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Today at PAX East, Blizzard revealed two new playable characters for its upcoming FPS game Overwatch, announced last November at BlizzCon. You can see a video of the entire presentation  here.

The two heroes announced are a futuristic outlaw gunslinger called McCree, and a Russian “tank” soldier called Zarya. Game director for Overwatch Jeff Kaplan introduced them, speaking with obvious enthusiasm and affection.

“There’s a hero out there for everyone, and we all have different fantasies,” said Kaplan as he
introduced the new characters. “Our goal with Overwatch heroes is that there’s fantasy fulfillment for as many players as possible, to really deliver on that promise of a very diverse heroic experience.”

With that, he announced the game’s first female tank character, Aleksansdra Zaryanova, AKA Zarya:

She is a dedicated and loyal hero. Her goal in life was to become a championship weightlifter, and she was right on the cusp of fulfilling that fantasy . . . then strife broke out in her village, and she put all of that aside to defend her homeland. . . She’s lawful good; she’s who you wanna be when you grow up. But there’s some other stuff to talk about, too. We’ve been hearing a lot of discussion amongst players about the need for more diversity in video games. And that means a lot of things. They want to see gender diversity. They want to see racial diversity. They want to see diversity along the lines of what country people are from. But there’s also talk about diversity in different body types, and not everybody wants to have the exact same body type always represented. And we just want you to know that we’re listening, and we’re trying hard, and we hope Zarya is a step in the right direction to show you that we’re paying attention. 

Kaplan obviously had some notes to which he was referring in this presentation, but it didn’t appear to be scripted.

I’m honestly shocked to see such a frank acknowledgment that the desire for greater diversity in playable characters has made an impact on design decisions for this game– and not just “diversity,” but body diversity. In a game about futuristic heroes which features robots, a genetically manipulated gorilla, and more cyborg-esque augmentation than you could shake a stick at.

I think most character designers for video games might take pause at the idea of constructing
characters with special consideration to cosplay, but here are a couple of basic facts about cosplay:

  • It’s an integral element of geek public life, omnipresent at cons, the foundation of many a livelihood, and the basis in which some practitioners find their best creative outlet, and also
  • There is a relentless and entirely understandable urge for cosplayers to have characters which look somewhat like themselves to use as inspiration. 

Zarya would make for some really fun cosplay. It’s kind of funny how she’s no less an example of physical perfection and beauty than any of the other female characters, but yet she’s sexy and powerful and not bizarrely dressed for her role– she looks like a futuristic soldier.

See? It’s absolutely possible.

Props to you, Blizzard. We’re watching, and appreciate it.

Oversexualize? Overnope.

Last November during BlizzCon, I wrote a post critiquing the design of some of the female playable characters as compared to the male characters in the newly revealed but not yet released FPS game Overwatch. In it, I addressed the following comment made by Blizzard senior vice president Chris Metzen:

Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we’ve been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don’t know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it’s something we’re very sensitive to.

I boggled at the idea of not knowing whether you oversexualize the male characters in your games, and concluded: No, you definitely are not.

Yesterday on that post, a commenter named “blank” asked:

My question to you is, how would YOU oversexualize a male character?

Here’s my answer to that question: I can’t. It is impossible for me to oversexualize a male character in a video game.

Here’s why:

Obviously I am not any sort of game designer, specifically not a character concept artist for any video game, but let’s pretend that I am.

Let’s pretend that I have both unlimited funding with which to produce a video game, and unlimited creative control over its content. Let’s imagine that having all of these resources and control, I decided to make the most sexual game possible involving male characters.

In order to maximize the sexualization of the male characters in this game, I would leave out female characters altogether. I would, effectively, make a gay porn movie in video game form.

In this gay porn game, because we’re talking about the design of fictional characters here, I would exaggerate all of the sexual characteristics of these male characters far beyond what is possible in real life. I would exaggerate their secondary sexual characteristics as well, so that not only would these be the most well-endowed male characters ever, but they would also be the most unquestionably male. And they would be doing…well, what you’d expect to find in a gay porn movie turned video game.  That is the greatest extent to which it’s possible for me, personally, to sexualize male characters.

