With the release of Overwatch's holiday comic, gamers saw the game's first openly gay character: Tracer. Many of us here at Kotaku, an Overwatch fansite, took time to sit down and reflect on how Blizzard has treated the topic of diversity in our favourite team based shooter.
Before we get into it, here's a statement Blizzard provided to Kotaku about Tracer and her sexuality:
As in real life, having variety in our characters and their identities and backgrounds helps create a richer and deeper overall fictional universe. From the beginning, we've wanted the universe of Overwatch to feel welcoming and inclusive, and to reflect the diversity of our players around the world. As with any aspect of our characters' backgrounds, their sexuality is just one part of what makes our heroes who they are. From the very beginning of our work on Tracer's story, it just felt right to make this an aspect of her character.
Heather Alexandra: I feel like the question of diversity in Overwatch is something we've wanted to talk about for some time. We've slowly gotten more and more details about these characters. It's really neat! But I know we all have different thoughts about how Blizzard has handled this. For good and ill.
For me, I love how anyone can be a hero in the world of Overwatch. But even with all these heroes, we sometimes stumble in portraying them. In your mind, what works and what falls short?
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Why don't we start with the news item?
Heather: We could! There's big news today. The latest comic gave us a look at Tracer's home life with her live in partner Emily. Which gives us Overwatch's first explicitly queer character.
Cecilia: How long did Blizzard tease a queer character? For several months at least...
Heather: I think they have been telling us about gay characters since 2015.
Nathan Grayson: They have hinted at this specific reveal for months.
Cecilia: That article reads, "They wanted to find a way for it to be revealed naturally and make it part of the unfolding story."
I feel that the comic did that. Tracer buys her partner a scarf. Her partner likes it. They kiss. The comic moves on. I think it was handled quite well, although the idea of Blizzard announcing a queer character feels sort of…. gimmicky.
Gita Jackson: I was definitely concerned that revealing a queer character would come off as a gimmick, and I'm very pleased at how they pulled this off. This doesn't feel tokenized, and buying a gift for your partner has a natural place in a comic about the holidays.
Nathan: Right. I think the gimmicky part is teasing it for so long. And then being like "It's coming soon!"
Riley MacLeod: I think they do it pretty well. I mean, I could be super crass and poke at the panel layout: we cut to Tracer talking to someone out of frame and then a whole frame of 'look, it's another woman' as a definite narrative beat, and then we build to a kiss and cut away again, closing out the brief arc as a story about Tracer being gay.
There's a definitely a 'surprise, gay!' to that presentation, but I don't know if it's any different than we'd see in any other relationship arc that isn't established yet. And I like that the next panels are a bunch of different sorts of families.
Heather: I think having something explicit was necessary. Up until now, Blizzard seemed content to leave the queerness of character up to the fans and capitalising on the ambiguity they'd created. Having something definite gives queer players a proper point of contact. It also means they didn't pass on their promise.
Gita: Comparing it to other comics where a character is revealed to have a significant other where one was not already present, I think it could be a lot worse. But I do agree that there's an element of, "surprise, gay!" here.
On the other hand, the two of them aren't having a conversation about Tori Amos while polishing their strap-ons, which was another legitimate fear of mine. I was super afraid that the "surprise, gay!" element would be stronger and also feel more cliched.
Heather: A concern of mine with this is that it feels removed from the game itself. Symmetra's comic states that she is autistic. This shows us Tracer's love life. But in spite of that, it feels largely secondary to the world of the game.
Riley: Though that's one of Overwatch's core elements, right, the characterization happening largely outside the gameplay? Which I think is what's let a lot of the fandom thrive.
Gita: Yeah, Riley. There's a portion of the fandom that really only interacts with Overwatch through the fandom and not the games themselves. Which is pretty cool! I mean, because Overwatch does all its characterization in this very bare bones it makes it kind of perfect for a fandom to spring up around it.
Nathan: Even in the secondary world of Overwatch comics, they have yet to really explore these characteristics they're ascribing to heroes. They just sort of apply them and set away.
Cecilia: I like that. I think it's good that you can let lore matter as much or as little as you want.
For some people, it will mean a lot that Tracer dates a woman. For some, it's like, ok, I really like fucking up backlines, so I'll pick Tracer. Boom. Whatever.
Heather: For myself, I go the other way. Queerness or other traits are integral parts of people's character and being. The idea that we could separate them so easily troubles me, to be honest.
Gita: The characterization of most of the heroes is done in this broad strokes way, so people who write fanfiction or draw fan art have as much room as possible to work with.
