Virtual Conduits: How Overwatch’s Inclusivity Promotes Hope

11 min readJun 15, 2017

Jeff Kaplan and the Overwatch team lead the charge for inclusivity within the gaming industry. How did Blizzard pull this off?

Tracer, Overwatch’s flagship hero, sporting the recently-released Graffiti skin / Verge

Crafted from the broken pieces of Titan, Overwatch is a brave approach that became the most successful video game release of 2016. Inclusivity and giving hope for a better, more welcoming atmosphere within a virtual game universe were the main underlying goals of Overwatch, says Jeff Kaplan.

I think diversity is a beautiful end result that you get when you embrace inclusivity and open mindedness.

Kaplan’s quote above is the observation of a masterpiece in modern gaming that resulted from extreme risk. Overwatch proudly leads the slowly-growing shift of acceptance within the modern gaming industry through several clever techniques.

LGBTQ In Overwatch: On the Right Track

A clever move by Blizzard, and one that caught a lot of players and fans alike off guard — Overwatch’s flagship hero, Tracer, is gay.

LGBTQ acceptance in society, behind the monitors of our computers, is an extremely touchy topic; hot to the touch, and something many feel uncomfortable speaking about. Progressing slowly each day, it’s something that has evolved over time and continues to do so. Far too often do we judge or label individuals based on their sexual orientation, an aspect of another human’s life that shouldn’t impede on our own whatsoever.

The pioneer. / Moby

Throughout gaming history, themes of acceptance have been attempted, but never at such a massive industry scale as Overwatch’s, nor with the reach. Dating all the way back to ’86 with Moonmist, the idea of subtly including LGBTQ elements within game play is far from innovative — it’s the technique and approach that deserves due credit.

There are other examples that have worked worth noting, however. Dragon Age: Inquisition made it clear that LGBTQ was something they were willing to progress towards in ‘14. Summoning Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi, a character reviewed and built by developers in tandem with the LGBTQ community, BioWare pushed forward and received a very positive reception for their in-game depiction of Krem as a transgender individual.

In-game dialogue of Krem.

The Last of Us also went ahead and took on this challenge of appropriately and respectfully pushing the message of acceptance. Ellie is heavily implied to be lesbian throughout in-game dialogue, although Naughty Dog stated that it should be up to the players to decide for themselves. A narrative throughout the game evident enough to convey a strong message, yet subtle enough to prevent distraction from the main story. Fading in and out, always keeping the player interested and intrigued.

A statement to be made.

Creating a flagship character for any game is something which requires copious amounts of time, effort, careful planning, and extensive consideration regarding branding and acceptance to the target audience. The key technique Blizzard approached Tracer with is genius — making a strong statement, while leaving it on the back burner, letting it grow on its own organically.

Tracer’s story focuses on her growth as a person, eventually becoming an agent for Overwatch. Large plot lines and nuances create an interesting story which hooks the reader in — so much so, that they become invested in the stories of each hero. Growing more over time, players and fans alike fell in love with Tracer’s personality, in-game persona, and overall contribution to the game.

Tracer’s lesbian? Alright, cool. So, when’s the next event? / Reflections

When it was announced through an interactive comic (above) that she loved a woman and was indeed gay, it can be argued that the vast majority of individuals within the scene, conflicted or not, couldn’t care less, as they followed her story from the beginning and respected Tracer for what she was — a human.

This was a genius maneuver by Blizzard, and continues to be one of the best low key decisions made in the design for Overwatch. It supports the underlying end goal, and gives hope for those that may be lacking confidence to be proud of who they are, in-game or out.

LGBTQ In RuneScape: A Recipe For Disaster

RuneScape recently held a pro-LGBTQ event (below embed), against nearly every players’ wishes, and it was a complete and utter disaster. Comparable to the legendary Falador Massacre and Wilderness Protests, the 2017 Anti-LGBTQ Riots were a spectacle of immature hilarity, extreme ignorance, and all-around horrible execution on Jagex’s part.

The calm before the storm.

This is extreme virtue signalling there are different extents to which this phenomenon can be practiced. Subtly through various themes where its tolerable and sometimes even progressive, or live and direct, smashing it down the throats of consumers — Jagex chose the latter.

