Blizzard has spent seventeen years relying entirely on “Warcraft,” “StarCraft,” and “Diablo”. So, a new title from them is big news in and of itself, but perhaps more interesting is “Overwatch’s” diverse beta cast, which represents a wide range of ethnicities and eschews the omnipresent hyper-sexualization seen in so many games. This is not only a major shift in direction for Blizzard, but could potentially have a significant impact on the industry as a whole.
An inclusive cast:
Even before Blizzard started acknowledging their attention to the matter, it was clear that diversity was a goal for “Overwatch”. Of the twelve playable characters currently announced—three of which are non-human—five are female and three are of non-Caucasian descent.
Most of the female characters also lack the obvious sexual exploitation that defines them in much of the gaming industry’s portrayals. Most sport practical, non-revealing armor, and seem to be defined by their fighting skills and personalities rather than their bodies.
Case in point; Pharah, an Egyptian soldier with a noble, duty-bound persona and some incredibly badass armor that leaves nothing unnecessarily exposed. No character exemplifies “Overwatch’s” push for equality better than her. In an industry where Middle Eastern characters are almost never afforded positive portrayals, and where female characters often wear metal bikinis in place of armor, Pharah is a breath of fresh air.
What’s more telling is that Blizzard made sure to show off the relative diversity of this cast right out of the gate. Of the first half dozen or so characters announced in “Overwatch’s” gameplay trailer, not one was a white male. Check it out for yourself:
Most games focus their advertising on white male fighter types, or at best scant clad pin-up girls. By comparison, “Overwatch’s” poster character Tracer, is an almost androgynous young woman with relatively sensible attire.
Cleary, Blizzard is mincing no words about its intentions. This blatant push for inclusiveness may well be just a PR stunt, but if the end result is a game that treats all people fairly, it doesn’t really matter why the company did it.
Up until the “Overwatch” announcement, no one would have figured Blizzard for a champion of diversity. They weren’t necessarily any worse than the average developer when it came to giving a fair shake to women and minorities, but they certainly weren’t any better.
Not so long ago, Blizzard received criticism for the lack of prominent female characters in the latest “World of Warcraft” expansion and the sexploitation of the women in its upcoming brawler “Heroes of the Storm”.
Even with “Overwatch,” one can still point to problems. Though it does sport an impressive roster of female characters, some of them fit into the very narrow boxes women usually occupy in games. Widowmaker is stereotypical femme fatale with an unnecessarily revealing outfit, and Mercy is a healing-focused support character with little ability to fight for herself.
Concern that Blizzard may boil “Overwatch’s” non-white characters down to cartoonish clichés of their cultures would certainly be founded considering how the company has handled minorities in the past.
What’s important though is Blizzard’s effort to be inclusive. That alone puts it ahead of the pack in the gaming industry, where such concerns tend to be ignored outright. They might not do a perfect job; they might stumble along the way, but as long as the willpower to be sensitive to such issues is there so is the potential for improvement.
If Blizzard truly intends to be more consistently open-minded with its development, the effect may spill over from “Overwatch” and begin to affect the rest of the company and its products.
It’s too early to say for sure if the “Overwatch” approach will spill over into other Blizzard projects, but there are already some positive hints. Mere minutes before the announcement of “Overwatch,” Blizzard president Mike Morhaime took time out from the opening ceremonies of BlizzCon to denounce Gamergate, a “movement” claiming to fight for journalistic integrity largely defined by a months-long campaign of terror and harassment against women in the gaming industry.
Why it’s important for the industry:
Blizzard Entertainment could be said to be the King Midas of the gaming industry. Every single one of their games released in the past twenty years has been a smash hit and, at this point, they seem incapable of anything but blockbuster success.
This means that “Overwatch” is all but a guaranteed hit. If it thrives while staying true to its stated goals regarding diversity, this will fly in the face of conventional wisdom in the industry, which states that one must cater to the lowest common denominator to be successful.
Of course, “Overwatch” would not be the first game to achieve mass success with a diverse cast. Bioware’s games, for instance, have proven very popular while making an admirable effort towards accurate representation. That didn’t succeed in overturning conventional wisdom, so it’s doubtful “Overwatch” will single-handedly do so.
But the more games that gain commercial success while embodying ideals of equality, the more likely it is that attitudes will shift. “Overwatch” will not change everything overnight, but it may play a role in slowly changing the gaming world into a community that is welcoming and representative of all people.