Yesterday, Blizzard teased a new skin for the beloved Overwatch hero Pharah, an Egyptian soldier who, along with her mother, served in the Egyptian military. The new skin, though, sends some mixed cultural signals: Pharah is wearing a white, Egyptian-style headscarf, but also bears distinctly Native American patterns across her armour. Earlier this week, we asked Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan about Pharah's controversial background, which yesterday's teased skin may help explain.
Overwatch's Pharah's "Thunderbird" Skin
Since Overwatch's release, Pharah's heritage has been a point of contention. Two of her legendary skins drew ire for their explicitly Native American look. Named "Thunderbird" and "Raindancer", they paint her face in red and white and remove her Eye of Horus tattoo. Her hair is separated into two braids and her armour bears distinct "tribal" patterns. Her helmet is a falcon decorated with grass. Dozens of forum posts questioned, Did Blizzard just assume Pharah could switch races because she's brown? Through last year, fans argued that the skins were "racist" and culturally appropriative. One popular Reddit post read, "If Blizzard wanted to make a skin like this, why not create a Native American character that could wear it proudly and appropriately? That way, we see the connection between what she wears and who she is... They should not make the same mistake of treating Native Americans like their culture is meaningless and no more than a costume."
Pharah's new skin
Months later, it's looking like Blizzard is doubling down on Pharah's depiction as a woman of mixed race. Pharah's new skin basically confirms it. Pharah, it seems, is half Native-American. It's a piece of lore that's been teased and, if true, helps dispel the year-long controversy that's plagued Overwatch's Egyptian hero.
Last July, Kotaku reporter and Pharah fanboy Nathan Grayson asked Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan about the Pharah skin controversy. Kaplan said, "Specifically when you talk about that Pharah skin, it's really interesting because the first time that we had seen the concept art of it, we were all blown away... We wrestled with like, 'OK, so Pharah is clearly Egyptian and that's her heritage. That's her nationality and we want to respect that and we also want to be respectful of Native American culture.' We sort of had this moment of asking ourselves, 'Are we being disrespectful in any way?' The Native American parts of it feel awesome and feel like an homage and like, 'Hey, isn't this cool?'"
Kaplan didn't confirm or deny that Pharah is Native American. But late in December, Blizzard published a holiday comic in which Pharah, who is usually based in Egypt, is in Canada. She's dining with an older man. A Canadian hockey game plays on the television behind them. Outside, it is snowing. The community started theorising: What if that's Pharah's dad? What if he's Canadian? In April, Blizzard added a new spray for Pharah's mother Ana that displayed her, baby Pharah, and a man who looks just like that older man in the comic. His features are dark and his hair is long and black. Some fans believed he looked Native American:
Overwatch's "Reflections" comic
Overwatch's Ana spray
In the intervening time, several forum posts have pointed out that Pharah's "Thunderbird" and "Raindancer" skins were likely inspired by Pacific Northwest indigenous cultures like the Eyak, Haida and Tlingit people.
So, on Wednesday, I attempted to confirm Pharah's Native American heritage with Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan. He said, "That's what we're driving towards. All the hints are there, so we'll see." That seems like a yes.
Was Pharah's lore added to quell players' accusations of cultural appropriation? It's hard to say. One strongly-worded Medium post by a Dia Lacina, a Native woman, questioned whether Pharah's father is the "Convenient Indian". She wrote, "corporate interests and fandom demands aligned so they can make those skins 'acceptable' while getting bonus points for finally having a Native in Overwatch's lore."
Roadhog's "Islander" Skin
Pharah's backstory and skins seem to scan, though a few other Overwatch skins faced similar accusations of cultural appropriation. Fans spoke out when Roadhog's "Toa" and "Islander" skins apparently redesigned the large, porcine "Australian" as a Hawaiian Luau dancer. Roadhog was believed to be Australian because of his close association with Junkrat, who is certainly Aussie. But Roadhog, whose real name is Mako, is probably a New Zealander. His name means "Shark" in New Zealand's Maori language, which indigenous Polynesians speak. Roadhog's voice line, "If I wanted to go to the wop wops, I could have stayed at home," basically confirms this -- "wop wops" is distinctly New Zealand slang for the "boondocks". A quick Google image search for "Maori" confirms that Roadhog's "Islander" and "Toa" skins are the spitting image of Maori fashion.
Symmetra's "Devi" Skin
Symmetra's "Devi" skin, which envisions her as a sexy version of the Hindu goddess Kali, also sparked a minor controversy. Last July, Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, who's made a habit of speaking out against religious Hindi representations in games, asked Blizzard "to withdraw the Devi skin in the video game, as it trivialised Hinduism's highly revered goddesses," a Kotaku article reports. It doesn't appear that there's a justification for the "Devi" design.
These conversations are important and help generate pressure against bad or shallow representations of people, and especially, people who face difficulties because of their racial background. And anyway, who can tell whether Blizzard inserted these bits of lore after the skins sparked outrage? That said, Pharah's mixed race is a very cool addition to her backstory, which, unfortunately, we got to know a bit late.