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One of the big hot button topics in gaming culture has been diverse representation – or, rather, the fan demand for diversity in video games put out by big developers. While many fans don't mind playing a character who is different than themselves (indeed, I don't think many people are space marines or the like), many video game fans have expressed their desire to see variety in the line-up of heroes.
"We've had enough strong-jawed, white male leads," they say, "Give us something different. Something new. Something that can represent the fantasies of anyone who isn't a white male."
This has caused absolute chaos in fandom circles, as the radical idea of variety is too much for some people to handle. However, while many developers do not care about a growing audience of fans craving diversity, Blizzard heard demands and bestowed upon gamer culture Overwatch. More so than any mainstream game on the market, Overwatch represents fan demand for diversity in video games – in more ways than anyone might have realized.
What is Overwatch?
For the seven of you reading this article who have never heard of Overwatch, let alone how Overwatch represents fan demand for diversity in video games, allow me to explain.
Overwatch is a team-based first person shooter game, where players form a squad of six and have to oppose an enemy team in order to accomplish some goal – holding a position, moving a payload, or capturing a flag. What makes the game interesting is the large cast of playable characters, each with their own unique sets of skills and abilities.
Naturally, with a large cast of characters, it would be easy to release characters with identical skill sets or appearances. Blizzard is hardly the first developer to create a game with a diverse cast of characters.
Consider Super Smash Bros Melee, for example, which expanded its roster from the prior game by repeating skill sets. Captain Falcon and Ganondorf had very similar abilities, as did Marth and Roy, Pikachu and Pichu. For as diverse as Super Smash Bros' cast became, clones were always an issue, especially in the early days.
To date, however, none of Overwatch's characters have remotely similar skill sets. This diversity has led to Overwatch's success among both gamers and critics of the lack of diversity among gaming characters.
Female to Male Character Balance
One of the biggest hot-button issues is gender diversity in video games. Many female gamers, while they may love games that happen to have male leads, would desire to have more kick-ass ladies to play as. Granted, there are games with cool female leads – Samus Aran from Metroid, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, and Jill Valentine from Resident Evil, to name a few – they are the minority, not the majority. For every one game with a female lead, there are twenty with a male lead.
In games with large casts, the problem is sometimes even worse. While there is usually a female character option, they are overwhelmed by the male cast. In the original Super Smash Bros, there are no female characters. Melee and Brawl both have four (Zelda, Peach, Samus, and Nana), while the fourth game has eight (Samus, Zelda, Peach, Bayonetta, Rosalina, Palutena, Lucina, and the Wii Fit Trainer) as well as two other characters who can be female (Mii Fighter and Robin). I bring up Smash Bros because it is one of the most popular games ever made, and only recently has there been variety between the female characters.
Team Fortress 2, which is Overwatch's most similar competitor on the market of FPS games, features no female characters. All the characters are male.
Overwatch has both of these popular competitive games beat, however. Upon release, of its roster of 21 characters, eight were female. The cast has since expanded to 24 characters, and all the new characters have been female. That means, of 24 characters, 11 of them are female. This makes the game among the most diverse cast of female characters in video games.
Hell, the mascot of Overwatch – the character on the cover of every game box – is Tracer, a woman. We'll get to Tracer more in detail later.
Already, Overwatch represents fan demand for diversity in video games. There are few games with this balanced a large cast of female playable characters.
But it gets even more interesting when you consider nonbinary genders.
For the uninitiated, it is commonly accepted that sex is what's between your legs, while gender is in your head. While none of the characters in Overwatch has been revealed to be trans, there are some characters without a real sex that have chosen their own genders.
Three of the characters, Bastion, Zenyatta, and Orisa, are Omnics – the Overwatch universe's version of robots. None of them have a sex, as they are nonorganic. They are left, then, to choose their gender.
While Zenyatta is male and Orisa is female, Bastion clearly is nonbinary, as his character has neither been confirmed as male or female (many fans will insist Bastion is female). Never is he given any predominantly gendered aspects, as, despite being sentient and having a personality, he is, in essence, a walking tank with a pet bird.
Blizzard has clearly listened to fan demand for diversity in video games by playing coy with Bastion's gender. Many fans probably didn't even realize that a nonbinary character could exist in a video game without drawing attention. Many critics of diverse characters insist that nonbinary characters would suffer from tokenism. The token gay character. The token trans character.
Bastion proves that this concern is unfounded. Good writers and good developers (Blizzard) can pull this off.
Perhaps more marginalized than female characters, queer characters have been noticeably missing in the video game medium. Usually when there is a homosexual or bisexual character, they are fetishized in some fashion, which reveals that the developers had less interest in representing an accurate depiction of an LGBTQA person, and really just wanted to have a sexy character.
Overwatch has a lot of ambiguity around sexuality. We know Ana had to have interest in the opposite sex, judging by how she has a daughter, and we know that Torbjorn has a wife with a ton of kids, but, beyond that? Very few of the characters talk about their love life.
Many Overwatch fans have paired characters up who they perceive to be gay for each other. There are many ships, but none of them are based on any tangible evidence.
Even so, people were shocked when, in a spin-off comic, Blizzard revealed that Tracer, the mascot of the series, had a girlfriend.
I am hesitant to call her a lesbian, as she might also be bisexual. The point of the matter is we have a female character in a game whose bisexual relationship is not fetishized. That's a bit of a big deal.
