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Diversity and Representation in Overwatch Part 1

Lin

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Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan once stated that the creative team “cared about creating a game… where everybody felt welcome.” This article will cover diversity within the game and how it changed from launch to present, using the metric of which heroes’ design elements fall prey to or avoid harmful stereotypes of the groups they represent. The 4 new heroes are compared to the original 21 to see whether designs have improved or fallen short in relation to fans’ most commonly voiced concerns. Overwatch has attracted a very diverse fanbase, so I reference opinions and analysis from those who are being represented by the character in question as much as possible.

This is Part 1, covering gender, race, nationality, and ethnicity.

Gender

The most recognizable aspect of diversity within this game is gender. While I view gender as a complex and multidimensional spectrum, games from big publishers still typically present it as binary, with exceptions made only for non-human entities. Overwatch definitely falls into this category.

At launch, 38% of the available heroes were female, 57% were male, and one was genderless. Two of them, Zenyatta and Bastion, are omnics (sentient robots). I counted Zenyatta as male but not Bastion due to the pronouns used in the official Overwatch bios, as well as this tweet by lead writer Michael Chu. Bastion, as noted in the tweet, is genderless. While the acknowledgement is nice and keeps the line-up from being completely binary, it would be better to see non-binary heroes who are human. A female to male ratio of 2:3 is better than many FPS games out there, but hardly groundbreaking.

The new heroes help even the numbers. Ana, Sombra, and Orisa are all female, and Doomfist is the only male. That makes the current lineup 44% female, 52% male, and 1 genderless. That’s almost half and half (11 vs 13). While I personally don’t find a difference of one or two heroes significant with a lineup as big as Overwatch’s, I do think the diversity within each gender falls a little short. Age and body type, for example, are much more limited among female characters than male characters.

Even face shapes are pretty similar, but I’ll cover this in more detail in Part 2.

Overwatch heroes arranged by gender

Colored boxes indicate heroes available at launch.

Race

Notably, all four of the new heroes are people of color, so racial diversity is clearly a conscious choice for the Overwatch team. While racial lines can sometimes be tricky with real people, in Overwatch it’s more straightforward with a couple of exceptions.

The lineup at launch included 8 clear examples of people of color: 4 women and 4 men, with 2 ambiguous cases, Roadhog and Zenyatta. The main criterion I used here was consistency of cues in each hero’s design elements. I counted Reaper as a man of color, because his design elements point to it and do not contradict each other. His Origins skin depicts him before his transformation, and he has obviously dark skin. His voice actor for the U.S. version appears to be a man of color as well. Although Zenyatta’s voice actor is also a man of color, I did not count him because, as an omnic, he does not have a skin color. Furthermore, his alternate skin designs borrow from several different cultures instead of one consistent one.

Similarly, I did not count Roadhog. Though there is a strong case for him being a man of color—the mixing of different cultural cues, reliance on stereotypical depictions, and appearance of darker skin in one of his skins complicates things. I’ll discuss culturally conscious depictions in more detail in the “Ethnicity” section.

Overwatch heroes arranged by race and gender

Colored boxes indicate heroes available at launch.

The current lineup of heroes features 7 women of color and 5 men of color, for a total of 12 people of color out of 25 heroes. That’s nearly half the available heroes. “Race”, from a global perspective is pretty fuzzy, so it’s hard to say if it’s representative of world demographics. If nothing else, it’s a nice change of pace from “grizzly white guy #5765”, particularly when it comes to FPS games. Better yet, none of the new heroes fall into the ambiguous category the way Zenyatta or Roadhog do.

My one concern is that the balance is skewed toward women of color over men of color at the moment. A difference of two isn’t huge, but hopefully it’s something the development team will keep in mind as they continue introducing characters. Alternatively, if they clarify the backgrounds of Zenyatta and Roadhog, it will be perfectly even, but I don’t expect them to.

Nationality

Overwatch is set on a future version of Earth and specifically elicits a global theme in its maps, heroes, and backstory for the Overwatch coalition itself. Therefore, geographical distribution should be a priority for the development team.

