Between mainstream video games and the rising popularity of indie games, it’s starting to feel like every other day results in a new game attempting to steal our attention. There’s no doubting the fact that the video game market is currently extremely saturated with new choices. But how many of those games actually try and do something unique? Something different?
Spoiler alert: Not many. Every time a unique game is released, there’s almost a guarantee that three other games will be released on the same day that are mere copies or clones of other games. Even the big studios are guilty of this phenomenon. Years ago, everyone wanted to cash in on the success of EverQuest and World of Warcraft. MMORRPGs galore. Then came the MOBA, FPS, ARPG, and CCG explosions.
On the surface, Blizzard seems just as guilty of copy-pasting as any other studio. Hearthstone’s just like Magic: The Gathering, right? Heroes of the Storm = League of Legends. Even Overwatch, bears a passing resemblance to Team Fortress 2.
But Overwatch, in particular, is distinctively different from most shooters. After last year’s BlizzCon, I went into details regarding the many differences, but essentially Overwatch raises the bar by being a co-op shooter that embraces accessibility, relatability, heroism, and diversity.
That last bit, especially, is worth exploring more, especially after we’ve now seen an entire year’s worth of new hero reveals and have a new beta to explore. First things first. Let’s define the term “diversity” and take a look at how it applies to a co-op shooter and gaming as a whole:
Diversity: Not Just a Buzz Word
“Diversity in gaming” is one of those buzz phrases that tends to get tossed around a lot in criticism videos and online editorials these days. Here’s the thing, though—it’s not just a buzz phrase. It’s what makes the world around us interesting. It’s the act of folks embracing their differences and celebrating them. In media, it’s the act of giving a potential viewer, gamer, or onlooker a character to relate to, emphasize with, and cheer for.
Diversity in gaming isn’t about meeting some magical quota regarding character races, genders, backgrounds, body types, or sexual preferences. It’s about sending a simple message: “It’s cool to embrace who you are.” Game developers are often reluctant to send this message due to the simple fact that there haven’t been a lot of games that have (excluding BioWare games, of course). Remember what I said about copy-pasted games? That applies here, too. Developers may not intentionally say “screw diversity,” but they’re often hesitant to take any road less traveled. Especially when there are things like Gamergate and the internet to contend with.
Blizzard’s kind of taking that less-traveled road with Overwatch. How so? Let’s look at the facts: out of the 18 heroes we know about right now, 6 are female and 12 are male. This ratio isn’t quite as good as it was last year before new heroes were added, but it’s still fairly decent for a shooter.
The female characters are extremely diverse. Symmetra and Widowmaker are more typical for games of this type in that they wear skimpy outfits and look like eye candy. Zarya, Mercy, Tracer, and Pharah, on the other hand? They break the mold a bit. Especially Zarya. When Zarya’s video debuted earlier this year, I was floored. Finally players who wish to identify with a badass female character who actually looks like she can wield a giant gun can.
Racially, Overwatch does a good job of portraying a game universe where humans, animals, and cyborgs are all as diverse as their originations would imply. We have characters from every scope of the world: Brazil, Australia, Russia, United States, England, France, Egypt, Germany, India, Sweden, Japan, Switzerland, and Nepal. This list doesn’t even include all of the cyborgs, unknowns, or space-born, either.
This type of diversity wasn’t inserted just to click off a list of checkboxes. It makes sense for the story and background of the universe. Overwatch is comprised of the remnants of a war-torn Earth. It makes sense that the best, brightest, and strongest would come from all over the globe. It also makes sense for a futuristic shooter. The more advanced a society becomes, the more diversity is naturally embraced. It wouldn’t make sense for this universe not to embrace every race and gender equally.
We have a wide range of powers and specializations available—from archery and cool pistols to healing monk-ery, bombs and turrets aplenty, junkyard shenanigans, stealth, laser beams, dancing gorilla bubbles, and sonic blasters of musical…doom? Sure, we’ll go with that.
Simply put, this is diversity done right. When a game is created with variety in mind from the ground up, everything from the character models to the setting and story can be created utilizing diverse characters without seeming as if they were tacked on at the last minute and there for appearance’s sake. It’s hard to criticize a game’s broad range of diversity when every single option makes sense and adds value to the game. For a relatively small list of characters thus far, Overwatch’s roster does an excellent job of giving just about every player someone to identify with and be drawn towards.
Setting the Example
Blizzard sometimes gets heat for not being diverse enough in their games or representing multiple races and genders fairly. Overwatch, thus far, seems to almost serve as an attempt to beat back some of that criticism and try something a little different—a little riskier. The overall tone and style of Overwatch is also something that is fairly risky. In a world full of dark, militaristic shooters, here’s Overwatch—something bright, colorful, and overflowing with zany abilities. Yeah, it’s risky. But it could also help bring new players to a genre they wouldn’t otherwise try.
And that is the reason why diversity in gaming is so important. When we hear about a game that takes a few risks and tries to incorporate characters, ideas, and settings that you don’t normally see, we stand up and take notice. We’re eager to try games where we’re given new ways to immerse ourselves in our characters. I’m excited as heck to play as Zarya. We don’t all have to be carbon copies. Nor do our games.
Blizzard, frankly, is an ideal studio to tackle a project like Overwatch that attempts to bring diversity to the forefront within a co-op atmosphere. With so many ongoing projects and a larger development team, the sky’s the limit for the developers, and this gives them the freedom they need. With any luck, the gameplay of Overwatch will show just as much potential as the character roster.
If successful, Overwatch may hopefully inspire other studios to begin taking more risks when it comes to diverse characters. This is the far better alternative to shoving them into a dark corner with a few “token” oddities. One step at a time.
Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.