As we celebrate the two-year anniversary of Overwatch, I want to celebrate a piece of it’s inclusive game design and highlight the diverse cast of women. Instead of repetitive characters, Overwatch made sure that each class and character has a unique playstyle in addition to a unique design and personality. When I logged in for the first time, I was blown away by the inclusiveness of the character designs and the stories around them. With 27 characters live, the roster includes characters of different nationalities, orientations, body-types, and even variations within a community often painted with a monolithic brush (specifically Latinx representation in the game – a Mexican woman, a Latino born the US, and an Afro-latino from Brazil). The last of these could be a piece, in and of itself, but today we’re focusing on something else.
Having caught some flack for one of Tracer’s poses which was seen as oversexualized – an opinion I don’t agree with, by the way. Instead of ignoring their fans, Blizzard, the company behind Overwatch, replaced the pose in order to better represent the needs of the community. Most of the time, developers tend to ignore this kind of feedback, but Blizzard values it. Beyond Tracer, some player still do not like the body suits worn by some female characters like D.Va and Widowmaker. Even with some of the critique, I have never felt as included in a shooter as I have in this game from a character standpoint. Hell, I rarely feel this represented outside a game where I craft both my character’s appearance and story through my choices
Out of 27 heroes, 13 of them are women, and out of those 13, seven are women of color. Pharah, Sombra, Tracer, Mei, Widowmaker, D.Va, Orisa (her creator), Zarya, Ana, Brigitte, Mercy, Moira, and Symmetra are the women of Overwatch. Their abilities span all four classes – classes span Attack, Support, Tank, and Defense. They also represent a broad spectrum of varying feminine identities, that includes varying ages, body-types, ethnicities/races, professions, and costumes.
Now, Overwatch doesn’t have a campaign, a narrative piece of the game to be played outside of the team play. In order to get to know the backgrounds of these characters, the company releases character videos, web comics, and narrative driven events. Through this material, we learn about the heroes and get a look at the amount of research that went and still goes into the characters’ cultures and stories. I want to give you all a brief overview of the characters and how they all represent different feminine identities and showcase the diversity among women. My breakdown is in no way comprehensive and I encourage you to check out Blizzard’s animations and comics as well as check Episode 64 where we break down why Overwatch matters.
Prodigies: Sombra & Efi Oladele (Orisa’s Creator)
In the characters of Sombra and Orisa we see different products of prodigies. In Sombra, we see a Mexican girl whose life has been torn apart by the Omnic crisis. Skilled with computers she hacks to survive and eventually to thrive, even if that is in a gang and then the villainous organization, Talon. When her intellect and skill outpace technology she adapts, integrating tech into her body in order to pursue her own goals. After seeing her city ravaged, Efi Oladele, an 11-year old Nigerian girl rebuilds a decommission defense bot and names her Orisa to combat Doomfist and save her people. Orisa is a repurposed OR15 defense mech, made from junk and funded by a young genius grant that Efi received. Although Efi isn’t a playable character, her creation Orisa still stands as a important piece of representing the genius of young women, specifically young girls of color.
In the Overwatch universe, these are not the only smart women. In fact most of the women are brilliant scientists or strategists, but these two represent two sides of the same coin. Gifted and powerful, Sombra chooses herself while Efi chose her people. It is rare that narratives allow women to be truly evil or truly only beholden to themselves, however Blizzard maintains Sombra’s agency while also showcasing the innocence and goodwill which inspires Efi.
Body-types: Zarya, Widowmaker, Brigitte, Mei, & D.Va
When it comes to women in video games, they’re often thin, overtly sexual, and ultimately made for the male gaze. In Overwatch however, the heroes in the game are not just one type. With Zarya, an Olympic weightlifter from Russia, we see a body type seldom highlighted in video games or other media She is a muscular woman and her biceps aren’t hidden behind armor but instead on display. In fact, her poses closely resemble that of a bodybuilder by highlighting her strength.
Opposite of Zarya is Widowmaker. With a complicated backstory surrounded in tragedy, French sniper Widowmaker embodies the femme fatale popularized by characters like La Femme Nakita and Black Widow. She is one of the most sexualized characters in the game with a catsuit missing a back panel and a deep v-cut down the front. Despite this, her proportions aren’t exaggerated like that of some sexy female characters like for example Ivy from Soul Calibur.
While Widowmaker’s bodysuit is revealing, D.Va’s is not. In fact, as a pro-gamer, D.Va jumped at the chance to serve and protect South Korea by utilizing her gaming ability to pilot a mech. She is extremely confident and her competitive nature overshadows any comment about her tight suit. Her suit is about utility, a flight suit worn by mech pilots, it’s not about her sexualization but about her role as a pilot. Ultimately D.Va showcases what some see as the ideal body-type by also hiding it in her mech 90% of the time and also highlighting the fact that women play video games too.
As a medium between thin and bodybuilder, Brigitte is Overwatch‘s newest hero is a Swedish shield maiden who wears a heavy set of armor like the largest in the tank of the fame is animated as muscular while outside her suit – which she built herself. And then there is the Chinese scientist Mei. In a full snowsuit, Mei’s body-type is more guessed at than known but she is thicker than other characters and represents a way to be a larger women without needing muscle.