Blizzard managed to pull off a realistic same-sex relationship. An incredible feat, and more reason why Overwatch represents fan demand for diversity in video games. This is the sort of thing that can be really important to a young lesbian or bisexual girl – being able to identify with a really cool heroine in a video game.
Yet another huge deal for much of the video game fandom, race is an issue of controversy. While there are many white and Asian main characters in video games (primarily Japanese, as they are a huge developer of games), very few other ethnicities and races are represented, especially as main characters.
Sometimes a game will feature an international cast, which leads to some varied races. Street Fighter has, among its large cast, a black character (Balrag), an Indian character (Dhalsim), and a Russian (Zangief), but, for the most part, the cast is white or Asian.
Overwatch is one of the few games with a fair displacement of races and ethnicities, with more and more being added as the game continues to expand.
To note, there are eight white characters in Overwatch (Soldier 76, Tracer, Mercy, Torbjorn, Zarya, Reinhardt, McCree, Roadhog, and Junkrat), and all these characters originate from a different country (save for Roadhog and Junkrat, who are both Australian, and 76 and McCree, who are both American). A special case is made for Widowmaker, who used to be white, but now is a shade of blue (Widowmaker is French).
The rest of the cast? A multitude of different ethnicities. We have characters who are hispanic (Reaper and Sombra), Egyptian (Pharah and Ana), South American (Lucio), Indian (Symmetra), African (Orisa), Korean (dVA), one Chinese (Mei), Nepali (Zenyatta), Japanese (Hanzo and Genji), and... from the Moon (Winston, who is also an ape)?
Point is that it's a hugely diverse cast from all over the world. Every region of the world has at least one character to represent them. This is one of the few video game casts where there are less white characters than not, and, remarkably, no one is complaining! Blizzard has played its cards well, as Overwatch represents fan demand for diversity in video games by including a truly global cast.
While many fans found themselves pleased with Overwatch's diverse cast of characters – with kickass female leads and plenty of people of color – others found other problems. Diversity wasn't just about sex and race. There were other things.
And Blizzard, as it turned out, was already ahead of that criticism.
Many of Overwatch's characters suffer physical injuries that have left them physically maimed. Most notably, Genji has lost a limb and suffered wounds over most of his body. This was patched up by giving him cybernetic enhancements, but not every character has such an advanced means of bouncing back from losing limbs.
Take Junkrat. Junkrat is missing a leg. He replaced it with a peg, and this affects Junkrat's moving animation. When you play him, he literally hobbles across the arena, bouncing up and down, giving Junkrat a very noticeable walking pattern.
But physical injuries – physical disabilities – they've appeared in games before. What about characters with nonphysical difficulties? What about neurodiversity?
Fans speculated for awhile if Symmetra was on the autistic spectrum. She is a technological savant who has difficulty seeing other perspectives than her own, which leads to her being a well-intentioned extremist hellbent on improving the world through order. Many fans thought that there were autistic traits about her.
Turns out, Blizzard confirmed that, yes, she is on the autistic spectrum.
Again, Overwatch represents fan demand for diversity in video games. We have a character who is autistic who is not a Rain Man-inspired sterotype, not a loser character, and yet still possesses autistic traits. For many fans of the game, they considered this another win for Blizzard.
But it's time we hit one of the hardest points of diversity. One thing that Blizzard, early on in development, actually got criticized for. And, again, another big thing that a lot of female gamers have issues with.
Now, body diversity has never been an issue with male characters in games. There are tons of differently shaped male characters. Overwatch is no exception. While most of the characters have a light, muscular build, we have characters like smaller, scrawnier characters (Junkrat), heftier characters (Torbjorn, Roadhog), and just walking mountains of muscle (Reinhardt). There was variety.
But early on in Overwatch's development, many fans criticized Blizzard for their lack of female body type diversity. Early on in pre-release, the only characters revealed were Tracer, Widowmaker, Mercy, and Pharah. Of the four of them, Pharah has muscles. Tracer was slim and lithe, while Widowmaker and Mercy were traditionally attractive.
No diversity. No varied body types.
To this, Blizzard responded with Zarya and Mei. Zarya is one of the most muscular characters in the cast, being far stronger than most other characters. For a female character – and, yes, Zarya is female – to take on such a non-traditional feminine appearance was refreshing.
But, for a lot of female fans, Mei offered the biggest divergence from traditional female character designs. Mei the pudgiest female character in the cast of characters.
Debate has actually continued on whether or not Mei is just a thicker girl or downright chubby, with many fans citing evidence for the former rather than the latter. Still, many fans who are tired of traditionally slim heroines found Mei to be a breath of fresh air. Especially in that Mei's size in no way reflects anything about her character. Hell, fans make the biggest deal about it.
In fact, fans make a bigger deal about diversity than characters do inside it. The key to Overwatch's diversity is that it is organic. Blizzard intended to demonstrate to the fandom "This is how the world is. It is full of different people of all sorts of genders, races, and builds. This is how the world is."
Perhaps the reason why Overwatch represents fan demands for diversity in video games is because Overwatch is a game about a world full of diverse characters, and, by presenting all these different characters, players really have a sense that the world they are entering is far larger than any other in gaming.
Or at least they would if Overwatch had a story mode. Please, Blizzard, more story please.