At launch, 3 heroes were from North America, 6 from Europe, 6 from Asia, 2 from Australia, 1 from Africa, and 1 from South America. The starting lineup was heavily weighted toward North America, Europe, and Asia. These three regions comprised 71% of all heroes. Only one hero each from Africa and South America seems woefully inadequate considering those are entire continents composed of countless diverse countries.

Central America had no representation at all at launch. This is even worse when race is taken into account. Of the 10 heroes from the U.S., Europe, and Australia, Reaper was the only person of color (and possibly Roadhog as discussed previously). This is disappointing because representation like this perpetuates the idea that these regions are composed solely of white people, which simply isn’t true. When I was teaching in rural Japan, most students imagined “Americans” exclusively as blond-haired, blue-eyed, gun-toting people.

East Asia was also over-represented, with 4 out of the 6 heroes from Asia hailing from the east and being fair-skinned. As much as I love seeing East Asian representation, there is so much more to Asia than Korea, China, and Japan. There are darker-skinned people, especially in Southeast Asia, for example. In general, Blizzard’s decisions of which heroes hail from which countries reinforces assumptions about what people in each country look like.

Heroes arranged by continent of origin

Colored boxes indicate heroes available at launch.

The new heroes do nothing to dispel this, since they are all people of color from nations where they are the majority. They do, however, add some geographical diversity with Ana from Egypt, Orisa from a fictional city in West Africa, Doomfist from Nigeria, and Sombra from Mexico. This brings the tally up to at least one hero for every continent excluding Antarctica. Antarctica is woven into the story as the Ecopoint: Antarctica map, where Mei conducted climatology research.

The coverage for Africa has certainly improved, but it’d be great to see some heroes whose race and nationality break some stereotypes. For instance, South America would benefit from more heroes that reflect the many nations and ethnicities that exist there. That said, it would take careful planning on Blizzard’s part to maintain or improve the balance of racial and national diversity while doing so. For example, some Argentinians are ethnically Chinese, but East Asian ethnicities are already over represented. Any hero of color from the US or a European nation would contribute further to the disproportionately high number of heroes from those areas.  It’s certainly a delicate balance.

Ethnicity

First, some context. In general, most of Blizzard’s early character designs in Overwatch are cartoony, exaggerated caricatures. This is true across all heroes and seems intentional as part of the goofy and larger-than-life appeal of the game.

McCree is a walking cowboy stereotype. Hanzo is a dragon-powered, bow-wielding assassin in the midst of Overwatch’s futuristic weaponry. Zenyatta is a vaguely Asian, mystical guru with fortune cookie voicelines. However, Reinhardt, Torbjorn, and Widowmaker are all just as comically stereotypical of U.S. views of people from their respective countries. It’s one thing to depict a marginalized group in a way that reinforces stereotypes, leading to fetishization or othering (or both), and quite another when the group is widely accepted and depicted diversely in media. There are plenty of articles that discuss these issues in greater detail, such as this, this strongly worded one with good details about racial stereotypes, and this excellent post by tumblr user Tabine about Symmetra specifically.

Blizzard seems to have taken note of criticisms here, with newer heroes being much more nuanced while still fitting the fun and cartoony atmosphere of the game.

Ana, for example, gets to be a tough and capable leader, while also being nurturing and protective. Criticisms of Pharah included her lack of Arabic lines; Blizzard found someone who could voice Egyptian Arabic lines for Ana. She is not only a mother but also a soldier, and as far as I know, does not fall into any troubling stereotypes related to her background. Sombra likewise, is undeniably Mexican and a hacking genius, who hasn’t stirred any serious controversies.

On the omnic side of things, Orisa is a dramatic improvement over Zenyatta. It’s clear what her origins are despite her fictional location, and Efi smashes at least a couple of stereotypes as a genius robotics inventor who happens to be a young black girl. Check out this article for more about why Orisa is awesome. Doomfist is new enough that there aren’t many articles out about him as a character as opposed to just his mechanics, but the initial impression seems to be positive. The original lineup isn’t without its successes, however. D.Va has apparently become a feminist icon in her home country.