Nathan: Absolutely. I do think, though, that canon gives fandom a path to follow and Blizzard speaks through their actions with it. While I mostly like the barebones approach they have taken, I don't think there's anything stopping them from doing a less surface level take on a character.
Gita: This can be cool.
Cecilia: But then how do you toe the line between sensationalizing it and not saying anything about it at all?
Riley: I mean, that's one of the really hard things about writing nuanced queer characters, or 'diverse' characters of any type. How to not be reductive or dismissive.
Gita: I think, Cecilia, the problem arises when you take a step back and see what, if at all, Blizzard has done in terms of queer characterization. And it's just this: Tracer kissed a woman. The rest of it is on the backs of the fans, which doesn't make me feel awesome.
Riley: One of the many lives I lived prior to coming to Kotaku was teaching writing workshops for trans writers, many of whom hadn't written before, and we'd talk that through a lot: how do you write trans people without having them walk around being trans the whole story.
Cecilia: Right, but what's the solution?
It's easy to talk about what we don't like. But I'm just so happy that the token Overwatch character is a queer woman. I think that's great. Blizzard thought about diversity a lot for Overwatch and it shows in the game. Sure, it's a marketing technique, but it doesn't feel forced or gimmicky aside from how Tracer's queerness was teased.
Gita: Well, Heather wrote this awesome piece for Giant Bomb about a possible solution: hire more LGBT to tell their own stories.
Heather: I think an important thing to stress is that presenting something isn't necessarily as involved as integrating it. How that integration occurs can take many forms.
Riley: The solution I always offered, which is going to read as weird, is this: Trans people — and 'diverse' characters in general — are people. Your characters want the things people want, which is pretty much anything under the sun. How that lives out in the world of a game is tricky, maybe, since characters in Overwatch are, by nature, reduced to being able to do very little besides shoot, but that's where I always go to.
Cecilia: At some point, we have to say "Good job."
Gita: Well, I don't think this is that point.
Heather: I don't know if I want to give someone props for merely acknowledging me, y'know?
Nathan: We can still say good job while also critiquing what they're doing. This is definitely a start.
Heather: It is!
Cecilia: Of course! But I don't hear people saying "Good job." I want to celebrate that Dva is a gamer girl who is also an arsehole brat. That's great. Her femininity doesn't interfere with her being competitive and a jerk. For me, I'm happy to give props to developers who think about how I'll feel as a female consumer.
Gita: I almost made a GIF today of scrolling down the Tumblr tag for Tracer — 100% of it is "Tracer is gay and she saved my crops and cleared my skin." And I'm so, so happy for those people that they get representation. I'm happy for me, as a queer woman, to have representation. But I also recognise that one gay character is more or less the bare minimum.
Heather: I think one additional step is to see if they can expand their model of diversity for queer characters. This is awesome. Tracer is my favourite character and I'm very happy. But the test comes if they can provide a less traditional queer relationship. This was a safe choice. Two pretty women. The test becomes what might follow.
Nathan: Roadhog x Junkrat, please. Their love is so pure.
Riley: I want Solider 76 to be queer. Clearly, he is my archetype.
Gita: Is this a "good job?" Well, I think it's executed well. And it's giving fans who were heretofore underrepresented something they sorely wanted. But do I want to say, "good job?" No! Not really! It's the very least they could do!
Riley: For me, as a cranky old queer trans man, I'm super over representation. But I'm very lucky that I live a life surrounded by other queer and trans people. I see people like me every day, I don't need to look to media made by cis or straight folks for that. But again, I'm lucky in that regard.
Nathan: That's part of Overwatch's problem. It often feel like a "diverse" game made primarily by straight white guys for straight white guys. I think the holiday stuff being so Christmas centric is evidence of that, too
Heather: Right. I think it is worth mentioning that Overwatch struggles with other issues of diversity. Consider the Raindancer and Thunderbird skins for Pharah or other ways in with culture becomes costume. On one hand, I do like having more cultures shown in game. But that's a poor way to do it.
Cecilia: True. That one's bad.
Nathan: It's not that blizzard is doing a poor job, per se. they just clearly have some blind spots.
Cecilia: I don't know if we're familiar enough with the specifics Blizzard's staff to make specific claims.
Heather: I think a broader question at play is whether or not these forms of presentation can feel exploitative. Tracer is gay and that is wonderful. But does that announcement merely use queerness as a marketing point? For me, it feels a bit like that is the case.
Cecilia: It's interesting though because, in expanding a game's audience to include minorities and women, you have to market the game to them!
