Blizzard May Have Clarified Pharah's Controversial Background In Overwatch

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.


Comments

    'It looked cool' was their reasoning. Cultural appropriation is the answer, with a few weak drawings later on trying to cover that up.
    How dumb to think an Egyptian (who is in Egypt) would dress up like various different native American tribes.

      madadam81 you sound racist to me

        Ah yes, those who think that being called out on idiocy in appropriating or misrepresenting cultures is "reverse racism" because they can do what they want and we shouldn't be mean to the special snowflakes.

      Blizzard has gone into full 'arse covering' mode. Sure it was cultural appropriation. I myself was guilty of it when I was a young boy, playing cowboys and indians. I had a teepee and all! Lucky I wasn't run out of town :-) Then when I went to university I wore a shalwar kameez my Pakistani mate got me from when he visited his home town. Holy Moly! - it's a wonder I wasn't lynched! More recently, I wore traditional Chinese garb in China, even though I'm a round-eyed lao wai, and even had a shalwar kameez made with Chinese-patterned silks. Those Chinese who saw me must have been livid!

      It's funny though. Nowadays most of the outrage is confected by internet warriors ;-)

      PSA - you can still buy kids' teepees at K-Mart. They mustn't have got the SJW message about it being 'culturally appropriative'...

    I remember when content in games was there 'because it was cool'.

    All this cultural appropriation rubbish ultimately boils down to a perverse form of regressive racism.

      Yep. The people who cry loudest about cultural appropriation are the same that would call themselves multiculturalists. The thing is, if we don't share and experience, or have images of different cultures, we have less understanding and appreciation of other cultures.

      Hell, there could be some kid who loved the Pharah skin who went and learnt more about native americans as a result, but hey, can't have that, because it would be cultural appropriation.

        Yes, let's segregate everybody and only let the white people do white people stuff, and only let the brown people do brown people stuff... lololol

          looks like the media is winning at dividing people hey?
          im in agreeance with everything youve stated.
          pisses me off that we all get conditioned to be offended so easily and to the point where laws and such start supporting the mentality.
          do greeks get offended when non greeks have a toga party, ive never heard of them doing so, coz they dont seem to give a toss. i get there needs to be some sensitivity, but i dont think this shit is gonna end up in a happy place for everyone or anyone.

      The cultural appropriation concept is rubbish. People don't whine about non European cultures appropriation of Western style clothes. Cultures are not static. My test for SJW arguments is if you switch the participants (men/women, black/white etc) and the argument doesn't work than the point is invalid.

        I don't understand the concept at all. Like, immediately I want to ask if [the complainers] if they've ever enjoyed Pizza Hut or Domino's. Something thousands do every day, which nobody complains about. But aside from generally being an affront to "real" pizza (especially some of the cuinery horrors they've each created), to me seems like it would fall under this banner of cultural appropriation? But again, nobody cares about that. It's just eating pizza, or a version thereof.

        Whole things just seems dumb to me.

        "White people are all racist and wear white robes with Swastikas right?" is bad, dressing a person in jeans and t-shirt is fine.
        Research isn't hard.

      I remember when content in games was a hodgepodge of racially and sexually demeaning stereotypes. Oh how the times have barely changed.

        Haha, it brings to mind Sean Devlin in the Saboteur (2009) --- "Feckin' poofter!"

        (to be fair, the term 'poofter' existed from the early 1900s and could conceivably have been used by an Irish freedom fighter in France during the 1940s)

      "Cool" as a reason is lazy and uncreative as one man's cool is another man's lame.
      "Cool" as a driving force quite often results in more important elements like story or characters or just having hugs make sense be of lesser concern.
      Cultural appropriation is ripping something off without bothering to understand it and having many errors. Multiculturalism is doing your very best to learn and understand, by actually communicating with people from other cultures.
      Fails in this regard would include depicting a white person as a redneck in KKK gear, without trying to be funny but trying to be "cool".

        Ever thought that your opposition to cultural misappropriation is borderline colonial paternalism? You know how this argument sounds like to me?
        "That poor special (insert xyz culture here) must be isolated and kept protected." is very similar to the same arguments used when we used to bundle up Africans' into circuses and tour them across Europe, or when we made them sit at the back of the bus.

        Being honest, I find THAT racist as hell and counter (and ultimately incompatible) to a truly multicultural society.

        Last edited 21/05/17 11:05 am

          The same crowd that cries about cultural appropriation as the one that inflicts the soft bigotry of low expectations.

    In regards to "cultural appropriation", I think Bill Maher said it best with:

    "How dare you mix and match cultures to produce something new? Where do you think you are, some kind of melting pot?”

    Well from what I've heard these Anniversary skins are all based off original concepts for the characters, so at one time that's what Pharah looked like before the final version we saw in game.

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