More Representation Won’t Help Overwatch

So Blizzard just announced a new character for its incredibly popular team shooter, Overwatch. Affectionately dubbed “Rat Bastion” by a significant portion of fans, perhaps everyone, he’s a cute little hamster that pilots a giant ball-mech loaded with heavy machine guns. However, not everyone is a fan of Rat Bastion, and for understandable reasons.

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No one actually calls him Rat Bastion (Editor’s Note: Everyone calls him Rat Bastion)

See, Overwatch exploded into the public consciousness with a bright, energetic style, fun gameplay, and a diverse, memorable cast. It’s easy to see why it amassed an audience just as diverse, and, importantly, very vocal. As such, it comes as no surprise that as the game continues to receive new updates and heroes, there would be a growing antsiness about absences to the game’s diversity. The larger the cast grows, the more noticeable it becomes. Rat Bastion (officially named Wrecking Ball) is the 28th announced Overwatch character, and its second sapient animal, but there are still no black women, no gay men, and no bi or trans characters of any kind. I could get into the weeds about every identity not represented but you get the idea. These in particular have been heavily discussed by fans since release, and have been alluded to by Blizzard itself.

There are black women present within side materials as secondary characters. These include Efi, the little girl who created actual Overwatch hero Orisa (who, while coded as female and designed with explicit African themes, is hardly black representation since she’s a robot centaur), or a mysterious blonde haired black woman who shows up as a portrait in an animated short. Blizzard has also teased (ugh) that multiple characters fall under the LGBT+ umbrella, and revealed (UGH) that the game’s de facto mascot Tracer is a lesbian. This came months after release, with radio silence since.

This last point highlights a greater issue, one that I believe calls into question the efficacy of pressuring Blizzard to add more representation, the hopes that Overwatch will become more diverse and less flawed, and even the desire to support Overwatch and Blizzard financially and through fandom: Overwatch is a pile of poor and even racist representation and Blizzard sucks all kind of ass.

As the Tracer situation hints, Blizzard handles adding diversity to its games with very little thought or tact, and the problems came early and continue on to this day. The initial cast was rife with stereotypes and plagued with offensive cosmetic skins. Genji and Hanzo, the sole Japanese characters, are twin ninja brothers who summon spirit dragons and are engaged in an honor-fueled rivalry (also Hanzo has a voice line of “I choose you, spirit dragon” because what the fuck man). Mei, the Chinese character, is a nerdy scientist. D.Va, the Korean mech pilot, is a hardcore RTS player and streamer. Symmetra and Pharah, are less immediately offensive in design, but digging a little deeper shows two of the biggest problem skins in the game. Symmetra’s “Devi” and “Goddess” skins have Symmetra taking on the appearance of Hindu goddess Kali, and was roundly condemned by the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism as disrespectful. Meanwhile, Pharah’s “Thunderbird” and “Rainmaker” skins are an uncomfortable amalgam of different Native American tribal designs, seemingly only given to Pharah because she, as a brown (Egyptian!!!) woman, would look good in them. She also has skins designed around Egyptian god Anubis which don’t sit well combined with other design elements focused on the Eye of Horus symbol. These also aren’t even the only controversial skins included at launch.

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For example

That’s not even mentioning the world design! So you mean to tell me in this utopian-esque cyberfuture, your vision of Egypt is a dusty town built around an ancient temple and a pyramid? You named your Mexican town Dorado, which, as a side note, no one was able to compare to any actual existing Mexican location? Even the game’s backstory makes uncomfortable parallels between racial injustice and the oppression of robot life, despite the fact that several robots are practically walking guns. In one of the few instances of human foes showing up, a short film for Soldier 76 has the American hero, now disavowed and forced into retirement, uh, going around Mexico as a gang member killing vigilante. Leaving the context of the game’s content and lore, it’s important to note that almost every character is voiced by a voice actor or actress with an ethnic background that matches the characters’ own. To improve the authenticity, Mercy’s voice actress was even replaced by someone who could speak German during beta testing. Unfortunately, Pharah was not afforded the same treatment though. Her voice actress was, and still is, a white woman.

Post-launch, Blizzard has generally improved on these fronts. Not only have several of the new characters been of color (and not a white man in sight!), those characters don’t immediately look like stereotypes, and have had more thoughtfully designed skins that incorporate those characters’ cultures without fetishizing or bastardizing them. The maps have also been designed with more care and respect. The problems haven’t ended, however. On top of teasing and revealing (AUGH!!) Tracer as a lesbian, Blizzard’s answer to the problem of Pharah’s Native American skins wasn’t to remove or move past them, it was to retroactively give her a Native American background! Doomfist’s design as a large, imposing black African (with a metal arm, no less) whose only desire is combat and war sits uncomfortably. As more women were added, it became more and more clear that Blizzard leaned into a specific face and body type for them, while the men have a wide range of physical designs. Mei’s design in particular has been a constant problem, with many fans seeing her design as a fat-positive, but as other, less bulky skins have come out, it became clear that her model is badly contorted to get the look they wanted, emphasizing her butt at all costs.

What really broke me on any hope for Blizzard’s improvement however, was the revelation that Dorado, the map representing Mexico, was mistakenly based on an Italian town. During the DICE summit, game director Jeff Kaplan related the tale of googling “colorful Mexican town” and not paying even the slightest attention to where the results came from, winding up basing the map on a town from Italy. What should have been a deeply shameful admission was presented as a silly goof and an example of how Overwatch doesn’t represent the world as it is, but as how they (the largely white development team) wanted the world to be.

