Blizzard Says Overwatch Wasn't Meant To Be Political, But It Isn't That Simple

At yesterday's New York Overwatch event, in a rented-out space in midtown Manhattan, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan stood in front of a slide showcasing an old Egyptian woman, an autistic Indian woman, a bodybuilding Russian woman, a plump Chinese woman and a Mexican hacker woman. "One thing that we did with the game that was very important to us was to challenge stereotypes," Kaplan said. "If you look across modern shooters in 2017... to think that we have a mother who's Egyptian... that's not a common thread that you're gonna see," he explained proudly.

Overwatch

Later in his spiel, during questions, Kaplan expressed what I believe is a contradiction. It's something he's said before — something weighed down by a years-long cultural war that still still persists throughout the gaming community: "Our motivations are not political." Previously, at February's DICE Summit, we heard this: "In no way to we aspire to be a political game," and also, "The goal was inclusivity and open-mindedness."

Overwatch

Overwatch's dedication to inclusivity is remarkable. How galvanising — a shooter inside a bright utopia populated by heroes of all races, genders, religions, ages and sizes. Overwatch's world is swollen with a sort of colour-blind optimism, asserting that possibility transcends demographic. Iraq is envisioned as a sleek scientific hub in the Oasis map; the game's bright-eyed poster girl dates a woman. I'd fly a blimp back and forth across the United States with the banner, "Overwatch is doing it right." Because it is.

Overwatch's world is where everybody belongs. If you believe that more diverse gaming casts appeal to more consumers, that would help explain why Overwatch has attracted 30 millions players across the globe. Even after the game's release, Overwatch's design team has done all the right things to prove its dedication to inclusivity, like adding three badarse, stereotype-defying ladies — the sniper-mum Ana, the Mexican computer wiz Sombra and the North-African robot Orisa — in lieu of another chiselled white man. But inclusivity doesn't just mean that the game is for "everybody". It also means it is for "everybody with a credit card". Designing a crew of heroes anybody can envision themselves joining is a great way to make anyone feel at home in a game, and also, a very effective marketing strategy.

Overwatch

Even if it does have commercial benefits, inclusivity is a political act. Designing Overwatch's diverse cast is an inherently political act that, at the very least, asserts the value of different types of people being equals in a group of heroes. It isn't an extreme political position, of course. It isn't the same as making a game that sides with Trump or that simulates being an inspector at a communist country's border control. Sure, it's possible for Overwatch's political undertones to simply "go without saying". Yet, above the slide I saw yesterday, Overwatch publisher Blizzard boasts, "We challenged stereotypes."

This apparent contradiction raises the question: Why assert that inclusivity is not a political design decision — especially when there's such a large and vocal faction of gamers who argue that politics has no place in games? Is it possible to cater to everybody?

Overwatch

After the press talk, I met with Jeff Kaplan. First, I praised his team's efforts to design relatable, inspiring characters that fly in the face of the grizzly American dudes we've come to know shooters for. I also told him he made a sick FPS that I play basically every day. Then, I asked him why, as someone who has such a big platform to talk about diversity in games, he has said several times that Overwatch was not meant to be political — especially since the topic of politics in games is so heated. Here's how he responded:

"What I said earlier is I'm not a super political person who's putting his own personal political views out there. I think, obviously, the game has a political impact. We even saw that in the most recent election where people used our characters, they formed a super pac. There were the [Donald Trump Mains Hanzo] billboards. Whether we like it or not, we've sort of entered the political discussion. I think our point of view — the sense of the game is we're trying to be inclusive... With that idea of inclusivity, we have to be open-minded when it comes to politics. We also don't want to put people out and take a strong stance — this is the red game and this is the blue game."

Overwatch

Yes, calling something "political" is divisive. It shouldn't be, and especially if you're calling something what it is. In my view, politics means something beyond political parties and governmental goings-on. It's a mode of talking about basic rights, wellbeing included, that are tied to demographic and social realities (government is just how we organise that). Inclusivity is a political value. It asserts that all humans are equal and shouldn't be discriminated against because of who they are. It also means that anybody can be a hero, another Overwatch tagline. "The only people that we want to exclude from our game is people who exclude other people," Kaplan said.

Kaplan made a distinction between his team's intentions as designers and how fans interpret his game. It's true that players have taken ideas from Overwatch into the political sphere. In South Korea, D.Va, Overwatch's pro gamer girl hero, has become a rallying symbol for women's equality. The National D.Va Association president said in a Kotaku story that her group is fighting for a world in which "we don't have to listen to swear words or sexually harassing statements nearly every time we play games". D.Va is inherently aspirational. Today, a 16-year-old girl earning the #1 rank in competitive StarCraft does not feel impossible, but it does feel a little fantastical. And, like Kaplan mentioned, during the US presidential election, a billboard advertising TrumpIsNotATeamPlayer.com had Donald Trump playing an Overwatch hero notorious for attracting less team-oriented players.