Conclusion

The size of Overwatch‘s hero list gives Blizzard room to design characters that represent many different experiences around the world. Mistakes have definitely been made in trying to make those designs “welcoming” the way that the team hoped, but progress has been made too. The design choices for newer characters reflect an awareness of fans’ criticisms and a greater effort to research the cultural backgrounds used.

There’s still plenty of room for growth, but Blizzard has shown it’s willing to learn.


Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Lin

Lin is a hopelessly nerdy tinkerer. They love to pull things apart and examine the how and why of everything from gadgets to media. Cares deeply about intersectional issues.

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Ангелина (Angelina)LinFarah Recent comment authors
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Looking at the list of Overwatch characters according to nationality puts some things into a better perspective now. If Blizzard would consider adding another human character from North America or Europe, I hope that person would be non-white. Reaper’s the only one and his default design is generic enough that people who never seen his Blackwatch skin would probably default to him being white too. A black woman or a Hawaiian are often suggestions from people whenever the topic of diversity comes out, so hopefully Blizzard taps into that soon. But as a Southeast Asian, I honestly think that Central… Read more »

Ангелина (Angelina)
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Ангелина (Angelina)

I’d give much for a representation of Central Asia, somewhat from former Soviet Union (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan…), or Caucasian states (Georgia, Armenia) – which would both add to racial diversity and represent a whole new region.
Alas, as far as I know the very existance of those countries is not quite a common knowledge in the US.

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Bears! In! Space!: 10 of The Best New Additions In Starfinder’s Alien Archive 2

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There is no more fertile ground for a creator than space. Not only is there so much possibility in what we KNOW is out there, there is still so much that we don’t. There’s no reason there can’t, for instance, be a race of cat people,  or a giant snake made of glass, or cowthulu. With this in mind, Paizo has release Alien Archive 2, a second addition to the weird and wonderful stable of monsters and aliens already populating the Pact Worlds. With over 100 new life-forms in the book (and yes, that includes the three I mentioned), there’s a lot to cover. To help get a feel for it though, I’ve picked my ten favorite new creatures included in the pages of Alien Archive 2. Some are updates of Pathfinder stalwarts, some reference classic science-fiction, and some are just so damn weird I can’t HELP but love them.

Ravai

One of the most interesting aspects of Starfinder has been their handling of the fey as they move from the woodlands and fields and into the great beyond. These powerful and capricious creatures are well represented in Alien Archive 2, with new additions like the glitch goblin taking full advantage of the setting. The most interesting addition, however, are the Ravai. Resembling what can best be described as a giant lightning bug, these creatures are caretakers of the stars. And I mean that literally; they are born from a star and live almost entirely for that star and, most importantly, its light. Morally inscrutable to most, Ravai see all life that depends on their star as under their protection. While not deities, their connections with stars give them a great deal of power and can either serve as a high level threat to crews that threaten those in their light or as allies for those who wish to aid their charges.

Dreamer

Time, as they say, is an illusion (lunchtime doubly so). No race embodies this more than the Dreamers, an  offshoot of the jellyfish-like Barathus. Abandoned long ago within a a seemingly idyllic gas giant called Liavara, the Dreamers lost their sentience even as they gained new and vast psychic powers. Brought back into the fold after millennia, the Dreamers are fiercely protected by the Barathus , and are used by the Pact Worlds as seers (despite questions regarding the accuracy of their prophecies.) They’re also used on the black market to make a psychoactive inhalant called “dreamsnuff,” as well as a weapon mod that causes targets to lose control of their senses. Any sci-fi setting has to have a psychic jellyfish nowadays, and Starfinder’s are certainly a bit different from the norm.

Uplifted Bear

If we can have raccoons, pigs, or Chris Pratt in space, why not bears? No longer the great lumbering beasts that threaten low level adventurers, in Starfinder bears have taken their rightful place among the sentient races of the universe. Thanks to advanced technology and genetic engineering, Uplifted Bears are as intelligent as any human. They serve all sorts of roles, but they’re naturally drawn to scientific pursuits. Oh, and they’re all telepathic. My favorite bit of flavor for the Uplifted Bears is their natural inclination for natural worlds, the arboreal and the green. It’s just a nice idea that even far into the future, wearing armor and holding laser rifles, a bear is bear is a bear. Especially since they now have playable stats, meaning you can make the space-faring Country Bear Jamboree of your dreams.

