Throwback-- Overwatch: An Exercise in Character Diversity
I'm taking a brief hiatus. In the meantime, enjoy this throwback post from my old gaming blog. Here's one from way back in 2016 about Overwatch. This was written back when the game was in beta, and it's changed immensely since then! Enjoy this look back to its not-so-humble beginnings.
An abbreviated version of this article was posted at Visitant Lit (formerly PDXX Collective).
I fly through the air and set my sights at the group outlined in red below. If I can get into position before my rockets run out of fuel, it’s likely all the enemies under my feet will get a hard taste of artillery as I rain justice down upon them. In this match, for this moment, I am Pharah, and my ultimate ability is fully charged and ready to be unleashed. Like many players, this is easily one of my favorite moments in an Overwatch match.
In case you’re not familiar, Overwatch is a new Blizzard game coming out this spring. So far, they have a closed beta running, but the invites are few and far between. However, thanks to good fortune and a good friend, I got in, and I’m here to tell you about the things this game is doing that sets it apart from modern competitors.
And thus the Gods of Gaming did smile down upon Kelsey and did grant unto her a spot in the Overwatch closed beta, and play game upon game she did, and it was good. Amen.
So what is Overwatch? Well, to put it extremely simply, it’s a futuristic first-person shooter. Think more Halo than Call of Duty, though Halo doesn’t really come all that close either. This isn’t your average point-and-click shooting game by a long shot. The characters have all sorts of exceptional abilities, which means each game requires unique coordination between you and your team in order to use your strengths as efficiently as possible, as well as doing your best to ensure the opposing team can’t do the same.
There are objectives to complete, such as holding a point or moving a payload, and you can play in general skirmishes as well. After you’re matched with players of equal skill, you’ll see what the objective is and what map you’re on and have the opportunity to talk to your team and pick your hero. You get to see what your teammates are choosing as well, and the game has a handy feature where it notes to the side what your team is lacking. Do you need more support heroes? Do you have low team damage? Are you missing a tank? The game won’t stop you from picking whatever you want, but it will helpfully let you know when your choice isn’t the best idea.
This game is developed to be all about teamwork, and when objectives shift mid-game (perhaps from having to hold a point to defending a payload), the needs of the team may shift as well. Thankfully, you are not locked into the hero you chose in the opening sequence. After seeing how your fellow players are stacking up on the battlefield, you can assess the team’s needs and fill in any holes in defense, offense, or support as you see fit by changing your character at any time in your spawn room. In short, each match is dynamic; who you play as depends on several factors that can change at any time, and that’s what keeps the game so interesting.
I won’t mince words here: I love the gameplay. It’s high-powered and team-oriented. It’s fast-paced and constantly engaging. You can switch between a lithe, pin-pointing sniper slipping in an out of the shadows, a massive wall of a tank right on the front lines, or hang back and buff your fellow players as a formidable support hero, assuring your team is a force to be reckoned with.
There’s something that has been perhaps overshadowed by all of that engaging gameplay, however, and though it might be currently slipping under the radar, it really deserves its own moment in the spotlight as well. Overwatch requires assessment and understanding of team dynamics, it demands lightning-fast reflexes and tactical positioning at every moment, but it gives something to its players as well, and it’s something which most games have managed to fall short on time and time again: diversity.
I am a girl, and I game. I am a gamer-girl, if you will. I’ve been spending my free time with a console or PC in front of me since my brother and I took turns at Super Mario Bros on the NES (and as a symptom of youngest-child syndrome, yes, I was always forced to play Luigi). Years later, I finally got a console of my own (PS1, if you’re inquiring), and gaming has been a constant in my life ever since. I’ve played quite a few games across quite a few years, is what I’m saying, and I think there are a lot of great ones out there. Overwatch, though, stands out to me in particular because of a couple shining attributes, the first of which being that there are lots of female characters to choose from, and they’re all amazing.
Tons of games have female characters, I know, and even games with zero female leads can still be fantastic, of course, but this game’s got something special going on. Of the 21 playable characters, 8 are women. Two of the characters are robots and one is a gorilla (Ha! Fantasy games, am I right?), so if we’re looking just at the humans up for play, there are 18 total. That means of those characters, about 44% are women!