Overwatch's Oasis map

Throughout yesterday, Kaplan emphasised that "Our first concept of representation was realising that not all of us are the same as players... that was a concept that was immediately with us and it came to us through game design." He references Symmetra and Winston, whose weapons require no aiming. Differences in playstyle, he says, was what motivated their push for inclusivity in the FPS. But in my view, it's unlikely that that's the whole story. You don't just accidentally design the Oasis map as a sterling, utopian beacon for what a less war-torn Iraq could be in 60 years. And, Kaplan told me, "Straight up, sometimes we are putting ourselves out there. Oasis is what we want Iraq to be someday. Let's stop showing it as dusty streets and bombed-out buildings." He continued, "It's not like, if you went to Berlin in 1945, it stayed that way for the past 70 years. It's moved past that. We've moved on. It's our suggestion that, maybe, it's time to move on from some of these visions that we keep reinforcing rather than imagining something being a little different."

What's at stake is a question of purpose. Were these decisions made to push product or because inclusivity is a deep-seated value of the design team of last year's biggest game? "I think we're trying to set a good example for people," Kaplan explained, adding, "I'm not trying to be cagey on that."

Overwatch's tagline is that its world is "A future worth fighting for." That tagline was originally from Project Titan, Blizzard's failed MMORPG from which Overwatch sprung, and was carried on from 2013 through 2016, when Overwatch was released. Clearly, the Overwatch team believes in that message — or its selling power. Overwatch is a shooter, yes, but as everything from Plato's Republic to Brave New World has told us, it is difficult to design a fictional utopia — and its utopian heroes — without commenting on what's wrong with the present. That's political.


Comments

    I'd be the first to argue that just because something can be analysed from a political perspective, doesn't mean that was the intent of the author ( it's a difference between "I did it this way because it's what I like, whether it's right or wrong" and "I did it this way because it's what I like and because I think the alternative is wrong".

    However, the moment you say your design choices are "challenging stereotypes", you are making a political statement. Not that I think there's anything wrong with that per se, if blizzard want to make a political statement that's their right. But they don't get to have their cake and eat it by then saying the design choices are apolitical.

    Last edited 19/05/17 12:20 pm

      Why is 'challenging stereotypes' a political statement?

        Because you are establishing that there is a certain widely held point of view (ie, a stereotype) and issuing an alternative and indicating that the asserted view is incorrect (ie challenging).

        It's not political as in left/right, but it is political.

        Note I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with challenging stereotypes, just that in doing so you are entering into the politics of the situation.

          I think all this boils down to how you define politics. Jeff Kaplan seems to have a very narrow definition: anything aligned to a political party or its platform. Since neither party has used any ethnic stereotyping as part of official policy, it's not a political position according to him.

          I quite like this sort of narrow definition because it avoids a lot of the miscommunication and misperception that goes around in political discussions, but other people might prefer a more broad definition. I feel it doesn't really need to be a controversy.

            That's party politics you are describing though. Then there's gender politics, race politics etc etc. It creates more confusion and miscommunication, I would say, if you use the term "politics" to mean a specific type of politics (Not sure how using a broad term to mean something very specific can lead to less misperceptions or miscommunication, tbh). Hence the controversy.

            Again, I have no problem with blizzard making a political statement. Or not, whatever the case may be. The only issue i see is making a political statement with the consequence of gaining support from those who see it as a statement in their favour, but then saying it's not a political statement to avoid any backlash from "opposing" parties.

    yeah the idea that you can "not be political" is kind of a silly one. When someone says theyre "not being political" it is code for "im being the kind of political that is acceptable or non-controversial to me".

      No. Saying "I'm, not being political" is code for "I'd prefer to avoid provoking a neo-conservative keyboard warrior shit-storm".

        Yeah, I am sure its only the right that is all about attacking others online. LOL.

          The problem I have with your comment, other than it being irrelevant, is that you appear to be suggesting that there is no point calling out online abuse because "everybody does it." LOL

            I think it's because you used the term neo-conservative for people who propagate political arguments, when vaegrand feels it isn't just the people who are so described who are at fault of this. What their stance is on online abuse didn't seem to come across from their message.

            The others are pretty much on point about this. I don't think its appropriate from anyone, I just dislike that you instantly broadbrushed and likely miss represented a lot of people that fall in the centre right to left that just don't like identity politics.

            Politics by nature draw a lot of heated feelings from people, but sitting there and saying that everyone that gets up in arms about it is a neo conservative is really not fair on anyone.

            More and more we are seeing even far left wing libertarians being attacked by the so called "authoritarian left" due to not fitting into their ideology. I think everyone needs to chill out and maybe get back to fair discussion and debate instead of constantly pointing fingers.

    It's a pretty sad world we live in when diversity is still argued to be the "political" option, while presumably the alternative - a cast of chiselled white guys, a couple of buxom babes and a token black guy - is not.

