make any claims that this lineup is 100% free of problems, but if one person can fix most of the problems with a game’s lineup with 4 hours and PhotoShop, then we’re not talking about things that would require a vast investment of resources to correct! Unfortunately, while Blizzard cares enough to give lip-service to the idea of “doing women better”, it’s obvious that they don’t care enough to actually put their money where their mouth is. So I’m not going to hold my breath for any actual substantive changes in their design directives any time soon.

[1] I could take time to look up their names, but honestly I don’t really give a shit. I’m not likely to ever play this game.

[2] I hate everything. Seriously, everything.

[3] CAN YOU TELL HOW ANNOYED I AM?

[4] Again, I literally do not give enough shits about ever playing this game to Google their names. Just more proof that I’m either NOT A REAL GAMER or OUT TO DESTROY GAMING, I guess. Take your pick.

[5] Grandmothers always trump grandfathers. ALWAYS.