You may be aware of the statistics which state that about 48% of gamers are female. Overwatch is the first mainstream game I’ve encountered that does such a good job equally representing its playerbase in that way. Women who game as much as I do generally don’t mind playing as a man every now and then, but we’ve seen time and time again that if there are women in the virtual worlds we choose immerse ourselves in, they always tend to be the token female, the damsel in distress, or the sex object, and Blizzard isn’t completely innocent of this, but it seems the company is listening. (Not to me, of course, but hey, they must have heard somebody.)
The women of Overwatch are not simply token, there only to check a box on the inclusiveness scale. They are no more or less dependent on the team than any other characters. They do not need rescuing. While Some are sleek and seductive, others are covered in thick armor or showing off powerful muscles, but all are equally badass.
Take, for instance, D.Va (top left). She is about as small and dainty as they come, physically, with a small but sharp voice, but her role in the group is that of the tank, which means she exists to take as much damage as possible, survive the toughest assaults, and protect her team. Strength comes in all shapes and sizes, after all (and the ability to operate heavy machinery doesn’t hurt).
Another powerful character, Tracer (not pictured), is easily one of the most feared assassins in the game. She zooms around, essentially healing herself while keeping her enemies guessing about her location until she can take them out with a combination of the element of surprise and deadly efficiency.
My favorite, however, is Zarya (middle). She’s a tough Russian woman with the ability to shield herself and her teammates, but she can also group enemies together for easy pickings while her particle gun charges up to face-melting levels, which makes her a foe to be reckoned with in no uncertain terms.
In short, don’t underestimate any of these Overwatch ladies!
And, not to leave them behind in all this, obviously there are male characters just as powerful and fun to play. Hanzo is one of the ones I love most. He shoots arrows with pinpoint accuracy and finesse, often killing his foes in one blow. Reihardt, on the other hand, is an unstoppable force that strikes fear into the heart of his enemies for entirely different reasons. His shield protects his teammates as they push toward the objective, but he can drop it at any time to smash his enemies with his hammer, send a shock of fire across the battlefield, or slam into his foes’ comparatively squishy bodies with his own hulking, heavily armored mass, often killing them instantly.
That being said, tough and adequately represented male characters are nothing new in the gaming world, especially in the realm of FPS-style gameplay. That’s why these badass chicks stand out to me so much more than their fearsome male counterparts.
The breakdown is something like this: One-third of the DPS and assassin/specialist characters, 40 percent of the tanks, and half of the support heroes are women. That is unlike anything I’ve seen in similar games. As a result, since Overwatch has near-equal gender representation, it’s easy to fill any role and kick some serious butt by playing a male or female character, which is all most of us interested in a more equal gender balance in games have ever asked for.
But diversity is not just about gender, of course. Another very exciting aspect of the game is the characters’ cultural diversity. I teach English to speakers of other languages for a living (What? Writing game reviews doesn’t pay my bills? I’m honestly as shocked as you are.), and I’m sensitive to the fact that American media often does not represent people like my students (and a huge percentage of the American population) equally or generally very fairly, so I’m always excited to see a mosaic of colors and cultures in media. In that way, Overwatch has done a great job painting a vibrant picture with their cast of characters.
And what a cast it is!
Represented in the game are the countries of South Korea, Japan, France, Australia, Brazil, America, China, Switzerland, Egypt, Germany, India, Sweden, and Russia, while several other characters’ home countries are not named or made immediately obvious. (You can read the characters’ engaging backstories here.)
While the diversity is lovely to see, I must admit that sometimes the associations are a bit overly stereotypical. Two examples spring to mind immediately, though they aren’t the only examples of Overwatch exploiting the overdone. Hanzo, who is from Japan, is mostly concerned with honor, for instance, and McCree, who is supposed to be from the south of the US, is very much reminiscent of every guy you’ve seen in a saloon shoot-out in an Old West flick, both of which are tropes we’ve all likely been exposed to ad nauseam at this point.
That being said, I still think there’s value in the diversity shown on screen. One thing that I particularly enjoy is that each character has an accent representative of where they’re from, and they even speak at times in their first language (but never when it would leave the player confused about what’s going on). For instance, you can make your character say hello to the team, and that means hearing greetings called out in a multitude of beautiful languages. It’s a feature that is perhaps inconsequential in the grand scheme of play but, similar to seeing a more even divide among the genders of the heroes, could mean a lot to the players controlling those characters from the other side of the screen.
All in all, I think Overwatch has done an excellent job representing its playerbase and making this game seem accessible to and welcoming to the diverse population who consider themselves gamers. If you’re a fan of first-person shooters, team strategy games, or a play style that makes you think on your feet, I highly recommend trying it out in the spring!
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