Overwatch, the new team-based shooter game that's become a major critical hit, came out just in time for me to shun the summer sun and spend hours locked in my room playing video games. The game is seriously fun and has received a lot of deserving accolades for its gameplay and design. Yet all of those raves have been dwarfed by the praise showered on Overwatch for its supposed commitment to diversity—and that feels a bit weird.
Early reviews and previews of the game singled out its lineup of heroes as being more inclusive at a time when the industry is frequently criticized for having a lot of problems in that area.
The word "diversity" shows up in a lot of headlines relating to this game both from mainstream and enthusiast outlets: "'Overwatch' game developers find creativity in diversity", "Blizzard wants its diverse fans to feel 'equally represented' by Overwatch's heroes", "‘Overwatch’: Gaming’s Newest Addiction Makes a Groundbreaking Case for Diversity."
And it's not just the media. Blizzard Entertainment, the company that developed the game, is actively pitching it as a game that not only is diverse, but will also bring in a more diverse group to play it.
“We want Overwatch to be this bright, positive universe, where everybody feels like they could be a hero. That’s our most basic goal," director Jeffrey Kaplan said in an interview with Time. "It’s to say ‘It doesn’t matter what my walk in life is, or the dice roll I got. Did Blizzard make my exact situation an Overwatch hero? Maybe, maybe not, but I could absolutely see how it could be included in that universe.'”
It's true that a cursory glance at the game's characters shows a departure from the typical galaxy of straight, white, male heroes. But groundbreaking? It feels more like the bare minimum to me.
Sure, when you consider that the cast of the game Overwatch is most frequently compared with, Team Fortress 2, looks like this …
… I suppose this must feel like a breathe of fresh air in comparison.
Overwatch acknowledges the existence of women, for a start. Eight out of the 21 heroes are women, with the rest being men, male-gendered robots and one male gorilla. It's also less white than your average video game (and a little purple for some reason?).
When you dive into the backgrounds of the heroes, you start to get an idea of what Blizzard means when its designers say "inclusive," and that appears to be international representation. Overwatch is about a United Nations peacekeeping force; only three of the 21 heroes are American.
But the game's vision of the world is a bit skewed. Take a look at this map I put together showing all the Overwatch heroes and their countries of origin. This map doesn't include Winston, the previously-mentioned gorilla; Zenyatta, a robot who is listed as having previously lived in Nepal; and Bastion, a robot who just follows the birds.
Western Europe, Australia and the U.S. make up a significant chunk of the group, while Africa and South America get just one hero each. Those last two are continents, not countries, with over a billion people combined. You wouldn't think so playing Overwatch.
The spread is easier to understand if you look at it in terms of who buys video games. Here are the top ten international global markets as ranked by gaming market research firm Newzoo and how many Overwatch heroes each has.
- China (one hero)
- United States of America (three heroes)
- Japan (two heroes)
- Germany (one hero)
- South Korea (one hero)
- United Kingdom (one hero)
- France (one hero)
- Canada (none)
- Spain (none)
- Italy (none)
It's also worth noting that Brazil and Russia (one hero each) are at 11 and 12 on the list, Australia (two heroes) is at 14 and India (one hero) is at 18.
So Blizzard is trying to appeal to consumer markets where people buy a lot of video games. This isn't exactly a huge shock, although it is a bit disappointing Blizzard's great positive future doesn't have much for the southern hemisphere.
But there's another issue with Overwatch's ballyhooed diversity and it's in an area that Blizzard decided to essentially skip over altogether.
I read a lot of the story background on the Overwatch characters. It includes details such as where they grew up, what they like do for fun or their relationship with their parents. I only found one reference to a character's sexual orientation (Widowmaker, a female character was previously married to a man). Outside of that, everything about the characters is written very artfully, as if sex and attraction just aren't things in the world of Overwatch. I couldn't even find a time where they mentioned the gender of more than one of a character's parents.
Some fansites have reported game designers saying at conventions that several of the characters are gay, so why be coy about it? Blizzard is clearly leaving a door open here, but it would probably be better if they just walked through it already. The game's director wants players to see themselves in the universe, but right now there's not much for LGBT players to see.
Those players, finding themselves bereft of concrete representation in the game, have had to use their imaginations. There has been some great shipping and fan-art.
At the same time, though, Overwatch's wishy-washy approach has given more homophobic gamers wiggle room to claim that, since there's no explicit mention of sexuality for most of the characters, we shouldn't be talking about the subject at all.
If Blizzard's enjoyed the free publicity they've been getting in the media about their inclusive and diverse game, it's time for them to stop stalling. The game's been out for two weeks. It is, as the character McCree would say as he repeatedly shoots you down, high noon. There's never been a better time.