Quorlu

What is science fiction without some of those good good moist boys we call mollusks? Looking like four foot tall snails, the Quorlu are kind of like if Magcargo were a playable race; their brittle crystal shells hide an inside composed of hot plasma. What makes them stand out, however, is the fact that they are essentially space millennials. Unable to maintain a permanent home thanks to the volatile geology of their homeworld, they value community and experiences above material possessions. They prefer to be explorers or diplomats thanks to their abhorrence for war, but in pinch they can be tough fighters with a knack for explosives. They also love to sing. Like the Uplifted Bear, the Quorlu is a fully playable race in Alien Archive 2, but are better suited for more supportive roles on the ship’s crew.

 

Living Apocalypse

Science-fiction settings have the unique ability to make things bigger and more epic than they are. But when you take Pathfinder, which already has such things as crystal dragons and living mountains, and move it to space…things get a little crazy. Like,say, a 30 foot tall radioactive smoke monster. The Living Apocalypse is the ultimate representation of sci-fi technology run amok. Born from a massive release of destructive energy i.e the use of a doomsday weapon or a planet’s energy grid exploding. Chaotic evil and driven only to destroy, it ravages its surroundings until all life is extinguished. They are usually avoided, but are known to produce crystals that can go for nearly a million credits on the galactic market. The creation of a Living Apocalypse frequently leads to a sort of “gold rush” scour its wake for their chance to strike it rich. Finally, when all of the life around it is extinguished, it goes dormant, waiting for some hapless space explorer or colonist to wake it back up.   It’s basically a space age version of the Terrasque and it’s pretty damn cool.

Calecor

While there is a great deal of destruction and evil among the stars, there is beauty also. The Calecor is in many ways the counterpart and opposite of the Living Apocalypse. They are a fey (that’s right, it’s another space fairy) born from planetary catastrophic, when the millions of souls silenced by war, climate change, or Peter Cushing, rend a hole in the material plane. Born from their anguish, the Calecor is both guardian and healer of the planet that birthed them. They have some neat abilities that reflect their connection with the planet, like a psychic attack that lets them project the planet’s torment into the mind of another. It’s hard to tell if a crew will want to meet a Calecor or not, but I suppose that depends more on the crew than the Calecor.

 

Colour Out Of Space

Along with the cruel and enigmatic Mi-Go, the Colour Out Of Space is one of the two homages to H. P. Lovecraft contained within this book coming from his 1927 story of the same name. Like in that tale, the Colour (and yes, you have to include the U or else Howard will manifest in your house physically and call you an old time-y slur) is just what it sounds like: a particularly intelligent and malevolent hue that appears to the naked eye as a constantly shifts through colors that don’t technically exist. It’s undetectable and unable to be communicated with as it travels through space, crash landing on planets to feed on the life that resides there. The things it doesn’t disintegrate are instead horrifically mutated by its very touch, and that includes your player characters.  Any that become “colour-blighted” must fix themselves quick before they’re disintegrated by white ash and consumed by the voracious Colour. It’s not something that’s gonna show up in your box of Crayola’s anytime soon, is what I’m saying.

Osharu

My heart soared when I realized there were not one, but TWO new playable mollusks in Alien Archive 2. Unlike the Quorlu, who only appear like giant snails, the Osharu literally are giant slugs, down to a need to remain hydrated and a weakness to salt. Thanks to their soft and and delicate slug bodies, Osharu are relatively timid. This timidity, as well as their view that science and religion are the same, essentially has turned the Osharu into a race of slightly damp college professors. They have devoted themselves so much to learning that their cities have essentially become big universities. These Space-Berkeley’s have entire districts devoted to one singular scientific field or academic pursuit.   Their academic and sluggy nature is reflected in their racial traits, that allow them a vast array of knowledge as well as the ability to secrete slime onto nearby squares.

