I’ll be honest with you: team-based shooters aren’t my thing. I’m just not dexterous enough–I get the gamer sweats just coping with mobs in Minecraft, so PvP is way beyond me. Overwatch and me might not seem like an obvious match then–but when a games company like Blizzard says they’ve done their best not to over-sexualize their female characters and to make sure all players feel represented, I’m going to sit up and pay attention.
Let’s start with the good stuff: character ratios. There are 21 characters in Overwatch which, aside from being a weird number to choose, is never going to divide evenly. Still, there are eight female characters to thirteen male, which while not perfect, is a decided step up from games like Team Fortress 2. (There are also seven non-white characters, although some of them are white-passing and/or robots).
And that’s about where the positives come to an end. For someone who was horrified at his then-seven-year-old daughter’s reaction the WoW cinematics, Chris Metzen did a pretty crap job of not sexualizing the female characters in Overwatch. (ofc it could have been a totally cynical move, but the whole thing is still a train wreck).
The most headline-grabbing element was changing one of Tracer’s victory poses to make it less overtly sexual–though I’m honestly not sure how glad I am that they did. It really isn’t all that different to the original, and although it’s supposedly “more in keeping with her character,” if her character is ‘giggly sex object’ then it’s all really much of a muchness.
There was a fair bit of backlash to the decision to change Tracer’s pose. Even though the new version is arguably worse, the very idea that Blizzard might actually try to do what it was initially claiming to did not sit well with certain fans. “It’s such a minor thing,” was one of the complaints I heard. “There are loads of other ‘sexy’ elements to the game anyway!” other said. Don’t worry guys, in the name of consistency, I’m here to argue against all sexiness!
“Tracer is giggly and offensively cockney”
I’m not even kidding. Why do the female characters need to be sexy? Surely people play this game because they like team-based shooters, not to get their rocks off? At least, I assumed so, until I found out that there were over 700 porn videos for Overwatch before the game was even released. Blizzard wasn’t too happy, but this is a company that originally included a wank gag in one of their maps. So is being used for people’s sexual fantasies just a tax women have to pay if they want to be represented in Blizz’s games? It’s a lot harder to find TF2 porn, believe me.
Others have argued that sexuality can be empowering. Sure, when an actual woman chooses to be sexy, she can feel empowered by that. When that woman is a videogame character (or any character) she doesn’t have that agency. She’s not real, she can’t feel anything. Which is fortunate, considering the things I’ve just watched Roadhog doing to her.
People say that seven-year-olds shouldn’t be playing Overwatch anyway, but let’s get real. Do you really think thirteen-year-olds are that much less vulnerable? And it’s not just teenagers. When TV was introduced to Fiji and women there were bombarded with western beauty ideals, the rate of eating disorders shot up–and that’s just one example of one of many really shitty consequences that you get when the media we consume paints women this way. I’m not saying Blizzard is solely responsible for this, far from it, but if you’re going to claim to be representing a diverse player base, you should at least not be adding to the goddamn problem.
“It’s a lot harder to find TF2 porn, believe me”
So what, I want to take away McCree’s cigarette too? Nope, McCree can smoke all he likes–our society doesn’t tacitly encourage smoking. In fact, the opposite is true. My seven-year-old goddaughter is always taking me to task over my nicotine habit, but no matter how much her mom makes her repeat the words “I don’t need no man,” she still desperately seeks the approval of her male peers, and once cried when she was called clever instead of pretty.
“It’s a lot harder to find TF2 porn, believe me”
“But Hanzo got his nip out!” I’ve heard people say. “Look at those rippling pectorals! Men are being sexualized too!” As has been said many times before, muscular male bodies in games aren’t the same as sexualized female bodies, but while it’s not the same, I do think these stereotypes can be damaging for men. Plus, Hanzo should probably cover up. Not because I’m trying to slut shame him or anything, but really, bare skin isn’t a great idea when there are people out there with guns. And yes, there are a few over shoulder poses from male characters like Hanzo and McCree, but their butts are obscured by loose fitting clothing. The women seem to be wearing little more than body paint.
If you’ve looked at all the above and thought “I don’t care, I just want to play the damn game” then it really wouldn’t matter if all the characters were women of different races and body types, who all wore full suits of armor and were in no way conventionally attractive. Right? The way people reacted to Rust’s character randomization makes me think otherwise. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Rust is a special case, given that you have a single character rather than a roster of them. Maybe a team-based shooter filled with women who don’t have Pixar face would be a total hit.
If you’ve looked at the above link and thought “That’s a stupid comparison. Some of those guys are wearing masks! Some of them are robots! One’s a monkey!” Then congratulations! You’ve made my next point for me. Design-wise, the male characters really are diverse. They get to be fat, they get to be old, they get to be non-human. Sure, some of the women have robotic parts, but Symetra’s victory pose still shows off her underwear, and Pharah still has a pretty face and tiny waist. Even Zarya, the token “Look, we tried!” character, has that perfect cute button nose. Mercy is the oldest at the bunch at 37, though she looks exactly the same as (female) characters who are in their 20s. Hanzo is 38. He’s going grey. Torbjörn is 57. Reinhardt is 61. I still hold out faint hope that Roadhog is secretly a woman, but all the content around Overwatch refers to him as a ‘he’. Shame.
“Muscular male bodies in games aren’t the same as sexualized female bodies”
Taking a step beyond the design–because obviously there’s not enough to complain about there–the cinematics and character backgrounds are just as bad. The characters who we get backgrounds for in the cinematics are Hanzo, Gengi, Winston, Solder: 76, Widowmaker, and Tracer. Hanzo, Gengi, Winston, and Soldier: 76 all get an emotional journey. Widowmaker gets a bizarre story about spiders that makes no sense, explains nothing, and really makes me question whether the world didn’t already have enough sexy female assassins who wear skin-tight clothing and are named after a certain arachnid.
Tracer features in the cinematics too. Apparently she was a pilot chosen to fly a prototype fighter with a teleportation matrix, but said matrix malfunctioned and she was uncoupled from space-time. The only other character I can think of with a similar backstory is the angstiest hero in existence. Tracer is giggly and offensively cockney. Hanzo and Gengi both get to do some serious soul-searching in the wake of what happens to them. Tracer gets to throw some quips and show us her butt when she gets knocked down. (The pose is almost identical to Widowmaker’s. Winston, Gengi, and Hanzo do not fall into sexualized positions at any point.)
Absolutely none of this has any impact on the game itself. All this comes from the cinematics and a few of the post-game poses. You really could make all the characters old women and it wouldn’t change the gameplay at all, but it would make a whole lot of difference to the women and girls in the gaming community who have to put up with all sorts of bullshit. Other games have managed to be popular without boobs and butts, I’m sure Blizzard can manage it too. Seriously. Do better.