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On Blizzard, Butts, and Beta-Testing

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Gretchen

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.
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I may be known here on Fandom Following for my reviews of The 100 and my article about acedia in Game of Thrones, but long, long before I started watching these shows, I played computer games. We’re talking decades. I cut my gamer girl eye teeth on Warcraft 2 and the original Starcraft. I’ve played my way through Warcraft 3 (and expansions), Starcraft: Brood War, and am currently playing Starcraft 2 and Heroes of the Storm (HotS). Yeah, I play a lot of Blizzard games, all but World of Warcraft (WoW) and Diablo; I’m not a (MMO)RPG-er.

Needless to say, when they announced the first new property in over a decade1, I was intrigued. Fine, I squealed in delight then immediately read everything they had online—backstory, all the player bios, the timeline for production, everything. The only reason I’m not in beta testing is because I don’t have time.

The Controversy

Overwatch—a 1st person shooter style multi-player online battle arena or MOBA (think League of Legends—is still in beta testing, but it’s awesome. The backstory is fairly generic but still interesting: a futuristic world where Overwatch was a team of heroes that saved the world, but they’ve disbanded and now trouble is brewing again. The animation is stunningly gorgeous, even for Blizzard, which has a history of well animated games. Most importantly to me, they have a cast of diverse characters with skills that I am drooling to try out.

Blizzard & Butts: Tracer Waving

Hello my adorable new friend!

Its poster child is Tracer, a “time jumping adventurer and an irrepressible force for good.” She’s like the Flash and Indiana Jones had a baby, but with Rey’s indomitable optimism and spunk. She controls her own time and pairs a bomber jacket with running shoes for a lighthearted yet casual vibe. Did I mention she’s got a Cockney accent that’s super adorable? I love her already.

She’s also caused a bit of a stir in recent weeks. It all started with a forum post from one of the beta testers regarding Tracer’s ‘victory pose’, the pose shown on screen when a player wins. It’s meant to convey how that particular character responds to success. Are they ecstatic? Cool and aloof? Goofy? Self-confident? The physicality of the pose should convey the character’s reaction and be consistent with their overall personality.

The original forum post by “Fipps” is no longer available (that I can find), but large sections of it have been transcribed in a post on Polygon. It is clear from the transcription that Fipps’ primary concern is that, from a Watsonian perspective, the pose isn’t consistent with Tracer’s character.

Blizzard & Butts: Tracer 1

“What about this pose has anything to do with the character you’re building in [Tracer]? It’s not fun, its not silly, it has nothing to do with being a fast elite killer. It just reduces [Tracer] to another bland female sex symbol.”—Fipps, Overwatch Forum via Polygon

As Fipps argues in the post, Tracer’s pose is more consistent with Blizzard’s sultry French assassin character, Widowmaker, who embodies the femme fatale archetype.

Blizzard & Butts: Widowmaker

Complete with uncomfortable spine contortion, fun!

While I’m not a huge fan of this kind of character design given how common sexualization of female characters is in gaming, Fipps has a point. All you have to do is look at Widowmaker and you know that she’d totally do an over the shoulder T&A (tits and ass) shot on her victory screen. That kind of sultry attitude is part of how she was designed as a character, as well as how she’s being marketed. Tracer, on the other hand, is primarily fun, spunky, kind, and fast. I think of her as a personified squirrel with the 10th Doctor’s hair.

This isn’t someone whose primary vibe is “sexy siren.”

Thus, Fipps asked that the developers to consider changing the pose to something more appropriate to Tracer’s character. Other Overwatch players responded instantaneously on the forum. Some agreed with Fipps, others defended the pose. However, the opinion that mattered most was that of the developers, who apologized and eventually chose to replace the pose with one they thought more appropriate.

Blizzard & Butts: Tracer new Pose

I’ll get to this later.

The Response

Needless to say, not everyone was happy with the choice to replace the pose. Some framed it as a censorship issue: Fipps feedback impinged upon the developers’ freedom to create whatever media they wanted. Not only does this argument lack rational sense—the developers apparently agreed with the criticism, otherwise they would not have changed the design—it fails to understand the context in which the feedback was given.

