While it's possible to play Overwatch and not pay attention to its lore, there's a part of that game's fandom that loves it for its lore. These fans theorise about character backgrounds, make fan art, and often obsess over the possible romantic pairing in the game, known as "shipping."
They imagine former friends Reaper and Soldier 76 sharing intimate moments in easier times, or they dream of rivals Widowmaker and Tracer falling in love on the battlefield. There are also fans who ship Genji and Hanzo. That's where some fans think shipping goes too far, because Genji and Hanzo aren't former friends or rivals. They're brothers.
In the ribald world of shipping, incest is an occasional taboo. For some it is a fantasy too far, a normalization of a reviled real-world act that signals to victims of incest that their plight has some admirable allure. To others, creating a drawing of two fictional brothers making out is simply playful and, at most, the exploration of the forbidden within harmless bounds.
This is what Overwatch fans debate when they now argue about "Shimadacest," a word used to describe the hundreds of written and illustrated depictions of hookups between Genji and Hanzo, the brothers Shimada. The debate is about nothing less than what we consider to be real, what we make of those who fantasize about taboo lifestyles and what we deem the impact of fiction to be.
Fanart and fanfiction of the Shimada brothers range from tame to tawdry. Images that depict the two brothers enjoying each other's company over dinner, or laughing at a joke together might also be tagged with Shimadacest. More commonly, the tag is tied to suggestive pictures of Hanzo and Genji in bed. Of the 255 fanfics on Archive Of Our Own, a fanfiction website, 133 of them are marked as explicit.
Shimadacest isn't as popular as say, the pairing of McCree and Hanzo, which has thousands of fics on Archive Of Our Own. But its presence as a midsize ship that features incest has attracted controversy within the fandom.
Part of the appeal of Shimadacest is the emotional intensity between these two characters. The Shimadas grew up in a close relationship. They were the heirs to the Shimada clan, a centuries old criminal organisation. When Hanzo became head of the clan, he was ordered to kill his younger brother.
They fought, Hanzo won, and left his brother for dead. But Genji survived, and was turned into a robot ninja by the Overwatch Foundation. Hanzo left the Shimada clan and swore to avenge his brother by dismantling the Shimada clan.
It's the kind of melodrama that soap operas are made of, and that's exactly what gets shippers excited. There's deep bond, a falling out, and a reluctant attempted murder. It doesn't need romantic love to be enticing, but some shippers feel like the taboo nature of an incestuous relationship is already in the subtext.
Intense emotions fuel a lot of shipping fantasies. The angst of former friends turning into enemies is what propels the pairing of Reaper and Solder 76. Romantic love, in fiction, is not just built out of emotional intensity, but the idea that being in love is finding someone that can understand you unlike anyone else. In the Overwatch animated short called "Dragons," the Shimada brothers are depicted as two mythical dragons that are inextricably linked.
The short itself shows the first meeting of Hanzo and Genji after the former tried to kill the latter. It's emotional and heartfelt, the bond between them still strong after one left the other for dead.
In that regard, Shimadacest follows a trend of incest ships in fandoms. The ship is nearly identical to two other popular incest ships: Wincest from the CW show Supernatural and Elricest anime Fullmetal Alchemist. All these ships are about brothers in emotionally intense situations that can only rely on each other.
The former paired Sam and Dean Winchester, who were raised by their obsessive father as demon hunters but grew estranged until the demon who killed their mother came back to torment them. The latter was a coupling of Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers on a quest to find the MacGuffin that will restore their deformed bodies to normal and possibly revive their dead mother.
Wincest, for its part, was the most popular ship in Supernatural fandom until season 5, when the show introduced another male principle character. None of these ships are without controversy, but the controversy isn't enough to get people to stop shipping incest.
To fans that ship these characters, that dynamic is the root of the attraction to them, to the point that some insist that they'd continue to ship the characters if they weren't brothers. "It's never 'Oh look, those two are related,'" one fan told me over email. "It's 'Oh, look what a great chemistry there is between those brothers, they love each other so much… I ship it.' If Genji and Hanzo weren't related, I'd probably still ship them. ... Leia and Luke are siblings and I like them both, but I still don't ship them."
Shippers from other fandoms also see the appeal. Ness, a Wincest shipper, said that the Shimadas reminded her of the Winchester brothers.
"Two brothers, at odds in profession and the way they take to it, one slips into a state unapproved of by the other, and an intense codependency on one another that seems to be purposefully bred into them … it's fascinating!," she said. "I think it lends some validity to the dynamic being the largest draw for the ships, rather than the sexual content."
To these people, the taboo doesn't have much to do with their choice of ship. While they acknowledge the incest taboo, they say it doesn't factor into what makes the ship attractive: the codependent, almost destructive closeness of the two characters. The argument that what they're doing is harmful is immaterial to these people. It isn't about the incest, they insist, but about the character dynamic.
The Shimadacest tag on Tumblr is nevertheless a battleground. On any given day, if you scroll through the most recent posts, the common discourse is impassioned posts about whether or not shipping incest is ok in fandom. On the one hand, you have shippers who say they understand the boundary between fiction and reality, and they properly tag problematic themes in their work so people who are sensitive to them can avoid them.
And on the other you have the "antis," who say that it doesn't matter if it's fiction, the potential for harm for survivors of abuse is too great to allow incestual ships to propagate. Or as one anti on Tumblr said, "I will continue to be a bitter bitch until shimadacest dies."
Fiction can be a place to explore taboos, and fanfiction and derivative works allow young people to explore and discover their own sexuality and boundaries. Taboo sexual relationships are explored in fiction all the time -- and not just in highfalutin, adult fiction like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita or Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex.
