Why ‘Overwatch’ Gives Me Hope for Diversity in Gaming
This weekend I found myself engrossed in the open beta for Overwatch, the latest game from Blizzard that has been hyped non-stop across the Internet since its unveiling at BlizzCon 2014. Overwatch is being sold vaguely as a “multiplayer first-person shooter,” but the game’s emphasis on team objectives and cooperative play means it’s more like League of Legends than Call of Duty. In fact, Overwatch plays quite a bit like a mashup of the two, leading lots of folks to inevitably compare it to Team Fortress 2 (minus the hat-based economy).
Overwatch features team-based combat that pits two 6-player squads against each other in a variety of standard multiplayer shooter match types (capture a point, defend a point, escort something, etc). You pick your hero from a pretty extensive cohort at the beginning of the match, but you can also change your character at any point by going back to the home ‘base.’ The opportunity to change heroes gives the game an interesting strategic component as you want to coordinate with your team to ensure you have adequate offensive, defensive, tanking, and support heroes. You can also deliberately use some heroes to counter your enemies. Overall it’s very fast-paced and kind of unforgiving, but it’s tons of fun and genuinely easy to learn.
That’s enough description of the game, though—as soon as I played Overwatch, I wanted to rate it on our Scale of Inclusivity!
Not offensive to women = 1 pt
Not even a little bit offensive. 1/1. (And I am definitely not getting into the Tracer pose controversy; you can Google that if you feel so inclined.)
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts
I already knew from pre-open-beta announcements that Overwatch promised to deliver on the diversity front, but I was still pleasantly surprised when I launched the beta! There are currently 21 heroes, 8 of which are women. It would be nice to have an even split, but honestly, quality nearly makes up for quantity in this case.
The 8 women heroes are split equally between the four hero types (offense, defense, tank, support) and they each have an interesting and unique background, as well as being diverse ethnically and in body types! You can read all about them on the Overwatch wiki. Overwatch gets 2/2 here.
Passes the Bechdel test = 3 pts
Given that Overwatch is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) without a story mode, it’s a bit difficult to gauge whether it passes the Bechdel test. I would argue that since you can actually build an all-women team if you wanted, and that all the characters appear to be much more interested in fighting Earth’s battle than boinking each other, Overwatch handily passes the Bechdel test. 3/3 here.
And when your team of heroes is leaving the base, they sometimes yell little things at each other that appear to be unique based on which two heroes are interacting—so technically, all the women heroes can and do interact!
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts
This game is seriously fun. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of modern shooters—my skills basically peaked with Halo 3, and even then I was objectively pretty terrible. I do love me some online multiplayer though, especially when it requires team cooperation and doesn’t rely entirely on your K/D ratio.
Overwatch takes the best parts of games like League of Legends or DOTA 2, like team gameplay and strategic character selection, and combines them with the best parts of multiplayer shooters, like the fast-paced combat and kill streaks. Their lovechild has then been imbued with a remarkably in-depth storyline, extensive backgrounds for all the characters, and other expected media like comic books meant to further flesh out the world.
What makes Overwatch so fun to play out of the box though is that it’s as hard as you want to make it. The various heroes have different difficulty ratings, so even if you’re completely new to shooters you should be able to pick it up relatively easily (try Soldier 76 or Reinhardt!). To help with that, the game provides a cute little introductory tutorial when you first load it, and at any time you’re free to play with other players against AI to practice your skills or learn a new hero. The community (so far) also seemed very chill and eager to help—just make sure you play to the objectives and support your team! Overwatch does so many things right that it’s hard not to love. I’m giving it 4/4.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5 pts
It feels a little weird to be critically examining a shooter-style MOBA and giving it full marks across the board when it comes to diversity, I have to admit. But the artists and developers at Blizzard have really stepped it up with this one and have given us a really cool array of women characters, as well as hinting that some of the heroes’ full stories as explored in the upcoming comics will reveal multiple LGBT characters.
Overwatch got some flack when its closed beta first came online, mostly from critics lamenting a lack of diversity among the women characters that were initially available—as you can see from the picture above, their body types do look nearly identical, mostly differing in the “boob and butt” sliders. While the criticism is valid, the backstories of these characters are refreshingly diverse and genuinely interesting. Tracer is an English time-jumping pilot, Widowmaker is a former French assassin who was captured and “reconditioned” into a terrible living weapon (with a drastically slowed heart that turns her skin blue—hey, it’s a game, people), Pharah was a soldier in the Egyptian army, Symmetra is an Indian ‘architech’ or light manipulator, and Mercy is a Swiss surgeon who dons a ‘Valkyrie’ suit to provide medical aid in frontline crises (She’s a support. Obviously.)
As well as being well-founded characters from diverse racial backgrounds, these early characters are also not defined by their sexualisation. Widowmaker is pretty obviously the most sexually provocative, if you’re into blue chicks, but it at least kind of makes sense for her character (in a trope-y Black Widow way). Symmetra is borderline-sexualized for sure, without there really being an explanation for it (India is hot?) Conversely though, Pharah and Mercy are both wearing what amount to partial mech suits, and Tracer is equipped with gear that really makes her more cute and fun than blatantly sexualized.
What’s really given me faith in Overwatch delivering on the diversity front, though, is Blizzard’s reaction to the criticism about the lack of body diversity. Instead of doubling down on the Barbie archetypes seen above, Blizzard took into consideration the very valid opposition they were facing and released three new women characters that became playable in the open beta.
Mei is a Chinese scientist who uses a freeze-gun in defense of her team, Zarya was a Siberian bodybuilder and strong woman who now serves Overwatch (the organization) as a soldier, and D.Va is a Korean professional gamer who uses her gaming skills to control a giant mech suit that she can vault out of and explode from a safe distance. She’s basically a gamer controlling a Gundam, which I for one have definitely daydreamed about. (Ashley, the mooses are all jacked up on maple syrup and are attacking PEI! We need you, because of your 1337 gamer skillz, to pilot this hot pink Gundam and take them out!)
Given how well Blizzard’s Overwatch team has done so far, both in terms of diversity and just making a super rad game, I’m really looking forward to the game’s release on May 24th. Go forth and collect loot boxes!
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