Remember, Overwatch is still in beta testing. For those of you who don’t know, beta testing is a period prior to release when a limited number of people can play the game. These players provide feedback regarding game play, glitches, balance in character skills, and in Blizzard’s case, how well the game holds up the values they as a company laid out for the game, one of which was to create a diverse cast of male and female characters. Another was to not overly sexualize the female characters as they had in World of Warcraft.

“We want girls to feel kick-butt, equally represented.” Chris Metzen, BlizzCon 2014

Blizzard & Butts: Kotaku

Which makes this article headline/accompanying image rather hilarious and uncomfortable (see here for full Kotaku article).

To what degree they were successful in not overly sexualizing their characters is debatable. You still have the femme fatale Widowmaker and her skin-tight catsuit that is in no way something any woman would wear into battle. She’s an assassin, so they could have gone with a Black Widow a la MCU style outfit and still been sexy.

Blizzard & Butts: Problematic Choices

Clearly, it’s not perfect (source).

Other problematic choices include boob cup armor (though not bikini style), lack of pants on female characters, Pharah’s battle thong, visible and prominent butt cleavage, and a stereotypically blonde angel. All of these could have been fixed fairly easily to line up with their stated goal of not overly sexualizing their female characters, but I digress.

Fipps was specifically referencing Blizzard’s stated values regarding Overwatch when they posted in the forum. They did not go out of their way to post a hateful or even recriminatory comments. They submitted feedback that was requested by Blizzard, and Blizzard responded by changing the game. This is how beta testing works. It isn’t censorship nor did Fipps impinge on the developers’ freedom.

Feedback from outside of the beta testing community regarding Blizzard’s choice was harsher, more virulent. The game’s subreddit is flooded with outrage against Blizzard for changing the pose. Where Fipps’ feedback was reasonable, measured, and calm, the response to the change has been hyperbolic and angry.

Statements like “nothing says fun like pretending we’re not human” and “the entire sjw hatred of ‘sexualization’ stems from mediocre women feeling like they’re being replaced by art” are mild. I won’t sear your eyes with some of the more hateful and ridiculous comments. You can read those on your own time. I even heard some of it while playing HotS a few days after it happened. I asked a fellow gamer what Tracer was like (she’s available to play on that platform), and the response I got was, “All I know is people are mad she has a butt.”

The argument that this is all a plot by social justice warriors (SJWs) who hate attractive women is ridiculous, but not surprising. The gaming community has a deep-seated attachment to the objectification of female bodies. So much so that they seem to have forgotten that Fipps only objected to this kind of pose with Tracer, as they did not believe it accurately represented her character. If Fipps had truly objected to all sexualization, they would have at least mentioned Widowmaker who, as I mentioned above, is highly sexualized both in concept art and in personality.

Now, the objectification of female bodies in gaming is a huge issue, one that I don’t have the space to discuss fully in this article and that others have covered quite well already, though your mileage may vary of course (see, for example Bikini Armor Battle Damage’s tumblr and FemFreq’s series). However, it is worth briefly addressing posing choices and costume design, specifically as regards Fipps’ complaint.

Posing Choice

Dan over at Extra Credits does a great job breaking down her pose from a professional animators perspective, and I suggest watching the entire video if you’re really interested. He starts by listing four important criteria for making a good animated pose: readability, a sense of physicality, visual interest, and communication of character.

Breaking down Tracer’s original pose, he shows that while it fits the first three of these criteria, it doesn’t communicate much of her personality beyond posing for the camera in a sexy way. In fact, her posture, limb and eye position, and line of action are designed to draw attention to her ass and its very visible cleavage (see 15:13 in his video and onward).

Blizzard & Butts: Check It

This simply isn’t the same for the male characters who also have over the shoulder victory poses in the game (Hanzo, Soldier: 76, and McCree). The male characters shots are far more relaxed with a less arched back and a distinct lack of hip sway, contributing to the overall sexualized feel of Tracer’s and Widowmaker’s poses. As Fipps’ points out, this is inconsistent with Tracer’s character.

