Last year saw the release of Overwatch, a big budget title by Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s largest videogame developers and producers. A title whose “most basic goal” was:
[…] to be this bright, positive universe, where everybody feels like they could be a hero.
Overwatch has gone on to great commercial success, demonstrating the effectiveness of diversity as a core design strategy.
Their cast of playable heroes are straight and gay, men and women, robots, doctors, and criminals – and represent six of the seven continents (sorry, Antarctica).
So why haven’t game developers done this before? The answer may be that, before now, the industry just wasn’t ready.
An historical problem
The main audience for videogames has historically been young white men, and the game development industry itself has been – and still largely is – a very homogeneous environment. The industry’s most recent survey found that only 23% of developers were female, and that 81% were from a white Caucasian background.
This lack of diversity has long been a problem for the games industry. In the arcade era of the 1970s and 1980s, little attention was paid to female consumers. When they appeared at all, female and non-white characters were often props or one-dimensional stereotypes. Cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian analyses some of the recurring depictions of women — such as the “damsel in distress” — in her web series Tropes vs. Women.
Although games like Pac-man (1980) met some success in closing the gender gap, it would be many years before diversity was seriously addressed by the industry. Games like Dead or Alive Paradise (2010) and Duke Nukem Forever (2011) demonstrated just how far the industry had to go.
A toxic culture
The industry has been only one part of the problem. Players themselves have contributed greatly to hostile game environments.
In 2011 the website fatuglyorslutty.com started collecting user-submitted documentation of online abuse directed at female players. Their archives paint a bleak picture of a world in which female gamers’ bodies and sexuality are often the subject of deeply unsettling abuse.
Critics like Sarkeesian vocally challenged this toxic culture, and in 2014 the culture war came to a head. Sarkeesian, along with many female developers, critics and scholars were targeted as part of the massive cultural backlash coined “Gamergate” by actor Adam Baldwin.
While Gamergaters cited concerns over ethics in videogame journalism, the Gamergate movement was repeatedly linked to instances of online harassment including rape threats, death threats, bomb threats, and doxxing (the public release of victims’ private information).
Most academics have since characterised Gamergate as a reaction to a shift in the videogames industry away from its traditional base to a more inclusive one.
A bold decision
Development on Overwatch began around the time Gamergate was exploding. The studio was undoubtedly following the fallout, and its decision to develop a title championing diversity was bold, given the cultural climate.
This is especially true given that although latest figures suggest that more than 40% of gamers are women, the gender division across genres is far from even. A recent study found for the two genres into which Overwatch most closely fits – First Person Shooter (FPS) and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) – the percentage of female gamers were only 7% and 10% respectively.
Blizzard Activision’s approach with Overwatch was both more nuanced and more substantial than most. Rather than giving a nod to diversity in the form of a single female character or plot element, they wove it into their world with every design decision. They also recognised that diversity isn’t just about the narrative elements, but can be enabled by the structure of the game.
Unlike most FPS games, Overwatch doesn’t rely solely on precision targeting or twitch reflexes. The distinct abilities of the various characters allow players to experiment with different styles of play, and the integrated roles of the characters emphasises the cooperative nature of the matches.
A mature approach
To say that Overwatch has solved the diversity problems in games would be an overstatement. Even before its final release, Blizzard Activision found itself criticised by fans first for releasing, and then for retracting, a sexualised image of one of the game’s most popular characters — a female character named Tracer.
Similar controversy erupted when another character, Mei, appeared to have inexplicably lost some of her waist circumference when donning a novelty Lunar New Year outfit.
Blizzard Activision’s response to these controversies has neither been to shut down debate, nor to engage with it. Instead, they have maintained their creative vision for a game that celebrates diversity.
Responding to the Tracer controversy, for example, game director Jeff Kaplan said that they “weren’t entirely happy with the original pose,” and that an alternate pose “speaks more to the character”. He emphasised that they “wouldn’t do anything to sacrifice [their] creative vision”, asked that the discussion remain respectful, and left it at that.
Responding to the Mei controversy, an Overwatch community manager claimed it was a simple bug, it’d be fixed soon, and “…btw. Happy Lunar New Year”.
Blizzard Activision seems content to let Overwatch speak for itself, and the emerging narrative suggests that they’ve achieved their “most basic goal” of diversity, and then some.
Overwatch has demonstrated that diversity and inclusion are no barrier to major commercial success. They have capitalised on a maturing gaming community by presenting their game’s diversity in terms of artistic integrity — rather than political point-scoring.
Whether this approach will be picked up by others in the industry remains to be seen.