    I am reminded of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau's response to why he has a gender balanced cabinet, "because it's 2015". Seriously, why does Overwatch have a diverse cast of characters? Because it's 2017.

    Last edited 19/05/17 12:51 pm

      The alternative is also a political statement, and its one that's being called out as being rubbish more and more consistently. There are often articles on gaming sites (including this one) that either mention or are explicitly about "hey, how come everyone in this game is a generic tough guy except the one woman in the chainmail bikini?" Those articles don't usually explicitly refer to the game's character roster as a political statement, but they do treat it as one. So-called "SJWs" are not exactly known for being quiet on these issues, much to the chagrin of people who don't want others to question the potential social impact of the media they like to consume.

      I guess what I'm saying is, don't be sad! Things are getting better, and will continue to get better.

        Asking for more diversity in games and calling out companies for perpetuating imagery that is off-putting to large numbers of potential players is quite different from the torrents of abuse that tend to flow from instances of people perceived to be perpetuating "SJW" agendas.

        In fact, it's well known that websites who write articles about diversity and devs who produce games with high levels of diversity routinely have tens if not hundreds of new accounts created simply for the purpose of slinging abuse, writers are routinely doxed, and DDOS attacks are not uncommon. This is the reason why people are so reluctant to be associated with any hint of having an "SJW agenda", because they are well aware of the amount of harassment that routinely results. This simply doesn't happen to developers that produce or promote titty fighting games, for example.

        In fact, the acronym "SJW" is explicitly pejorative terminology invented by the alt-right as an insult and it's routinely thrown around as such. It's not terminology used by anyone on the left and it's therefore quite different from terms such as alt-right and neocon, which are both invented and used by the people those movements describe.

        Moral relativist arguments that lump together every opinion, no matter how expressed, as equally worthy of criticism, as equally "political", simply validate the worst of the abuses.

        No, things are not getting better. People such as Overwatch's devs have simply become so scared of aggression and abuse by the alt-right that they have reverted to couching every opinion they have in the blandest and least controversial tones possible.

          All sides have their abusive cretins that pull shit like doxxing, DDOS attacks, etc.

          In fact, one might say there are people on all sides who are awful individuals and that the "Not my side!" narrative is dishonest or at the very least ignorant.

          Whether you see it or not, does not mean it did not occur.

          I didn't see the moon landing- Oh wait... I forgot that was fake.

    Brilliant Article!

    More articles that go beyond the "this game is good and this game is bad" dialogue and acknowledge gaming's place in the larger social fabric of our society would be awesome.

    See "Pretty Good Gaming's" Youtube channel for more of what I'm talking about and apologies if you have done other articles like this and I've missed them.

    That feeling when you're so alt-right that inclusion and basic human decency is a leftard agenda.

    Excellent article, had to dust off the ol' account just to say that.

    They are good character designs, I just think we need more rough and tumble lookin' tanks; I don't care what gender they are.

    Like anything these days most rational adults understand we live in a global world these days. One of the biggest gaming companies saw a game about global heroes and realised the artistic, gaming and sales opportunity this offered. It makes sense on so many levels. TO ADULTS. Everyone wins. The art team, the story team, players all over the world seeing themselves represented and the shareholders, etc

    Sadly we also live in a world with right wing trolls have invent this lame term SJW. And the moronic noise from all that complaining takes a good and smart idea and make it into some grand conspiracy. Probably the same type of being who complained about steam power and the invention of electricity. I doubt they will be joining us in the future any time soon.

    I think my issue with the article is it's not so much an interview, but Kaplan is just a prop to illustrate a whole other point.

    So it goes in the comments, nobody's talking about Kaplan or the fact the article calls Kaplan 'Blizzard' anyway, but yeah, same old in-fighting from the same usual suspects.

    Play the ball, not the person whose argument is too intelligent for you.

      why is using an interview as a 'prop' for a further point a bad thing? its that form of intertextuality that is missing in current conversation. The ability to see connections and using other things to help explain your own point, shows creative and adaptable thinking.

      When discussion against an alt-right force whose greatest complex thought seems to be 'snowflake this, SJW that'. I will gladly read something like this that uses one source to inspire then own, well constructive discussion. I wont one word slip (Blizzard=Kaplan) ruin the rest of a well written piece.

        Hey don't get me wrong. This is said very little here - I agree with you.

        It just rubbed me the wrong way in this instance.

        I see the 'this is just identity politics' crowd spoiling for fights every week. You wonder where they learned and then thought the best way to use that term.

        Your whole second paragraph is what I was getting at, I want to hear about Kaplan and the guy who he is for days, I just think the article could have made a separate attempt to do so. The 'I don't care who's in Overwatch, really, honestly, believe me' fools are clearly dog-whistling and get off on it, while skewing the author's original point. I'm sick of being dictated to like that and having to be on their terms.

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