Heather: It's a bit of a double edged sword, for sure.
Heather: But it is possible to pander. It's a very tricky line that's hard to define.
Nathan: I think doing the bare minimum isn't pandering, though. It's almost the opposite.
Cecilia: I just want to add though — I'm way more likely to buy a game if there's a female protagonist. And I'll probably enjoy the game more. And that purchase will make me happy. At some point, marketing isn't sterile. Sometimes, though, it's exploitative. Where do you guys think the Tracer comic falls along that line?
Heather: It recontexualizes earlier marketing, at least. We have a queer woman on the box cover of one of the biggest games of the year. Which is remarkable in this industry. Although, I suppose the further argument is that it shouldn't have to be remarkable.
Gita: A single lesbian is probably going to make me less likely to buy something, honestly. If you're purporting to have LGBT representation and it comes down to a single lesbian kiss in an online comic, I start to roll my eyes. If I didn't already like Overwatch and its characters I'd be thinking probably really uncharitable thoughts about this. I lived through Willow and Tara. I know how this goes.
If I'm going to be looking for stories about being queer, I'm more likely to look for them from queer people.
Riley: Yeah. I've said this to you all before, but I'd rather have no queer or trans characters than just one or just a romantic couple.
Especially in game worlds, which are so imaginative and often full of every kind of thing under the sun, the fact that that comes to be the sticking point really bums me out. Not that I think Overwatch is failing in that regard, or...well, jury's still out on my end.
Gita: And it's not even like I dislike this comic or its execution, just want to make that clear.
Heather: I just wonder if they can get more detailed. Gita, you just played Watch Dogs 2 and that has a meaningful relationship with Marcus and Ratio. It's a differently structured game, yes. But that game can have two black characters who deal with blackness. Overwatch can't (or hasn't yet) found a way to do queerness.
Which is partially because of how loose and free a game Overwatch is but it's also an expression of the apparent limitations of Blizzard's ambitions regarding diversity.
Riley: Overwatch is a class-based team shooter, though. It's not a narrative game that can or even needs to explore those themes to be a good game. So I don't want to hold it up for not meeting ambitions it isn't striving toward in that regard.
Heather: That's fair.
Gita: This conversation for me really can end at "it's cool that Tracer is a lesbian," because I do feel positive about it and I do think it's good for fans of Overwatch that really wanted that. I'm not ever gonna say that Overwatch shouldn't have done this, or that I don't like the comic in which it was revealed. I do like it! I think it's cute.
But if you want to really know how I feel about this as an aspect of diversity, well, clearly I have some more nuanced feelings. A class based shooter doesn't really have to have the level of diversity that Overwatch does, but Tracer being a lesbian I guess... using the example Heather did, it feels less revelatory to me than the way Marcus Holloway is characterised in Watch Dogs 2.
Riley: The thing I struggle with a lot is it's super easy for me to say what I don't want out of stuff when it comes to games and diversity, but I have a hard time figuring out what I do want and how to achieve it. It's easy for me to say everything isn't good enough, but I don't have a good road map for how to get to something better. Which is an exciting challenge in some ways!
I agree with Gita in that way; it is cool Tracer is a lesbian!
Heather: I think the key here is that this is very cool but it's safe. It's hard to see that safeness. If only because it implies a queer relationship in games media needs to be consumable or palatable to a broader audience. It's tricky but you're all right. This is cool and I hope things get even more cool!
Riley: What I want is to be presumed to be the audience for things. Something I've found about, say, trans stuff in media is you get something super explanatory or you get a trans joke because it's never presumed I'm in the audience; creators don't think I'm there, they don't think I'm listening.
Blizzard obviously knows queer folks play their game, but is this really for queer folks? I think better diversity has to come from the idea that people like me are hanging around thinking about more things than just walking around being our checkboxes, you know?
Gita: I hope that the way that Tracer's sexuality can be handled in the future in the way that like, Max Blum's sexuality is handled in the television show Happy Endings. Here's a dude that's definitely gay, and embedded in gay culture, but his problems don't revolve around being gay and dating.
Given that the world of Overwatch is steeped in international conflict, that seems pretty likely — but there is also the fear of Tracer's gayness being totally incidental, too!
All in all, I guess I'm just happy for every young person that really needed to see a lesbian in their favourite video game. You got that, and I know I wish I had that when I was younger. I mean, I know this isn't Dykes to Watch Out For, but you know!
Riley: I want everything to be Dykes to Watch Out For!
Heather: It's definitely nice to have something like this and I'm eager to see where it go. For guys, gals, and non binary pals everywhere.