Every character in this game represents a different body-type and this has everything to do with utility as it does about representation. Powersets and abilities fit the women who use them. Zarya carries the largest gun in the game, Brigitte carries a shield, Widowmaker is a sniper and never at close range, and the same goes for all the characters in the game. I chose these four because of their contrasts to each other and how they best exemplify a spectrum of what women can be, however, when looking across the women of Overwatch, it’s very apparent that none of them look the same. By having them all in the same game Blizzard has worked at making sure to build an inclusive game that better reflects the women and men playing Overwatch.
LGBTQ+ Representation: Tracer
British pilot Tracer is a hero whose abilities are based on her misfortune. Having been lost in time, she now uses a chronal accelerator to stay in time and place. Not only is she lighthearted and a fast-paced DPS, but she is also Overwatch‘s first canonically queer character. In addition to character origin videos, Blizzard also releases webcomics on the game’s website. In the 2016 holiday comic, “Reflections,” Tracer and her girlfriend, Emily, go to Winston’s holiday dinner. The comic alludes to their co-living situation and the two are share a kiss after exchanging gifts. With a couple of the women in the game having relationships alluded to in animations, Tracer’s identity as a queer woman is a piece of the character that works to diversify the identities of the women in the game and help reflect the spectrum of sexual orientation. The importance of this queer representation is highlighted by the fact that Tracer is the face of Overwatch. She was all over promotional material when the game launched and continues to be a fan favorite.
Generations: Ana & Pharah
Women in video games are young, usually just hitting their twenties and hardly ever into their thirties. In Overwatch, there are two generations of the same family. Ana and Pharah are a mother and daughter (respectively) from Egypt. Having been in Overwatch (the organization not the game) for decades, Ana is a trained sniper whose main goal was to keep her daughter from a soldier’s life. However, Pharah does become a soldier like her mother, flying a mech-suit instead of shooting a rifle. Although the animation above from the game doesn’t do the detail justice, in her character video, Blizzard makes sure to paint her wrinkles and age, smoothed out by the limited textures of the in-game animation. Wearing matching Egyptian symbols these women showcase sides to women that are often touched upon but never fleshed out. Ana, the battle-hardened mother and Pharah the young mech-pilot, both soldiers but in different fights.
The Cruel & the Kind: Moira & Mercy
Women are often shown as caregivers in most types of media. It’s expected for women to be nurturing and to be nurses on a battlefield. It’s less expected of them to prioritize scientific advancement over human life. Having both resurrected and rebuilt other heroes in the game Moira and Mercy are opposites, both in their achievements and temperaments. From what we know from the character videos, Irish doctor and scientist Moira was held back by regulations against human testing in Overwatch.
After experimenting on herself she is kicked out of the Overwatch organization, only to find a home at Talon where she resurrects Gabriel Reyes, as the character known as Reaper, a ruthless assassin. As a playable hero, Moira is a healer but is also capable of damage output, rare for a good healer. With Mercy, you see the caring woman represented in most media. Having been a doctor before her life in Overwatch and after losing her parents to war, the Swiss doctor was against taking part in advancements which would lead to the loss of life. When it comes to the representation of women, in these two healers, Blizzard offers two looks at science and allows for women to be shown outside of caregiver.
Born Satya Vaswani in Hyderabad, India, Symmetra has the power to bend reality. Although she isn’t aligned to Talon over Overwatch, she keeps her company’s best interests in mind, which sometimes involves her to become involved in morally dubious situations – usually by way of spreading the company’s influence and ensuring they receive deals from disenfranchised and destroyed cities like Rio de Janeiro. What also makes Symmetra stand out against the crowd is that she is an example of neurodiversity. If you haven’t heard of the term before, it means representing people with neurological differences such as ADHD or those on the autism spectrum. Symmetra is the latter. Having demonstrated traits associated with autism such as having trouble with social interactions, suffering from sensory overload and preferring environments that are structured and harmonious. After a fan saw the reference to “the spectrum” in the webcomic “A Better World,” Overwatch‘s game director, Jeffrey Kaplan sent a letter confirming.
Overwatch may not be perfect in everything when it comes to women. In the Overwatch League (OWL) out of 12 teams and with over 100 players on the rosters there is only one woman signed to a team. Women in eSports has long been an issue in the gaming community, especially in the FPS arena and Overwatch is no exception. However, in 2017 it was reported that women play Overwatch twice as much as any FPS, estimating around 5 million players (or 16% of the overall player-base). That being said, when it comes to representation on screen, the game is leaps above other games and goes out of it’s way to make sure cultural backstories are authentic. Still, there is a lack of visible Black women heroes since Efi is a part of Orisa’s story and not visible in the game. However, Blizzard continues to work on and add new characters to the game. They are also listening to fan reception and I can see them continuing to add diverse characters to their cast of characters.
The diversity of women shown is definitely a welcomed change in character selection games, but it’s the amount of research and work that Blizzard has put into developing the as heroes that is amazing. There are more pieces to be written about the men Overwatch and how the game showcases differences within communities often represented as monolithic, but for now, let’s celebrate the female characters of the game. They exemplify the reality that women and girls are not to be confined by expectations and represent a multitude of identities.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.