“[Tracer] isn’t a character who is in part defined by flaunting her sexuality. This pose says to the player base, oh we’ve got all these cool diverse characters, but at any moment we are willing to reduce them to sex symbols to help boost our investment game…”—Fipps, Overwatch forum via Polygon

Choosing this kind of pose implies that Tracer being awesome character with a cool backstory, fun personality, and badass skills isn’t enough to sell the franchise, as she is the face of the game. She must also be a sexual object and obviously so. As Dan points out in his video, humans are sexual beings, so sexuality can be a part of characterization. However, sexualized poses that contradict established personality, as with Tracer, are obviously pandering and actively harm the character being portrayed by reducing her to nothing more than a sexual object.

So what did Blizzard replace Tracer’s original pose with and how does it line up with Dan’s criteria?

As others have pointed out, this new pose looks remarkably similar to a classic pin-up illustration by Alberto Vargas, which was likely the inspiration.

At first blush, it doesn’t feel like they tried very hard. On the one hand, the replacement pose is more playful and fun, which is more in line with Tracer’s personality. Game Director Jeff Kaplan has actually been recorded as saying that he and the team believe this pose to be more in accord with Tracer’s personality.

“We actually already have an alternate pose that we love and we feel speaks more to the character of Tracer. We weren’t entirely happy with the original pose, it was always one that we wrestled with creatively. That the pose had been called into question from an appropriateness standpoint by players in our community did help influence our decision—getting that kind of feedback is part of the reason we’re holding a closed beta test—but it wasn’t the only factor. We made the decision to go with a different pose in part because we shared some of the same concerns, but also because we wanted to create something better.” —Jeff Kaplan via Polygon

Some might be turned off by the reference art being a pinup, as I was at first. However, Dan points out that Tracer is a pilot, making the reference to a pinup similar to what would have graced the noses of WWII era fighters rather whimsical, and I can see his point. It does actually seem like the kind of thing Tracer would lightheartedly reference and slightly mock in a moment of victory. She’s turning a past symbol of sexualization into a badge of victory for her as a woman: she’s the victor rather than the sexy symbol painted on his plane.

On the other hand, while the new pose is more in line with the personality a la Fipps’ original argument, it still ‘feels’ sexualized. Why? Three words: visible butt cleavage. This is not a result of posing, but rather of costuming choices. 

Costume Design

Ultimately, characters are sexually appealing (or not) regardless of developer intention. This does not mean, however, that costuming choices don’t matter.

“ ‘[S]exy’ costumes are more likely to only be subjectively appealing. Flattering (meaning: well designed, fits correctly, highlights attractive parts of the character) costumes that make contextual sense are more likely to be universally appealing, or at the very least, not be offensive or confusing.” (source)

I take “well designed” to mean unique, functional, and suitable for its purpose. This is an area that Blizzard has done well for all of Overwatch, though as I stated above, could do better. Gaming these days is swamped with bikini armor: skin baring, skin tight, overly cleavage and butt focused ‘armor’ that exists more to titillate a presumably straight male audience than to imply any actual protective function.

Blizzard & Butts: D.Va

A shot of D.Va’s catsuit. Much cleavage.

Overwatch manages to avoid some of the more common tropes of the objectification of its female characters: bare midrifs and crotch armor that’s no larger than a g-string, but it’s not free of objectifying costume choices. Symmetra has stripper boots, thigh dress slits and no pants, Mercy and Zarya have chest plates with individual boob compartments, Pharah has a battle thong, and the three female characters in catsuits (Tracer, Widowmaker, and D.Va) all have highly prominent butt cleavage.

The designs are unique-ish for some characters, beautiful and compelling for others. The armor is functional and suitable for most of the characters except for the above exceptions. It’s definitely better than WoW, and at the same time, it could be better and without much effort on the designers part. At times it feels kind of like Ricky Gervais’ TV commercial for Verizon. At the same time, it is a significant step forward.

Overall, I’d say Tracer’s costume is well-designed. The bomber jacket/sneaker combo is unique, functional, and suitable given that she was a pilot prior to becoming the speedy, time-traveling fighter she is in the game. The catsuit might not be as breathable as other options, but other than that, I like her design. It’s colorful, spunky, and reasonably appropriate for role in gameplay.