(Would I then want to play this video game? Eh….no thanks.)

But that doesn’t answer the question. The question was regarding what I would do to oversexualize male characters, and, as already stated, I can’t do that.

That’s because in this case, the “over” in “oversexualized” refers to frequency.

A trope is a device in story-telling which appears frequently. In today’s usage in pop culture, it typically refers to such a device being used so frequently that it becomes hackneyed, cliché. That’s the sense in which Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes v. Women in Video Games series is named, something which I’ve noticed seems to be all too often lost on its detractors. “She totally misrepresented the game mechanics in Hitman!” they will complain, as if such a gripe is devastating to the point of a video series dedicated to pointing out repeated use of depictions of female characters over time and throughout the industry, and discussing how the near-ubiquity of such depictions is bothersome and even harmful.

When Tropes v. Women says that women in video games are oversexualized, that’s the kind of “over” it’s talking about. Compared to that, my exaggerated gay porn video game would be a drop in the proverbial bucket. Maybe the non-proverbial pond, lake, or sea.

To ask how I would oversexualize male characters in video games is akin to asking how I would make America heterophobic. How I would make the country overly concerned about ending poverty. How I’d render the world’s hungry overly fed.

It’s funny to imagine, isn’t it? But yeah, that kind of “over” is not gonna happen.

The Overwatch girls

Note: Follow-up posts here, here, and here.


Yesterday at BlizzCon, Blizzard Entertainment’s annual conference in Anaheim, Blizzard unveiled a new game.

Yeah, I know, so what? New games are announced all the time. Heck, Blizzard announces new games all the time. So what was it this time– a new expansion for World of Warcraft? Starcraft 2? Diablo? Maybe something new for Hearthstone (a TCG offshoot of WoW in app form) or Heroes of the Storm (a multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA game, still technically in technical alpha, based on all of the previous)?


Well, okay, yes– new developments for many of these things were announced. But also a new game, as in an actual new franchise, and it is called Overwatch. Overwatch, to sum it up in one sentence, is a 6 vs. 6 team-based FPS (first person shooter) which takes place in various settings on a futuristic Earth, is cartoonishly-styled, and the playable characters are all….well, superheroes, basically. They’re heroes with super abilities and traits, which I’d categorize as much more sci fi than fantasy (as in, mutations and rocket launchers, not dragons and magic).

In terms of character design, this opens up some huge possibilities. This is an entirely new game world which means that anything is possible, and it’s a futuristic world in which the playable characters (at least, the ones revealed so far) are—mostly—human. And a couple of robots. And one bespectacled gorilla, who is already a big favorite.

During the Q&A period following the reveal of Overwatch, the sole female audience member who addressed Jeff Kaplan (game designer for Overwatch) and Chris Metzen (senior vice president at Blizzard) asked about representation in character design. First, she complimented Overwatch’s diversity in terms of color, nationality, and body type of the characters introduced thus far. Then she wanted to know if skins would be available for the various characters to swap their genders around—that is, she wanted to know if it might be possible to play a male version of a character originally presented as female, or vice versa. Kaplan’s reply to this was (to paraphrase): “That’s not something we planned for—it sounds awesome, but we have no plans to do it” which means, effectively, “That’s never going to happen.”

Which is unfortunate, because the available characters for Overwatch aren’t actually very diverse, despite this being a sorta kinda stated goal. Kotaku, PC Gamer, Polygon, and probably other sites have articles up today describing a press conference for Overwatch which took place at BlizzCon, in which Metzen made comments to that effect:

“We’ve heard our female employees,” he said. “And my daughter tools me out about it. She saw a World of Warcraft cinematic of the Dragon Aspects, and my daughter was like, ‘Why are they all in swimsuits?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know anymore.'” “I think we’re clear we’re in an age where gaming is for everybody. We build games for everybody. We want everybody to come and play. Increasingly people want to feel represented from all walks of life, everywhere in the world. Boys and girls—everybody. We feel indebted to do our best to honor that.” 

