With one of the most diverse sets of characters that can be found in a popular, mainstream videogame today, Overwatch, has delineated itself from the plethora of white-dominated first-person shooters, such as Call of Duty and Half-Life, that usually rule most western games. Half of the human, or at least previously human, characters are women (with the rest consisting of robots and a gorilla), the characters come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and the game’s poster character has even been officially announced as lesbian. In fact, of the 24 playable characters, 5 come from Asian countries ranging from the East Asian countries of China, Japan, and Korea, to the South Asian countries of India, and Nepal. At first glance, the game seems like a dream come true for videogame fans of minority groups who are starving for representation that has been a long way coming, however, Overwatch, has come under a lot of fire for the way in which it presents their characters’ backgrounds, personalities, and designs. So many ask for game designers seeking to create diverse and inclusive playable characters, what are the boundaries that separate appropriation from representation?
It seems that fans and critics alike are either saying that the game is participating in cultural appropriation or that it is promoting the spreading and sharing of different cultures to its fanbase. The start of this conflict arose when certain characters had their “skins” revealed, skins are alternative outfits that players can equip for the characters to wear, and Symmetra, a character from Hyderabad, India, had a “Devi” and “Goddess” skin:
Though Symmetra is of South Asian origin, these skins seem like a broad generalization of a variety of different Hindu deities, and such a vagueness often hints at orientalist undertones. The most obvious connection these skins might have would be the garland of skulls which are related to the Hindu goddess, Kali who is usually depicted with a necklace of decapitated heads and the blue skin that the goddess and Symmetra share. In fact, Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism called for the removal of these skins from the game stating that, “Blizzard Entertainment needed to follow its own ‘core values’ which included ‘lead responsibly’ (…) as in this case it was creating confusion in the minds of community about Devi by misrepresentation.” However, many fans retaliated by claiming that Symmetra’s skins along with other characters who have Native American and Polynesian inspired skins, in fact promoted the celebration of different cultures and ethnicities worldwide, so there was no harm in using a bit of creative interpretation to enhance the game’s experience. And as the most controversial character skins have yet to be removed, it seems that Blizzard, and its directors have no plans of taking them down any time soon.
The values that Overwatch promote seem to constantly be pushing for creating a welcome gaming environment where people of all different backgrounds can enjoy. Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director states that rather than diversity, “Really what the goal was, was inclusivity and open mindedness.” And it seems that this apparently comes at the cost of losing the support of Hindu groups such as Zed’s. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to build a game with the core message of inclusion, as a large majority of the heads of the Overwatch team seem to be white men, this can pose the question of whether their version of representation can leak into areas of orientalism and stereotypes, especially since they do not seem to be taking the advice of ethnic groups who have more knowledge of these subjects.
However, this is not to say that white male game developers should not be allowed to design characters of different ethnic backgrounds, sexualities, and genders, but rather that they should take a more cautionary route and might need to defer to people who are say Hindu when their designs come into question. If the designers of these skins had been Hindu, then people might not have reacted in such a negative way, as society often attaches the power of authority and authenticity to people who create works concerning their own culture, art, and religion. However, this is a common misconception that an individual of Asian descent or background cannot participate in displays of hegemonic forces or orientalism.
Still Overwatch’s lead writer, Michael Chu, is Asian American, and the developers took painstaking time to find voice actors for the game’s playable characters who are actual of the same ethnic backgrounds, so the game is putting in more effort than many others in the same genre. Despite the game’s many shortcomings, it is hard not to appreciate the effort to include a wide range of characters from different regions when compared to similar games such as Team Fortress 2, with a nearly all male, white cast of characters. Overwatch’s most recent event was actually in celebration of the Lunar Near Year with many of the Asian characters receiving skins and other in-game perks, and it is very rare to see this holiday even mentioned much celebrated in most mainstream media. Nonetheless, if Overwatch wishes to continue creating an open environment of inclusion, then it needs to listen to its criticisms and improve upon what they have already done.
Zed, Rajan. “Hindus Urge Removal of Devi Portrayal from Video Game Overwatch.” The Official Website of Rajan Zed. N.p., 16 July 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
22/02/2017, Chris Bratt Published. “Overwatch Game Director Talks Diversity, Inclusivity and Tracer’s Sexuality.” Eurogamer.net. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.