Sigma's New 'Asylum' Skin Raises Concerns About Overwatch's Handling Of Mental-Illness Tropes

Overwatch’s newest hero, Sigma, was introduced to the world on a gurney. Though the video was purposefully non-linear, Sigma had suffered a mental breakdown after attempting to harness the power of a black hole. He hollered half-coherently while being wheeled through what appeared to be a psychiatric facility: “Hold it together, hold it together!”

Since then, more and more fans have begun to feel like Sigma represents a sloppy, trope-ridden depiction of mental illness — even if Blizzard didn’t intend him to.

This week, Blizzard added Sigma’s initial selection of appearance-altering skins to the PC public test server.

While most of the skins were palette swaps or more ostentatious reimaginings of the gravity-bending hero, two of them make him look as though he’s fresh out of an asylum, with straitjacket-like restraining belts strapped to his torso and dangling from his legs.

One of these skins is literally called “Asylum”, and it features a restraining mask in addition to belts. One of his sprays, which are basically stickers you can slap on walls, shows a medical chart of his brain.

It didn’t take long for people to express discomfort over these cosmetics. “Gaming/mental health community: discussion with clear points on how damaging Sigma’s tropes are to the mental health community. Blizzard: lol names a skin Asylum,” wrote one fan.

Sigma’s “Asylum” skin

“I still can’t get over how Tracer being a lesbian and Symmetra being autistic are details that show up once in promotional Overwatch stuff and never again, but Sigma’s mental illness is referenced constantly and only in unflattering ways,” said another.

This is not the first time in Sigma’s short history that fans have raised an eyebrow at the implications of his visual design. When he was first added to the public test server last week, fans were amused, bemused and c-mused by his lack of shoes. So of course, they went looking for answers.

They discovered an Art Station post by Overwatch concept artist Qui Fang, who worked on Sigma. “We decided to keep the feet bare to sell the ‘asylum’ look a bit more; in many institutions patients are not allowed to have shoes because they might cause harm with the laces,” Fang wrote in a comment that has since been deleted.

This led to an initial round of criticism, including a post from video-game-focused mental health organisation Take This.

Doctors Raffael Boccamazzo and Rachel Kowert broke down inaccuracies and exaggerations in Blizzard’s depiction, saying, for example, that nobody calls psychiatric facilities “asylums” anymore, and patients do not go barefoot, even on the rare occasions that their shoes are taken away.

On top of that, they said, the idea that Sigma is “unstable” and violent is especially wrongheaded, with research showing that people with mental health diagnoses tend to be victims of violence rather than those dishing it out.

Stigma is a major contributor to people refusing to seek treatment for their mental health problems,” wrote the doctors. “People are hesitant to seek help because they’re afraid what needing it might mean about them, as well as the treatment process itself.

“This is despite the fact that mental health challenges are incredibly common, with one in two people projected to be diagnosed in their lifetime and only about six per cent of cases being severely debilitating.

“Despite this, there is no shortage of media representation of those with mental health challenges as irrevocably broken and often violent individuals.”

Blizzard ultimately tried to push back against this wave of criticism in a recent interview with Polygon. When asked whether Sigma is an intentional depiction of mental illness, lead writer Michael Chu chalked his archetypal quirks up to the effects of black holes.

“With the idea of the character, we never intended him to be an example of someone who’s going through mental health issues,” Chu said. “He’s really supposed to be more focused on this very specific thing that happened to him, which is that his body and his mind were literally ripped apart by the momentary exposure to a black hole.”

Chu went on to say that Sigma is just generally “eccentric” and “sees the world a little differently”. As an example, he pointed to the hero’s connection with music and how he perceives the universe, gravity and physics through a palette of sound.

This, however, has not been reassuring for some fans, who saw Chu’s words around the same time as Sigma’s “Asylum” skin and took it to mean that the Overwatch team fell back on stereotypes without even recognising what they were doing — that they aren’t aware of the potential impact of tropes that stigmatised mental illness, or that paint mental institutions as scary horror-movie settings.

“Does Blizzard know at all how to NOT stereotype people?” asked one fan. “A crazy/scary Australian, a ‘stupid’ American cowboy, an uptight Japanese man, a South Korean girl that’s a pro at video games, and now Sigma. Mental illness shouldn’t be represented like this.”

“It feels like backtracking for Blizzard to claim Sigma wasn’t intended to have mental health issues, and that he’s actually ‘eccentric’,” read a tweet from Gaming The Mind, a UK-based organisation of mental health professionals.

“If he has no mental illness, it’s like they can use whatever asylum tropes they want and not have to answer for it.”

Kotaku reached out to Blizzard to gain more perspective on how it squares these seemingly disparate takes on what Sigma is about, but as of this writing, the company hadn’t replied.

For now, though, Blizzard finds itself in an awkward spot with a character players are otherwise enjoying. What happens next is the Overwatch team’s call, but given the game’s general focus on inclusivity, people are hoping they’ll listen.

“If this were a single, isolated character, that would be one thing, but it’s another in a long line of stereotyped characters which reinforce outdated images of mental illness and associated behaviours,” wrote Take This doctors Boccamazzo and Kowert.