He then elaborated regarding the new game:

“Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we’ve been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don’t know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it’s something we’re very sensitive to. We want that to be part of who we are, what our brand is. I think [Blizzard president] Mike [Morhaime] talked in a roundabout way to that in his speech [at the start of BlizzCon]. It’s something we’re very cognizant of. We want girls to feel kick-butt. Equally represented.” 

At BlizzCon, Blizzard revealed twelve characters for Overwatch, all of whom have character profiles at the game’s web site. You can see them all here in as much detail as you like, but I’m just including some images here so we know who we’re talking about.

The dudes:

Now, you’re thinking– wait a minute, that’s only five. I thought she said twelve total.

I left out one genetically modified gorilla (Winston, male) and one robot (Bastion, no gender). Zenyatta is also technically a robot, but I included him with the male characters because a) he’s wearing clothes, male clothes, and b) he was referred to as a “he” during the Overwatch panels at BlizzCon.

Reaper and Reinhardt, first and second from the left of the dudes, are presumably human. Reaper (age: unknown) has a tiny bit of visible Caucasian skin on his arms, and Reinhardt’s description on the Overwatch web site lists him as being 61 years old and previously a “highly decorated German soldier.” Presumably that armored suit of his which makes him a hulking behemoth compared to everyone else is not just a suit of armor but also some sort of mech contraption– that would also explain why each of his hands are roughly three times the size of his head.

Torbjorn, the munitions expert whom you’d swear was a dwarf if this had been World of Warcraft, is 57 years old, making him and Reinhardt the only currently known characters on Overwatch who are eligible for AARP benefits. Hanzo is a comparatively youthful 38, and Zenyatta is listed as a seemingly-meaningless-because-he’s-a-robot 20 years old.

The chicks:

From left to right: Mercy (34), Pharah (32), Symmetra (28), Tracer (26), and Widowmaker (33).

That’s right; the oldest of the female characters has not reached her thirty-fifth birthday.

Other things to note:

  • The only women not wearing high heels are Tracer (futuristic sneakers) and Phara (armored boots, to match her armored everything else).
  • Tracer and Pharah are also the only ones not wearing boob-shaped armor. Tracer has on a bomber jacket which was apparently molded to her exact cup size, and Pharah has…well, regular armor that happens to be electric blue. 
  • The faces of all female characters are visible, though Pharah has a helmet that she’s just not wearing in this picture.
  • The racial diversity of the characters has apparently been left to the women– Pharah is Egyptian and Symmetra Indian. None of the characters revealed yet are (known to be) black or east Asian.

Has Escher Girls seen this? 

And no, “blue” for Widowmaker doesn’t count as a race, especially considering the way she acquired her color, which is– I’m not making this up; it’s on the web site— because “her physiology was altered, drastically slowing her heart, which turned her skin cold and blue and numbed her ability to experience human emotion.”

I can think of a couple of changes to one’s physiology which would accomplish those things,
hypothermia and death from hypothermia, but neither of those works very well toward the end of making someone a sociopath assassin, as it did for Widowmaker. Presumably having cold blue skin makes clothing unnecessary as well, so she’s wearing very little of it, and it also apparently renders possession of a normal human spine completely optional.

A commenter named StingRay02 on Polygon’s story created the following image of the silhouettes of all twelve characters:

Sexual dimorphism wasn’t the goal; it was the starting line
Pictured: “Cowboy Man,” “Katana Man,”
and “Tattooed Enormous Belly Man”

The slight, very similar-looking frames on the right are all of the female characters. The highly varied and significantly chunkier figures on the left are the males (with the two on the extreme left being robots Zenyatta and Bastion).

So the take-away here is that if you’re a female character you must be young, thin, conventionally
attractive, and dressed to accentuate your figure (unless you’re Pharah), but if you’re a male character none of these things must apply. In the poster for Overwatch currently for sale on the Blizzard store, there are three additional “mystery” characters which haven’t been introduced. All three are male, all are relatively large, and two are completely covered in armor while a third standing behind them is less so– and also apparently hugely fat.