Blizzard has a long history of handling these things poorly in fact, particularly in their Warcraft universe. The orcs of Warcraft started out heavily influenced by the classic Tolkien orc: evil, savage warriors. While the original portrayal of orcs suffered from typical criticisms of “evil” fantasy races (that these races were inherently violent and evil, typically with non-white skin), as time went on, Blizzard began to add depth to both the human and orc sides. It turned out that the original orcs players saw were in fact under a curse that turned them into battle hungry monsters. They subsequently began to show orcs as just another people in the world while making the humans’ demonization of orcs based more in racism and fascism. Blizzard being Blizzard, however, wound up swinging into different problems, with orcs starting to fall into “noble savage” tropes, taking a “both sides” stance with the orcs and their oppressors to better fit the factions of their MMO World of Warcraft (you can read a more in-depth look on Warcraft’s problems from Timber Owls’ own Ash Yawns here). In general, the races of World of Warcraft tend to have the same problem of many fantasy worlds: a tendency to ignore real human racism and mapping minorities to fantasy races. As probably the worst examples, the goblin race is just straight up unmitigated antisemitism, with large, hooked noses, exaggerated American Jewish accents, and a comically portrayed greed, and in 2007, Blizzard released a new raid that involves looting a stronghold held by a tribe of trolls. The leader talks about how they were on the land before anyone and were driven out by the elves in the trailer for the update, and they summon animal gods to take retribution on their enemies, heavily evoking Native American history and religion, along with the trolls’ typical mishmash of stereotypical Caribbean island traits.

In Diablo 3, a game released in 2012, there is a playable character known as the Witch Doctor. I shouldn’t even have to elaborate but for posterity’s sake, the Witch Doctor is the sole playable black character in Diablo 3, and their portrayal is ripped straight out of classic, racist portrayals of African tribal shamans. Dressed in “freaky” tribal garb and with an “unhinged”, twitching posture, this character uses “mystical powers” to summon undead and terrifying monsters, and attacks using black magic to infest enemies with poison and curses. Like for real. This game still gets updates, by the way.

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Blizzard artwork or a scan from a neo-Nazi pamphlet?

They haven’t been much better with LGBT+ issues either, having avoided actually portraying any queer characters until the Tracer reveal in December 2016. In 2006, Blizzard even caught heavy flak for threatening to ban a player for starting an LGBT+ friendly guild, only walking back the threats after extensive public shaming. In 2011, they broadcast a video (warning for slurs) featuring the lead vocalist of death metal band Cannibal Corpse repeatedly using homophobic and gendered slurs in a string of violent insults directed at Alliance players in WoW. Of course they were forced to apologize again after another massive public outcry. In 2016, Blizzard finally added positive queer representation to World of Warcraft in the form of…lesbian ghosts in a side quest.

Time and time again, Blizzard’s fans have had to do the heavy lifting with their own worlds and games. Fans and critics have had to drag Blizzard forward on respecting minorities for decades, and I see no reason to believe that they’ll stop needing to be dragged. Sure they’re better now, but they’re far behind the times, and it seems to me that they always will be. There’s all sorts of outstanding fanworks out there, giving genuine life to these characters through the eyes of the real people they represent, and it’s easy to hope that Blizzard would reflect those fan sentiments more in their games. It’s easy to want more diversity in something you love. I understand this as someone who has desperately wanted to see (and sometimes have seen) media I enjoy improve, and in almost any other situation, I’d be right there with everyone.

I say all this not to suggest that it’s bad to want new characters who represent minority groups missing from Overwatch, or that it’s wrong to want Blizzard to improve. Anyone with significant power should be held accountable. But the truth of the matter is that there’s an unaddressed rot at the center of Overwatch and Blizzard itself. It’s nearly impossible to find unproblematic, untainted media in a capitalist society dominated by straight white cis men, but the sheer amount of problems that plague Overwatch boggles the mind. While Blizzard has made some improvements in what they add to the game, they seem to have no intention of addressing the problems that still linger. As a result, any misstep or delay in representation just can’t surprise me anymore. I honestly don’t know that it’s worth spending the mental and emotional energy to fight for scraps from a company that seems fairly content giving out just that, with a history of being hideously bigoted, and with a good chunk of that bigotry alive and well within Overwatch itself.

No matter how much pressure is put on them, they’ll only ever do the bare minimum, not just because of their long history of doing just that, but also because of the large portion of their fanbase that, frankly, doesn’t give a shit and would be actively resistant to changing anything to be less trashy and offensive. We already got a small taste of that when Blizzard changed Tracer’s butt pose (to a different butt pose). If people are really dead set on getting Blizzard to improve, the discourse and pressure on them has to move beyond what’s added to Overwatch. What needs to be fixed in Overwatch and the company at large needs to be hammered on, because until these issues are addressed, a new, potentially well designed minority hero will still be standing side by side with a spirit dragon ninja who constantly yells about honor.

The problem is that I don’t really think Blizzard will ever address these issues. What are you gonna do when they don’t?

Author’s note: While I covered a lot of the problems I have with Overwatch, this is by no means all of them. Check out Azha Reyes’ great piece over on Sidequest for a deeper dive on the villains of Overwatch!