Speaking of the catsuit. Catsuits are popular for female characters in gaming, as they provide the illusion of protection while also being form-fitting. With Tracer’s lean, athletic long distance runner build, a catsuit does actually flatter her body by being so form fitting. It highlights one of the best features of her body—her legs—which also underscores a part of her personality, her speed. You could therefore argue that a form-fitting catsuit is a flattering design choice.

The problem with ‘form-fitting’ is that catsuits as depicted in video games never actually fit a female character the way they would fit a real human being. For one, catsuits don’t create a visible butt-crack. It doesn’t matter how tight that suit is, there is no crack. Visible butt-cracks = major wedgie. I mean, look at the pose,

Blizzard & Butts: Tracer 1

That suit is wedged so far up her ass that it makes me wince, and probably gives her yeast infections on a regular basis. Same with Widowmaker and D.Va. Seriously. I know that male gamers probably don’t think or want to think about that, but I do because I’m a woman who has gotten yeast infections from tight fitting clothes. These ladies must drink gallons of cranberry juice offscreen.

More to the point, this is not a properly fitting costume. It’s my quibble with Tracer (and Widowmaker’s and D.Va’s) design. It’s ‘sexy’ rather than flattering, to use the definition above, because Spandex doesn’t actually fit that way. Sure, she has a nice ass and maybe you want to highlight that for some reason, but I would argue its possible to highlight an attractive lady ass with a spandex catsuit that actually fits correctly.

Blizzard & Butts: Black Widow

Or, you know a leather one that at least provides some protection.

The costume not fitting accurately contributes to the sense of sexualization. None of the male characters have visible ass cracks, nor do any of them wear catsuits. Were the female characters catsuits actually designed to fit as they do on real female bodies, they wouldn’t either. Or they could have given them, you know, not a catsuit, as they did with the males.

Overall then, the problem is one of modeling/design/costume more than a specific pose. Yes, the first pose drew specific attention to her ass and was specifically designed to do so. At the same time, the new pose still feels sexualized primarily due to the costuming decision of giving Tracer a catsuit designed with highly prominent ass cleavage. The downplaying of said ass cleavage in promo videos makes the victory pose decision even more baffling.

Blizzard & Butts: Tracer Promo

Nary a crack to be seen.

Whether in its first or second iterations, Tracer’s victory pose doesn’t match with the screenshot. Why give her a prominent crack, but only in still shots for the player to linger on if not for objectification purposes? The lack of consistency even within the way that Tracer is depicted in their own game just highlights the fact that the replacement pose is still supposed to be sexually appealing to the audience. 

So…..

What, Gretchen, are you saying that female characters can’t be sexy? Do you want them all to wear burlap sacks?

No, absolutely not. Like I said earlier, the objectification of female bodies is complicated when it comes to gaming; there’s a long history of objectification that I don’t have time to discuss. Not to mention that one can be just as, if not more sexy with flattering clothing and consistent posing than with overt displays of objectification. I find a consistent, well thought out character more sexually appealing than random boobs in my face, but then again, that’s just me. For game developers wishing to create what I think are truly sexy characters, I advocate starting with the criteria for posing mentioned above.

If a pose hits these four criteria well, including character consistency—the main problem with Tracer’s original pose design—move on to costumes. Does it fit the human body appropriately? Does it highlight the attractive features of the specific character rather than a generic set of criteria like big boobs or always show an ass crack? Is it contextually appropriate to the role the character plays in the game and their personality? If you can answer yes to all these things, I think that’s a good start.

However, if you, as a game developer, continue to create female characters that just so happen to have a personality for which revealing armor/clothing is ‘in character’, I call shenanigans. Also, if you only have female characters whose personality expresses itself in revealing clothing, you have a problem. Costume design needs to be equal opportunity. Five (now four) Overwatch characters have over the shoulder victory poses, three male two female. Only the two female characters had visible ass crack. Give me male characters with revealing/overtly sexualized clothing in equal numbers and I’ll be more willing to allow it for women. Better yet, give me sexualization of characters that isn’t catered specifically to the straight male gaze. Don’t know what that looks like? That’s part of the problem.

Blizzard & Butts: Women of Overwatch

Look of this diverse cast of ladies!