In the comments from the Polygon article I saw the following exchange:

I call shenanigans anytime a character has high heels in a combat setting. That is pandering to the male gaze, not crafting a cool character. Window maker is the worst with her broken spine, but Mercy and Symmetra are also doing that popped hip pose every time I see them. Tracer isn’t so bad, still tight clothes, but that is not inherently a bad thing, but more combat sensible poses, practical footwear….she and Pharah look more practical and combat ready.
They may be taking steps…but they are also still indulging in a little creative sexism.

“I call shenanigans anytime a character has high heels in a combat setting.”
I think that’s a design choice to distinguish it’s a woman more than anything. I don’t look at heels and get a boner. I look at heels and think of them as something a woman would wear instead of a man.
My two cents.

I can see your point, but high heels are specifically made to accentuate leg muscles. I think if you want me to take your female characters seriously from a design standpoint, you need to leave the thighhigh boots, heels, and weird boob-exposing outfits on the cutting room floor. Any time I see a female “knight” wearing a breast plate that basically accentuates boobs instead of looking like actual protection, I die a little inside.
I mean, you can design your female characters however you want. I just reserve the right to think they’re stupid when you’ve got your female fighters trying to do shit in heels.

There’s an ape running around in a mech suite. I don’t think anything in this game is meant to be taken seriously.

No, it doesn’t need to be realistic, but I also appreciate when design choices are made that don’t pander to the male gaze. Pharah isn’t realistic at all, but by god she looks like she is ready for battle, doesn’t she? That’s what I want. Sell me that this person is geared for a fight. Not a real fight in the real world, but a fight all the same.

Fair enough. I personally don’t give two shits either way. Difference in opinion.

In case it needs to be pointed out, the “ape in the mech suit” is not sexualized. T_K85 has missed the point rather spectacularly, but pictor and Mr_McGrumpypants managed to nail it. Perhaps because they do give two shits (or maybe even more) about having options for playable female characters in a game which aren’t limited to a very conscribed range of variations on a fashion model holding a massive gun.

To return to that Chris Metzen quote: “Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we’ve been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don’t know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it’s something we’re very sensitive to.” I wonder which “we” he’s talking about there, and whether it includes himself. Presumably not, because how could you be “very sensitive” to not oversexualizing female characters, but then a) do it anyway, and also b) not know whether you oversexualize male characters?

Let me just answer that question: No, Blizzard does not oversexualize its male characters. It barely, if ever, sexualizes them at all. To sexualize a character is to make it look as if it is one of that character’s primary goals to be sexually attractive. I can’t think of a single male character in any Blizzard game who fits that description. It’s hard to think of a female character who doesn’t fit it. Okay, yes, Pharah (who originally, according to either Kaplan or Metzen– I don’t recall which– was a male character called “Rocket Dude”).

Why does any of this matter? Why am I harping on this so much?

Well, for the same reason that Metzen gave– representation is important. It might not be “serious,” but important and serious are not the same thing. If you want “girls” to feel “kick-butt,” then it’s important. If you want to honestly say that this new game reflects diversity for both men and women. then it’s important. And as I stressed at the beginning of this post, the reason it’s important when it comes to this game, Overwatch, is because Overwatch is a brand new enterprise.

Literally anything is possible– there’s no style precedent which has to be matched, the game is still very much in the design phase, and the game is set in a futuristic version of Earth which I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine would be more progressive than the one in which we live, right now. So why not design it to be? Why not assume that the characters which inhabit it would be more progressive, especially considering they’re, you know, superheroes?

Well, some of them are– some of them have apparently turned to the dark side and become mercenaries. Maybe they could be the backwards ones who think that men can do awesome things whether they’re thin, fat, nerdy, thuggish, young or old, but women can only be pretty. And the heroes could reject that nonsense.

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