In the CW show Pretty Little Liars, one of the underage main characters sleeps with their teacher in the first episode. V. C. Andrews' 1979 novel Flowers in the Attic is about an incestuous pair of siblings which begins with a non-consensual encounter. It sold over 40 million copies, and has two movie adaptations.
But part of the danger of shipping incest that antis see isn't just the content of the ship, but the context. Even in Andrews' melodrama, which ends with the two siblings falling in love and marrying, the reality of their taboo is ever-present.
In fandom days of yore, incest pairings did build the taboo into their derivative works -- fanfic about the Winchester brothers, for example, might include the ever present threat of being discovered by their peers as a source of angst. But if you look at Shimadacest fans on Tumblr, it's clear that times have changed, and people in fandom would rather read smut or fluff about a pairing they like. Antis fear the taboo has been erased from the conversation, and that the reality of what incest actually is -- abuse -- will also be erased. They worry that impressionable people in fandom will suffer for it.
One anti-Shimadacest Tumblr user puts it this way in a post: "There's a difference between writing/drawing/exploring a sensitive topic like incest or abuse and showcasing it in a negative light, the way it should be shown, and writing/drawing/exploring a sensitive topic and romanticizing it."
Other antis are less polite about how they feel about their ship. They engage in what's called "tagging your hate," wherein they deliberately go into the Shimadacest tag to tell people that their ship is bad. Tagging your hate is generally frowned upon because the tag for your ship is simply meant to be enjoyable -- even people saying that they just don't get it is harshing the buzz. It's another matter entirely when the tenor of the ship hate is that you're an awful person for liking it.
While much of the evidence of these heightened conversations has vanished, the tags for Shimadacest and anti-Shimadacest have all the telltale signs of flame war that's been hastily deleted. There's a Tumblr account that, for about a month, has posted "Shimadacest is bad and you're gross for liking it" in the tag every day, sometimes adding that they hoped the shippers' families would find out about their hobby and be ashamed of them.
That isn't to say that the shipper response to this hasn't also been aggressive. In the words of one user, hating on a ship makes you, "grosser than the ship you hate." Each side is using the power of shame to try to suppress the other. If you disagree, that makes you disgusting and shameful, and you should stop existing, or at the very least leave Tumblr.
To an outsider this behaviour might seem tame, but in fandom, shipping is serious business, and engaging in your ship means looking at the tag. Dodging hate in the tag is a bit like trying to read a book in public and having someone scream at you for being an awful person for liking it every time you turned the page.
But anti-shippers are aggressive because they are afraid that ships like Shimadacest can cause harm. An anonymous author speaking generally on the topic of incest and abusive ships in fandom said that for them, it had to do with framing.
When they tried to talk to their peers about the abuse they were suffering, their peers could only see it in terms of shipping, even when the author was talking about how the fights they had with their much older boyfriend were scaring them. Even when they told their friends about arguments and emotional manipulation, their friends related it to the fiction they were engaging in everyday.
"I told [my friend] the details over a long period of time, and each time it was, 'Cute, like our ship,'" they wrote.
Ultimately, this author fears that too many derivative works about ships involving incest or abuse frame the abuse as part of being in love. For them, that had a tangible, detrimental effect in that it made them less sure that what they were experiencing even was abuse. It was only after reading fiction that portrayed abuse as well, abusive, that they felt empowered to leave their relationship.
While anti-shippers are aggressive about their message, the idea that people can and will internalize unhealthy messages about sex and relationships isn't unfounded. What if there are people in fandom who aren't leaving abusive situations because fandom is telling them it's not only normal, but really hot?
"What if fandom hadn't co-opted my voice as I tried to speak up and made it fetish material?" the above anonymous author wrote. "I'll never know."
Part of the problem lies with Tumblr, the current most popular hub for fandom discourse. At the advent of Wincest and Elricest, fandom activities mainly took place on Livejournal, an online journaling service. Where Tumblr is freeform and very public, Livejournal gave users the tools to be private when they wanted or needed to be.
It isn't as if drama never happened on Livejournal -- there were whole communities dedicated to documenting the fallout of fandom spats -- but at the very least, users had the ability to created a private, invite only community if you so wished.
Tumblr doesn't provide that option. Even with proper tagging, there's a possibility that someone vulnerable can and will see your smut. Part of the problem with Shimadacest is that you'll find incestuous art and fic when you're just scrolling through the tag for "Genji Shimada."
It shouldn't happen, no one wants it to happen, and if you fiddle around with browser extensions, you can keep it from happening to you. But, with Tumblr's default privacy options, it's probable you'll see Shimadacest when you don't want to.
"It's much harder to compartmentalise and hide stuff from people who don't want to see certain things," one fan told me about Tumblr over email. "On [LiveJournal] you could have conversations in the comments and amend certain statements, it was actually possible to have a dialogue that everyone could follow…. Tumblr is good for art and photos and spreading info fast, but as a platform for fandom it just sucks."
This fan said that she thinks Tumblr has made it impossible to follow long conversations, or even know where conversations originate, encouraging fans to make extreme, snap decisions and moral judgements about people based on assumptions that might not be correct.
"It's just immediate 'you ship x therefore you are an abuser in real life' which is such a huge leap… it definitely has had a detrimental impact on people and on the fandom community as a whole."
The brunt of that impact is people losing enthusiasm for the fandom. Both Genji and Hanzo are involved in other, less controversial ships on Tumblr, but if you're invested in the characters, chances are you'll run abreast of the unpleasant Shimadacest shipwar at some point.
If patterns from other fandoms hold true for Overwatch, people will just silently leave the fandom rather than face the animosity from either side of the conversation. A Wincest shipper said that the damage that Tumblr has done to conversations makes her feel like fandom as she used to know it no longer exists.
"It seems dramatic to say 'fandom is dead' but I feel that way these days," she said. "I have no interest in participating in fandom on the platforms available now."