There’s a time and place for everything, but not now.

Professor Oak was right. It has been noted the event itself took up a mere 7 in-game tiles, the equivalent of a few NPC’s in World of Warcraft, making the community’s outrage more about the message of not wanting this sort of agenda pushed onto them forcefully, and not so much about actually distracting their in-game entertainment or experience with a massive world-sprawling event. In fact, the event itself (to complete from start to finish) took around 5 minutes. Mod Mat K still misses the point.

Will we do events like these again? Well that depends what you mean. The aim was clear to us, and I am sure we will have events with similar aims, although we might deliver them differently.

The critical mistake Jagex made was the failure to evaluate and decide against events like this in-game. Runescape is a completely different beast than Overwatch. These types of events are indeed progress, but they are simply not made for games like RuneScape.

Given Jagex’s size, these sort of events could be carried out in many different ways, unrelated completely to RuneScape. The game is a medieval game, simply not built for changing or the progression of societal issues, in the same way it wouldn’t be the most wise approach for Activision to virtue signal a gay protagonist in one of their Call of Duty campaigns. There are better avenues to do this, if a company feels so strongly that it must be done.

Honestly, what did they expect?

How could Jagex not have seen this one coming, out of all the experiences they’ve had with community backlash? A failed attempt by a Jagex employee (mod) at redeeming the event’s integrity simply fueled the fire further.

Well-Structured Hero Identity Actively Resonates

Well-structured hero stories and backgrounds — they work. The time invested into each hero’s life and seemingly real history was well worth it. It’s implied that a bulk of the story came from what would have been the MMORPG successor to World of Warcraft, Titan, while much of the more up-to-date socially conscious story (such as progressive themes) may have been created while in the development cycle for Overwatch.

The actual technical development of each hero needs to be accounted for, and actively resonates with players over time, as they grow attached to these identities. You can recognize nearly every single Overwatch hero by just their silhouette — a term in the gaming industry loosely referred to as illustrative rendering, a topic that I have covered at length in the past with Valve, and will revisit in the near future. Note the picture below shows 2D silhouettes, while Team Fortress 2’s focuses more on 3D alongside intensive shading techniques.

After just a few hours of playing, these quickly become recognizable. / Moai

The idea of this technique is to enumerate each critical part of a hero’s identity, building upon that steadily. Some aspects include reserving extreme shades for highlights and edges, and creating strong shapes inspired by a characters purpose. Visual distinction and the ability to recognize a hero’s silhouette (or objects such as map elements and whatnot) while stripping structured detail is a key component to the beautiful game design of Overwatch.

Each hero was made in a unique way. Even relatives such as Ana and Pharah, or the Shimada brothers have contrasting takes when it comes to their perception of the history of Overwatch and its past. By implementing so many different flavors and views, players are able to pick and choose who they identify with the most. Dozens of heroes, and more to come, allow for a very wide lane of exploration in this regard.

The echo of these stories and identities are heard the more one delves into the meat of the game, and that’s something special to recognize and appreciate. The theorycrafting is priceless, too.

Foreign Cultures Are Important

Feeding into the trend of acceptance are the extremely well-executed cultural distinctions and presentations within Overwatch. Each hero has a real country and place of origin, which is presented in a respectful and positive way. This allows Blizzard to calculate how to present cultural stories seldom seen by Westerners not regularly exposed to foreign cultures, especially the Middle-East and Asia.

An opportunity for a different perception.

It doesn’t stop at heroes, however. Maps are developed with real places in mind, some being the environment artists’ own take on a real location, while others’ bending reality a bit to create small towns from the distant future. Iraq-based Oasis is an example. Kaplan touched on this a bit in his keynote speech at DICE:

The map itself is intended as a deviation of how Iraq has usually been portrayed in games (war-torn). The idea was … perhaps a better future for the country could be represented.

Ana’s well-crafted Tal skin, paying homage to traditional Korean masks. / GeekBomb

Many players simply won’t care for these small details being implemented skillfully into the game — things that don’t affect individuals personally sometimes hold little impact. That’s fine. However, simply recognizing the importance of other cultures than your own in general should be a lesson we all work towards improving.