I would be remiss if I neglected to also point out how important diversity is, both in demographic makeup and gaming position. The former is something Overwatch actually does quite well. 8 of the 21 characters are female presenting (10 male presenting, 2 robotic, 1 animal). There are 7 people of color, 4 of which are female presenting, (10 white, 3 non-human, 1 unknown). They have two disabled characters and three female characters that fall outside of the ‘conventionally attractive’ framework.

Yes they could do better. The inhuman characters are all coded male for some reason, so the ratio of males to females is still not 50/50, which I would prefer if they are really committed to representing men and women equally. I would prefer more male characters of color given that 50% of the female characters are non-white but only 30% of male characters are, not including inhuman characters.

Diversity in gaming position is important as well, given that traditionally female characters have been relegated primarily to support positions (healers), with a few rogue assassins thrown in. They’re “squishier” positions—meaning you have less hit points and are more easy to kill—which reflects our society’s tendency to view women as weaker.

Blizzard & Butts: Mei and Zarya

Zarya (left) is a tank and Mei is defense. I kind of ship these two, tbh.

Overwatch has four main positions: offense, defense, tank (damage absorbers), and support. Offense, and defense positions each have 2 women out of 6, tank has 2 out of 5, which is pretty good, though, again, I’d prefer it to be 50/50. It would require more female characters overall and so much the better. However, with 2/4 support positions given to females, I’m less than thrilled. Because of course you get a 50/50 ratio in the position traditionally given to female characters. The third is a male coded robot and the fourth an actual human male. Maybe they’ll add more male characters later. It would be nice to have more male support than female just to be different.

The previous two points may seem off-topic, but the handling of diverse female characters actually provides a great context for Tracer. She’s one of the two offensive female characters, so she’s both prominent in the lineup and likely a character a lot of players will want to try out and play consistently, at least if they have anything like my play style (high damage, ftw, I like killing things). It also lets you see that they’ve done so many things well with the cast of characters.

On the one hand, this diversity fosters the impression that Fipps’ feedback is a nitpick that got blown way out of proportion (though, not by Fipps themselves). On the other hand, we know Blizzard can do better because they’ve already done so. These ‘nitpicks’ are the cries of an audience who sees what they’ve done to improve, knows they can do better, and is disappointed that there are still issues that can be fixed without too much work on the developers’ part. Don’t tell me they couldn’t have spent another couple days fixing issues like erasing Pharah’s battle thong or Zarya’s boob cup breast plate, both of which are cosmetic rather than integral to character mechanics or playstyle.

Blizzard & Butts: Widowmaker Victory Pose

She’d still be sexy without the butt cleavage.

Based on the game director’s response and their earlier statements at Blizzcon, this is something they want to get right. They’ve worked hard to create a diverse cast of female characters with different personalities. That only one of them is being primarily marketed as a sexy femme-fatale with skintight, revealing clothing (Widowmaker) is huge. I won’t denigrate that by generalizing from the Tracer pose to a pattern of sexualization for all the female characters in this game that simply isn’t there to the same degree it is in their other games (like WoW).

However, it is there with Tracer. Like I said, it’s about diversity, equal opportunity, and character consistency. Diverse group of female characters with different costuming choices that aren’t all centered around overt sexualization? Check (with the above qualifications). Equal opportunity for sexualized male and female characters? No. Male characters with the same pose are not overtly sexualized in the same way nor is their a male character equivalent to Widowmaker. Is the pose and costume consistent with the character? Ish. Neither in the original. I think the replacement is more consistent with her character and would be happy with it were the problems with the costume (ill fit) not still framed and visible for ogling by the audience.

Make her butt look like it does in the promo videos and I’ll be completely happy with Tracer. I mean, I’m 99% of the way in love with her already, so it really isn’t that far to go.

Blizzard & Butts: Tracer Salute

How can you not love her? She’s so cute. I mentioned she’s British, right?


Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. 

1. While they have created sequel content, i.e., Starcract 2, Diablo 3, and WoW expansions, as well as new platforms that utilize existing characters (Hearthstone and HotS), this is the first completely new game universe they’ve created since WoW, which itself was an expansion of the Warcraft games. It’s been 17 years since they’ve created an entirely new game platform.

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