At yesterday’s New York Overwatch event, in a rented-out space in midtown Manhattan, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan stood in front of a slide showcasing an old Egyptian woman, an autistic Indian woman, a bodybuilding Russian woman, a plump Chinese woman and a Mexican hacker woman. “One thing that we did with the game that was very important to us was to challenge stereotypes,” Kaplan said. “If you look across modern shooters in 2017. . . to think that we have a mother who’s Egyptian. . . that’s not a common thread that you’re gonna see,” he explained proudly.
Later in his spiel, during questions, Kaplan expressed what I believe is a contradiction. It’s something he’s said before—something weighed down by a years-long cultural war that still persists throughout the gaming community: “Our motivations are not political.” Previously, at February’s D.I.C.E Summit, we heard this: “In no way do we aspire to be a political game” and also, “The goal was inclusivity and open-mindedness.”
Overwatch’s dedication to inclusivity is remarkable. How galvanizing—a shooter inside a bright utopia populated by heroes of all races, genders, religions, ages and sizes. Overwatch’s world is swollen with a sort of color-blind optimism, asserting that possibility transcends demographic. Iraq is envisioned as a sleek scientific hub in the Oasis map; the game’s bright-eyed poster girl dates a woman. I’d fly a blimp back and forth across the United States with the banner, “Overwatch is doing it right.” Because it is.
Overwatch’s world is where everybody belongs. If you believe that more diverse gaming casts appeal to more consumers, that would help explain why Overwatch has attracted 30 millions players across the globe. Even after the game’s release, Overwatch’s design team has done all the right things to prove its dedication to inclusivity, like adding three badass, stereotype-defying ladies—the sniper-mom Ana, the Mexican computer wiz Sombra and the West-African robot Orisa—in lieu of another chiseled white man. But inclusivity doesn’t just mean that the game is for “everybody.” It also means it is for “everybody with a credit card.” Designing a crew of heroes anybody can envision themselves joining is a great way to make anyone feel at home in a game, and also, a very effective marketing strategy.
Even if it does have commercial benefits, inclusivity is a political act. Designing Overwatch’s diverse cast is an inherently political act that, at the very least, asserts the value of different types of people being equals in a group of heroes. It’s not an extreme political position, of course. It’s not the same as making a game that sides with Trump or that simulates being an inspector at a communist country’s border control. Sure, it’s possible for Overwatch’s political undertones to simply “go without saying.” Yet, above the slide I saw yesterday, Overwatch publisher Blizzard boasts, “We challenged stereotypes.”
This apparent contradiction raises the question: Why assert that inclusivity is not a political design decision—especially when there’s such a large and vocal faction of gamers who argue that politics has no place in games? Is it possible to cater to everybody?
After the press talk, I met with Jeff Kaplan. First, I praised his team’s efforts to design relatable, inspiring characters that fly in the face of the grizzly American dudes we’ve come to know shooters for. I also told him he made a sick FPS that I play basically every day. Then, I asked him why, as someone who has such a big platform to talk about diversity in games, he has said several times that Overwatch was not meant to be political—especially since the topic of politics in games is so heated. Here’s how he responded:
“What I said earlier is I’m not a super political person who’s putting his own personal political views out there. I think, obviously, the game has a political impact. We even saw that in the most recent election where people used our characters, they formed a super pac. There were the [Donald Trump Mains Hanzo] billboards. Whether we like it or not, we’ve sort of entered the political discussion. I think our point of view—the sense of the game is we’re trying to be inclusive. . . With that idea of inclusivity, we have to be open-minded when it comes to politics. We also don’t want to put people out and take a strong stance—this is the red game and this is the blue game.”
Yes, calling something “political” is divisive. It shouldn’t be, and especially if you’re calling something what it is. In my view, politics means something beyond political parties and governmental goings-on. It’s a mode of talking about basic rights, wellbeing included, that are tied to demographic and social realities (Government is just how we organize that). Inclusivity is a political value. It asserts that all humans are equal and shouldn’t be discriminated against because of who they are. It also means that anybody can be a hero, another Overwatch tagline. “The only people that we want to exclude from our game is people who exclude other people,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan made a distinction between his team’s intentions as designers and how fans interpret his game. It’s true that players have taken ideas from Overwatch into the political sphere. In South Korea, D.va, Overwatch’s pro gamer girl hero, has become a rallying symbol for women’s equality. The National D.va Association president said in a Kotaku story that her group is fighting for a world in which “we don’t have to listen to swear words or sexually harassing statements nearly every time we play games.” D.va is inherently aspirational. Today, a 16-year-old girl earning the #1 rank in competitive StarCraft does not feel impossible, but it does feel a little fantastical. And, like Kaplan mentioned, during the U.S. presidential election, a billboard advertising TrumpIsNotATeamPlayer.com had Donald Trump playing an Overwatch hero notorious for attracting less team-oriented players.
Throughout yesterday, Kaplan emphasized that “Our first concept of representation was realizing that not all of us are the same as players. . . that was a concept that was immediately with us and it came to us through game design.” He references Symmetra and Winston, whose weapons require no aiming. Differences in playstyle, he says, was what motivated their push for inclusivity in the FPS. But in my view, it’s unlikely that that’s the whole story. You don’t just accidentally design the Oasis map as a sterling, utopian beacon for what a less war-torn Iraq could be in 60 years. And, Kaplan told me, “Straight up, sometimes we are putting ourselves out there. Oasis is what we want Iraq to be someday. Let’s stop showing it as dusty streets and bombed-out buildings.” He continued, “It’s not like, if you went to Berlin in 1945, it stayed that way for the past 70 years. It’s moved passed that. We’ve moved on. It’s our suggestion that, maybe, it’s time to move on from some of these visions that we keep reinforcing rather than imagining something being a little different.”
What’s at stake is a question of purpose. Were these decisions made to push product or because inclusivity is a deep-seated value of the design team of last year’s biggest game? “I think we’re trying to set a good example for people,” Kaplan explained, adding, “I’m not trying to be cagey on that.”
Overwatch’s tagline is that its world is “A future worth fighting for.” That tagline was originally from Project Titan, Blizzard’s failed MMORPG from which Overwatch sprung, and was carried on from 2013 through 2016, when Overwatch was released. Clearly, the Overwatch team believes in that message—or its selling power. Overwatch is a shooter, yes, but as everything from Plato’s Republic to Brave New World has told us, it is difficult to design a fictional utopia—and its utopian heroes—without commenting on what’s wrong with the present. That’s political.