Representation and appreciation still remains a crux for some to genuinely accomplish.

The Attentive Embrace of Stereotypes and Disorders

Embracing stereotypes and disorders in a positive light allows for a wider audience to become more aware. Through such mediums as film, comics, or in-game abilities, Blizzard allows for educational and interesting information to be processed by players, at their own pace.

Again, a strong statement told in a beautiful way.

Take Bastion’s story above as an example. A beautiful short film was released, giving a small peek into the robot’s past, while addressing subtly the hint of PTSD.

Real change through virtual means.

D.Va is the best StarCraft player in the world, and female. Portrayed as a confident and strong young woman, her underlying message may be a sprinkle of hope for gender equality progress in Asia. After all, her logo kick-started an entire equality movement in South Korea (embed on left).

There are many heroes that embrace stereotypes and various disorders in Overwatch, but none more interesting than Symmetra, a light-bending architect and genius, who was confirmed by Kaplan to be autistic. I wanted to learn more.

Further Thoughts On Symmetra’s Implementation

Lacking knowledge on the subject of autism, I caught up with my good friend Ian Bates, better known as Red Shirt Guy, to speak about it and clear a few misconceptions up, having been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome himself. I also wanted to see what he thought of the implementation.

My general thoughts on Symmetra being autistic are one hundred percent positive. When I first heard about this, all I could think was:

“That’s so cool! A video game superhero (because that’s basically what Overwatch’s characters are even if Blizzard doesn’t use the word) who’s a little more like me and portrayed in a positive light.”

Usually characters depicted with traits of being on the autism spectrum are shown as weird or negative, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.

Another interesting thing about it is that it made me understand all the calls for gay, poc, and transgender representation better. If having gay, POC, trans, etc, characters makes people of those groups feel the same way I did about Symmetra then it’s definitely something that needs to be done more.

As for the differences between autism and Asperger’s, that’s a very large can of worms.

The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-V, removed Asperger’s as a valid diagnosis. Those who were previously diagnosed are now considered as either having autism or being part of a new, completely separate disorder called Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder.

Many people, however, continue to use the Asperger’s diagnosis. Personally I use it as while I feel my traits would put me on Autism Spectrum Disorder side versus the SCD side, autism is such a wide spectrum that saying it alone doesn’t describe me fully enough.

For example, autism effects those with it so differently that you’d need a massive sample size to get a list of traits to define it, and even then there would be plenty of individuals on the spectrum who don’t match those criteria in quite the same way.

Asperger’s helps narrow things down a bit as a descriptor. As for a general messages, representation matters.

Autistic people can be more than just comedy relief nerd characters and no two people on the spectrum are the same. There are negatives, certainly; I myself have many sensory issues and difficulty understanding other people or imagining what’s going on in their heads. However there can also be great benefits.

When I like something, like World of Warcraft, or dinosaurs, or marine life, or Five Nights at Freddy’s, I can retain a near encyclopedic knowledge of it (these are known in autistic circles as “special interests”). The benefits of this knowledge are self apparent in my case.

Also there’s empathy. I can’t speak for everyone on the spectrum (again, they’re all completely different) but my issues with understanding other people can lead to both a lack of and great empathy for others.

Since I have difficulty imagining what’s going on in someone else’s head, I can only imagine other’s situations and feelings in regards to how I would feel in their place.

So, while I may have trouble with the definition of empathy, it makes me an extremely empathetic person.

Again, positive implementation done the right way, impacting lives of players and fans worldwide who have always felt misrepresented or alternatively underrepresented in video games (or in general).

Symmetra may be among the most annoying heroes to play against in-game (especially close-quartered maps), but on a serious level, she also is objectively one of the most important regarding inclusivity and creating hope.

Hope For the Future

The courageous efforts of Blizzard are pushing boundaries within the gaming industry for inclusivity. Sprinkled in with a little hope for a better world, and we get diversity through a virtual conduit — a video game.

Regardless of variables, we’re all human, and people around the world each day take this to heart through the outstanding execution of storytelling and game design in Overwatch.

Never accept the world as it appears to be. Dare to see it for what it could be. — Harold Winston

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