Illustration: Sam Woolley
According to Overwatch lore, D.va is a pro gamer who serves and inspires her country. In real life, D.va's role is starting to mirror her in-game persona, as she becomes a symbol of hope for women in South Korea.
While millions protested and gathered worldwide for the Women's March on January 20th, sharp-eyed fans such as Tumblr user Nisat noticed Korean events had a familiar sight:
— [~11/16 반동결]쭈글쭈귤? (@crumpled_kyul) January 21, 2017
— 이섬이 (@leeseom2) January 21, 2017
It was the work of "For D.va," (also known as National D.va Association), a group of 140 members across South Korea who use D.va as a mascot. In an email, For D.va staff member "Nine" said that the group initially started last November to protest president Park Geun Hye.
The group was opposed to how Park Geun Hye often used the excuse of being a woman to dodge criticism, as well as being deeply embroiled in corruption scandals. In response, South Korea held many protests, and For D.va participated in solidarity with other feminists.
After the president resigned due to corruption charges, For D.va stayed together to discuss and promote gender equality within the gaming scene. "We just want people to treat women as equal human beings, so that we don't have to listen to swear words or sexually harassing statements nearly every time we play games" said For D.Va's anonymous president. The group's activities aren't limited to just political marches, either. They have been holding a bi-weekly feminist book club, and are in the process organising an Overwatch tournament for women and genderqueer folks.
While South Korea is world-renowned for producing top players in games like League of Legends and Starcraft II, those accomplishments mask what For D.va characterise as a deep and pervasive misogyny within their gaming circles. "Korea has such a big name in gaming due to the esports scene but it's always about men, the fact there's so many women and they are invisible in this is sad," mused Dewie, one of the female Korean Overwatch players I spoke to.
For D.va's mascot is aspirational because she manages to thrive in that culture despite being a woman. "We decided to act for feminism under [D.va's] emblem, so that in 2060 (when the Overwatch takes place), someone like D.Va could actually appear." For them, Overwatch's decision to make D.va a top Starcraft 2 player is of grave importance. "In a sexist country like ours, it would be impossible for a person like [D.va] to appear, especially after the case of Gegury."
The "Geguri incident" refers to an extremely talented 17-year old female Overwatch player who was reported to Blizzard for "cheating": male gamers believed she was too good with tank character Zarya.
Blizzard cleared her of the charges, but even so, Geguri felt compelled to defend herself by doing an hour-long stream where she could show off her skills to sceptical onlookers. By the end, she was visibly stressed and crying from the toll of the accusations.
According to For D.va, this kind of treatment isn't limited to high-profile pros: in South Korea, women frequently get harassed over chat. "It is almost a routine for women gamers to listen to insults, especially sexual ones such as 'bitch' or 'whore'. It is a common idea in Korea that women can't play games well and women in high ranks would have reached that level by using hacks or by flirting to other men," Nine explained, saying that it was "like a kind of hell."
Other Korean women who play games shared similar stories of hostile atmospheres that made it hard to enjoy online games. "Almost every time [male players] know my sex, [they] become meaner and insulting," a player named Sab said. "They keep calling me 'Nuna' which is what little brothers call their older sis in Korean, and say, 'Nuna, do you even know how to play?'"
Obviously, problems like this exist in the West too, but according to players like Dewie — who grew up in America and now lives in South Korea — it's worse in the east. "Being a gamer for a pretty long time, I have encountered lots of sexual harassment in-game so I usually pretended to be a guy. I even grew used to the sexual harassment and easily ignored them [in America], but here in Korea the harassment is way too extreme for me to simply ignore it."
She described instances where men would constantly make comments about her being slut or how her "vagina was a rag," all of which contributed to her feeling like she was losing her faith in the gaming community. "If [even] Geguri, who is Grandmaster [rank] gets sexually harassed I can't imagine how it is for the lower tiers." Dewie added.
Even D.va herself can receive terrible treatment. While the character is beloved by many, players I spoke to expressed discomfort in the way men treated D.va in-game. "The way Korean guys treat [D.va] shows how they think about women ... even the way they love her, most females hate it," Sab said. As an example, D.va's Year of the Rooster costume — a modern hanbok design — has got some Korean men constantly trying to look up her skirt as a humiliation tactic against opponents.
In a video put out by a Korean "BJ" (broadcast jockey, akin to what we call "streamers"), he shows himself attacking another person playing D.va and trying to look up her skirt:
Sab mentioned experiencing this skirt harassment first-hand. "Korean men are still try to blow (up) her Hanbok skirt…(they) say 'I fucked her!' after they kill D.va in game." In a way, For D.va is a reclamation effort for Korean feminists.
The importance of feminism within South Korea's gaming scene takes on gravitas when set against the backdrop of the country's general culture. Gamers, much like in the United States, aren't uniquely sexist so much as they are an outgrowth of structural issues with how Korean women are treated.
For D.va isn't an isolated feminist group with a catchy icon, but part of a larger wave of feminist activism in South Korea, one of the most notable groups being Megalia4, a radical feminist group that has made headlines multiple times. For D.va's work operates within that climate.
Unfortunately, much like feminists in our own gaming communities, the group has started experiencing backlash. In the west, we're familiar with right-wing message boards frequented by rabid anti-feminist gamers, like 4Chan or certain sectors of Reddit. Instead of 4Chan, Koreans have to deal with places like Ilbe, as well other popular message boards such as Daum Cafe and Todayhumor.
Responses have ranged from calls for violently shooting D.va fans down, insults, and ample use of the word "megal", a term similar to "feminazi" (referring to the aforementioned Megalia4.) Still, for all of the friction that the group faces, they have received an overwhelming amount of positive support from female gamers worldwide who are happy to embrace this mixture of gaming and politics.
"Raising awareness about this issue could finally shine light on...how serious this is," Dewie explained. "That's why I think this organisation is really good for the female gaming community all around the world."
While some of the South Korean gaming community seems entrenched in sexism, For D.va has an advocacy plan with a vision for the future of women. Maybe For D.va will pave the way for a safer and more welcoming place in games a lot sooner than 2060.