The tenuous diversity of Overwatch

Johannesburg - Despite the ongoing controversy about diversity in gaming, at least one award-winning game is getting it (mostly) right: Blizzard’s Overwatch. Blizzard – the producer of popular games such as World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo – released the team-based first-person shooter video game in May 2016, and its player base has continued to increase exponentially. The game even has its own multimillion-dollar eSports tournament, the Overwatch League, with a total prize pool of $3.5 million (R44 million) available to teams in the first season, which ends next month.

The game has also been applauded for its attempts towards diversity, despite a rocky start during its beta testing phase and continued blunders since its release. Its most notable gaffe during its 2015 beta testing was its inclusion of a “butt pose” for the game’s most recognisable hero, Tracer. In this victory pose, Tracer is seen looking over shoulder with her butt on prominent display, sexualising the English hero now seen on all of Overwatch’s game boxes.

While another female hero, Widowmaker, still strikes a similar pose, the controversial butt pose was especially out of character for Tracer as the Overwatch universe’s resident goof ball and playful persona. Widowmaker, on the other hand, falls squarely into the “femme fatale” trope as a French sniper assassin, and seems to have been given a pass for the pose, as well as for her plunging neckline and skin-tight catsuit.

Game critic and feminist Anita Sarkeesian was quick to comment on the largely svelte, hyperfeminine female heroes included in beta and, surprisingly, Blizzard reflected on the critique, engaged with its audience, and made some changes.

Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan has spoken at length about the team’s ambitions for the game to be inclusive of players of various backgrounds. Kaplan responded to a player thread about Tracer’s pose to say that the team would be removing it.“We want *everyone* to feel strong and heroic in our community. The last thing we want to do is make someone feel uncomfortable, underappreciated or misrepresented,” he wrote. “Apologies and we’ll continue to try to do better.”

When it comes to the representation of women and the multitude of identities we can inhabit, Overwatch has definitely improved since beta. After the Tracer scandal, Overwatch’s release included Zarya, a Russian bodybuilding champion and tank hero. Zarya is often seen flexing her muscles or weightlifting her massive particle cannon. Overwatch has even included a pose for Zarya that mimics the iconic “We can do it!” Rosie the Riveter image that has become emblematic for many feminists.

Since its release, Overwatch has increasingly evolved in its attempt to be more inclusive, but the developers still trip themselves up on matters of representation and cultural appropriation. The most glaring screw-up the team has made regarding race concerns Doomfist, a black Nigerian man who was released as a playable hero and member of the Overwatch universe in July 2017.

Doomfist is the only playable black and African hero in Overwatch, which is laudable. But his inclusion is also deeply problematic because he is a villain associated with the criminal syndicate Talon, and his philosophy is centred on conflict as a measure of strength and superiority. In fact, Doomfist’s catchphrase is: “Only through conflict do we evolve.”

Other heroes of colour have also been flagged as problematic, particularly Pharah and Symmetra. Pharah is identified as an Egyptian woman, but any efforts made to actually link her to her heritage are limited. And for some bizarre reason, the Overwatch developers included a Native-American styled skin for her to be purchased in-game. This was met with criticism that Blizzard sees brown people as interchangeable.

Similarly, Symmetra’s ties to her Hindu nationality are limited to a highly sexualised skin of the Hindu goddess Devi, which saw religious leaders incensed at the depiction. And Symmetra doesn’t speak a word of Hindi in any of her voice lines in the game, and wears only the shirt of a traditional Indian garment – apparently Overwatch developers felt showing a bit of leg was more important than authenticity in Symmetra’s case.

While the game itself has evolved and improved on matters of representation and diversity, its player base has yet to catch up with Overwatch’s developers. In-game sexism from male players is an ongoing problem for Overwatch, with its biggest scandal yet involving a then 17-year-old Korean girl, playing as Geguri, who was accused of cheating after she dominated the qualifiers for the southeast Asian eSports competition, the Nexus Cup, in 2016.

With an 80% win rate playing Zarya, this was apparently too much for Geguri’s male opponents – so much so that one made a death threat against her. The player, Strobe, and a team-mate subsequently vowed to quit Overwatch if she could prove she wasn’t cheating. Geguri did just that and was officially cleared by Blizzard a few days after the competition ended.

However, despite Blizzard’s announcement, Geguri was still plagued by doubts over her capability, and staged an hourlong showcase of her gaming, during which she wore a mask – indicative of the scale of the sexism that still manifests in the gaming world.

While the scandal took place two years ago, and despite Overwatch’s push towards diversity and inclusivity, the game’s player base continues to be problematic.

Last year, Matt Vaughn, a Canadian eSports pro player, was booted from Toronto eSports for a racism-infused rage that he not only vocalised to his team-mates, but also livestreamed on Twitch. One of Vaughn’s Twitch followers was quick to capture and upload the tirade to YouTube. Vaughn can be heard screaming into the mic and saying the n-word repeatedly until he runs out of breath, only to repeat the slur until he runs out of breath again.

Earlier this year, another Overwatch pro, this time part of the Overwatch League team Dallas Fuel, caused controversy when he called an opponent a “f**king f**got” and the ESPN reporter who broke the story faced an onslaught of racist and sexist backlash on Twitter. This was shortly after another Dallas Fuel player told a gay rival to “suck a fat c**k”.

YouTube and Twitch are littered with examples of white male players’ racism, sexism and homophobia, with players alternating between calling their opponents various slurs and questioning their skills because they are women.

The skewed worldview that only male gamers can be brilliant players is no doubt supported by the male-dominated demographics of the Overwatch League, which signed Geguri in February as its first female player. The lack of women among the 12 teams in the league has been one of the major talking points heading into the Overwatch League’s debut season.

On a media day ahead of the season in January, participating teams offered a range of lame excuses for the lack of female players, ranging from issues of “team chemistry” to worries that the signing would be perceived as a “PR stunt”.

(Pictures: Blizzard Entertainment/City Press)

A version of this story referred to Doomfist as the "only black playable character" in Overwatch, which is incorrect. Another hero, Lucio, is also black. Doomfist is the only playable black and African hero in Overwatch. The story also said that Symmetra didn't speak Hindi at all in Overwatch, when she does have some chatter that is in Hindi. Symmetra does not speak Hindi in any of her voice lines.  

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24