“Given some of the feedback that many on the internet are giving on this character, we hope that the designers will take that to heart and offer some changes which do not reinforce these overdone, stigmatizing tropes.”


Comments

    Please stop conflating the number of people who are actually concerned with this sort of 'controversy'.

    It's a Pixar-like teen-suitable online FPS - no one is taking their cues about how to judge people and interact with the world at large from skins in an online game, where characters are meant to be outlandish and taken to the extreme.

    Every time the gaming media go looking for the loudest, most 'woke' people on Twitter for story inspiration, people become just a little bit more immune to these sorts of outrage pieces.

    Just stop Kotaku....

      Wait, I might be missing something...

      This read more like an article, not an opinion piece?
      I didn't see anywhere in the article where it stated these were the opinions of the author. It read more like it was (semi) researched and based around other peoples views.

      I do think quoting people from reddit is something you should avoid though, cause there is literally a thread for everything, so of course you can find a particular view on anything.

    Most importantly, who fkn cares? What, are the other sufferers of fictional breakdowns due to harnessing the power of blackholes feeling marginalised? We're at peak 2019 here, people upset about goofy video game characters with made up powers acting crazy, as if they could possibly relate to that on any level whatsoever. Just a bunch of virtue signalling nonsense spewing idiots.

    Edit - Also, the crazy/scary Aussie stereotype someone was whinging about? That's straight up why I play Junkrat, I love that stereotype. It's fkn hilarious

    Last edited 04/08/19 5:08 pm

    All of Overwatch's characters are simplified stereotypes of some sort, so it's not surprising that Sigma would be as well.

    This whole thing is crazy!
    The lunatics have taken over the asylum!

    Someone at Kotaku is going to separate their shoulder soon from all the reaching they've been doing lately.

      Nonsense... They're gold medalists in the sport, limbered up and ready to reach at a moment's notice.

    It seems like people are afraid that the public can’t separate stereotypical, exaggerated, fictional characters from real life. I don’t think we’re all that stupid or brain dead that we can’t see a fictional character like this and then go “Hurr durr all mental health patients are like this because Overwatch.”

      To be fair, the people who care are the ones unlikely to tell the difference between games and reality

    No it doesn't Nathan.

      Feels like it could be the response to basically every article he posts.

    Go to any mental hospital in the world for a week and chances are you'll see something like this. Do people really expect deep nuance in a freaking character intro? These aren't feature length films, everything needs to be done in short-hand and communicated to the viewer in seconds.

    What's with all the ridiculously stupid articles, in the last couple months particularly?

    Just shut the f*** up and sit down Kotaku, what you're trying to do is clearly beyond your ability. Not to mention hypocritical, in your review of Days Gone you didn't even discuss or challenge how glaringly sexist the behaviour of the protagonist is despite specifically mentioning those behaviours. I would consider that very problematic, I could write an entire article about it using that as a jumping off point, yet not a peep out of you.

      That moment when your outrage isn't the right type of outrage for the outrage crowd.

      We should be thanking them for not writing about that. The last thing this site needs is another one of these bullshit articles.

    A someone that has long suffered mental illnesses and spent time in a psych hospital, I love these tropes and do not find them insulting, damaging, or offensive in any way at all.

      Careful, those not affected by mental illness will jump in and tell you you're wrong, that you're 'priviliged' and that you have no right to feel this way and that ultimately, they're right because... whatever reason... and you're apparently wrong.

        That seems fair, they would know best. Damn my privilege!!!

    kotaku is fast becoming the snowflake king, where tf do they find these people?

    Is it odd that I come to the comments to find a rational thought on this subject?

      This isnt the Kotaku US comment section. Thats why. That place is infected with group think.

        Being fair, even US Kotaku Comment section is doing a WTF moment on this piece.

    Leaving the core point of the article aside, Blizzards statement was pretty weak.

    “With the idea of the character, we never intended him to be an example of someone who’s going through mental health issues,” Chu said. “He’s really supposed to be more focused on this very specific thing that happened to him, which is that his body and his mind were literally ripped apart by the momentary exposure to a black hole.”

    I would say that classifies as maybe the most extreme “mental health issue” possible... having your mind literally ripped apart. And if they’re not playing into the “insane trope” then why style a skin with straight jacket detailings. If you’re going to make an “insane” character, at least own it and don’t deflect it behind your marketable progressive image. What do they say about having your cake?

    Is the site going that bad at the moment? I ask because if there is one way to generate clicks it's story's like this, I can not believe that the writer honestly believes this crap.

    As someone who has suffered from metal illness it would never even cross my mind that this would be offensive and I doubt anyone else would if it wasn't jammed in their faces by sites like this.

    Kotaku are exploiting "issues" for revenue, nothing more.

      Kotaku US for sure.

      Kotaku AU not so much. Ive said it before on another article but im fine with these US articles appearing on here if it keeps this site alive. Because there are some great Aussie writers on this site.

    I just want Blizzard to give Sigma a pair of shoes. I can't stand his toes.

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