 

Emotivore

The undead, staples of any fantasy world, were not forgotten when Pathfinder went into the stars. Things like Skeletal Champions (now called Bone Troopers), Zombies (now called Corpsefolk) and Ghouls (which are…still just Ghouls) have moved from the musty tomb to the rusty space hulk, but their core identities remain intact. But, like with the fey, Paizo also added some new twists on the old formulas. Like the Emotivores, who are a race of emotion vampires that bear a strong resemblance to Count Orlok. Born when someone (or more usually, many someones) dies in the middle of intense feeling,  Emotivores live only to feed on strong emotions. Not only can they inherently sense emotion, they have a vast array of shape-shifting and mind-altering spells and powers that allow them to manipulate their victims so they will be as delicious a meal as possible. A wily and intelligent foe, the Emotivore also exists as a template for DM’s wishing to create Emotivores that differ slightly from the norm.

Tashtari

The Tashtari are what happens when a dog gets wrapped in fiber optic cable. What you see in the picture to the left is not fur, but millions of tiny filaments that light up in different ways to help the nocturnal beasts communicate and hunt. How to they hunt, you may ask? Why, with lasers of course! Using the “photogenetic node” node in their throats, the Tashtari spend the day absorbing solar energy, and then at night they expel that energy from their mouth like they’re in viral video from a decade ago. While they serve as a minor threat on their own, “laser wolves” (as they’re called by anybody cool), are also prime hunting for their filaments and special node. If a player so chose, they too could fill their skin with fiber optic light and glow, or put the laser node in their hand to shoot solar beams at people like some sort of bio-tech Tony Stark.

 

What do you think of the new aliens? Are there any we missed? Anything from Pathfinder you’d like to see given a sci-fi spin? Sound off in the comments! And don’t forget to keep an eye out here for all the latest on Starfinder, Pathfinder, and Paizo!

Starfinder Alien Archive 2 is available now from Paizo.com as well as most game shops, where the hardcover copy retails for $39.99. A PDF copy of the book is also available on the Paizo shop for $9.99 or as part of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscription service.

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Big thank you to Paizo for providing the material and images for this article. If you’d like to learn more about Starfinder, Gencon interview you can check out my with its lead designer Robert G McCreary.

 

 

 

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Let’s Unpack This: Chickapig

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Mutant pigs, cow poop, and Dave Matthews? I’m honestly as confused as you are.

The game, originating from Chickapig LLC, is currently available from online retailers, with the version in this video selling at a limited special holiday price of $22.00.

*Thanks to Chickapig LLC for the images and material for this review.


Image courtesy of Chickapig LLC

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The Outer Worlds Announced as Obsidian’s Latest

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the outer worlds reveal featured

Ever wanted a Borderlands/Fallout: New Vegas hybrid? Miss speech checks and genuine role-playing in your big-budget RPGs? Are you mad about the Fallout 76 debacle and looking for something to scratch the itch Bethesda has failed for years to get at? The Outer Worlds looks like the game for you. And for me. Oh hell yes is it for me.

It certainly helps that Obsidian is making it.

A new single-player sci-fi RPG (with a dash of Borderlands-style Western influence), The Outer Worlds sees the player lost in transit on a colonist ship heading for the edge of the galaxy. You wake up decades later on the planet Halcyon, which is in control of a corporation. From there, you will encounter various competing factions and chart the course of the story based on your actions.

I know that sounds like typical PR talk, but this is Obsidian. Fallout: New Vegas had the same setup, and based on your actions could lead to one of 4 major factions winning in the end, with the fate of numerous other minor factions at your control as well. If any company knows this style of game, Obsidian does. Really the only question left for me regards Obsidian’s spotty history of buggy games at launch. So long as The Outer Worlds isn’t completely broken, I think I’ll manage.

Add in the dash of Borderlands humor and aesthetic, and I am beyond hyped. The Outer Worlds will release on PC, the Xbox One, and the PlayStation 4. It’s currently scheduled for release sometime next year.


Video and Images Courtesy of Obsidian Entertainment

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