Sometimes you gotta live and let live…or smooch and let smooch.
A few days ago, video game supergiant Blizzard Entertainment performed one of the most dangerous and risky actions it is possible for anyone to perform: they did a thing. They were warned not to, by fans, family, friends, and loved ones. To do a thing, they said? In this day and age? You will surely be killed. And yet, they did persist. And by god, they made a mascot game character gay. The thing was, irrevocably, done.
But I digress.
Overwatch‘s recent Christmas comic, continuing the consistent trend of the game’s futuristic cartoonish story occurring outside the game disc itself, features a hurried Tracer bolting through King’s Row, trying to get a very special gift. By the end of the comic, The scarf she has managed to get her speedy hands on is safely wrapped around the neck of her girlfriend. Also, Tracer having a girlfriend is safely wrapped around the neck of the Overwatch fanbase.
I’m not here to directly talk about why it’s important that Tracer is gay. It is, as we honestly just haven’t had a lot of known gay video game mascots and there are a lot of people who have been made really happy by this. That IS really important, and I’m glad they did it. However, an equally large – or at least equally loud – fanbase is calling the move yet another in Blizzard’s series of apparent attempts to pander and cater to as wide an audience as possible.
It might be a nice idea to get into the history of this. Since its release this past summer, Overwatch has received some fairly hearty accusations of pandering in its cast. The group of 23 playable characters (sure to be expanded by future new additions) includes characters of a commendable spread of nationalities, from the Egyptian mother-daughter duo of Pharah and Ana to Sombra, who wears her Spanish heritage on her sleeve (by which I mean in most of her voice lines). Tracer herself is distinctly British. The gender balance between characters doesn’t bend too far in favor of either camp, and hey, there’s even two robots and a talking monkey. How nice! Diversity seems to have been a pretty distinct goal on the part of Blizzard, and so they’ve come under some amount of fire by folks who feel that the company is doing it with manipulative intentions.
Do I personally think this is objectively and consistently the case? Nah. To be honest, I think that, for the most part, Blizzard just wanted to make a game with a notably diverse cast. The game’s set of maps are just as earth-spanning and diverse, and so multinationalism and multiculturalism kind of becomes an inherent part of the whole package. One should also consider the backlash Blizzard has seen for poor handling of minorities in WoW and Starcraft over the years. Their decision to focus in this way is probably reactionary to their own previous work.
That said, though, there is plenty of room for critique of Blizzard’s handling of its own multicultural aims. One really significant example of this since day 1 has been with Pharah, one of the games’ iconic attacking-based characters. Pharah is canonically Egyptian, and dons a jetpack-adorned set of armor which resembles a Sphinx. It’s a pretty distinct motif. A variety of alternate skins can be purchased or won by Overwatch players, including recolored skins as well as completely different designs. One of the more radical skins for Pharah is named “Thunderbird,” and decorates the character in armor and face paint based on, you guessed it, the Native American Thunderbird. I suppose one could try and argue that they were just trying to fit even more representation in, but it seems a little disingenuous to have such a diverse cast only to slap such culturally specific stuff on culturally incompatible characters.
So, with all that in mind, the question then becomes whether Tracer’s sexuality is actually pandering. My first reflex is to shout “who cares, play the game” as I twitch involuntarily, but I know there are more articulate conversations to be had. Really, I think that there is a chance that they just wanted to have a gay main character for the sake of it. There aren’t a lot of those in gaming, not yet. And if that’s pandering, then it’s okay for Tracer’s sexuality to be that way. Does it matter if it’s pandering? Is it worth getting this level of upset over, even if it is? If it helps, I myself write this as a member of the LGBT community, and one who has seen a lot of people around me brought some real joy by seeing a company unafraid to be blatant with their mascot character’s sexuality.
I don’t want to say that the idea of a character’s sexuality being chosen to pander to an audience is inherently a good thing, not at all. However, what I do want to say, and what I do truly believe, is that the things people – especially gamers, and especially those in fandoms like Overwatch‘s – will often claim that something is forced or pandering based solely on the sheer volume or bluntness with which it is expressed. It happens a lot when two gay characters kiss openly onscreen, or on-page. After the comic came out, Blizzard went so far as to publicly confirm that Tracer is, specifically, a lesbian. It doesn’t get much louder than that. So maybe the strength and power that comes with Blizzard saying “LOOK! Look at this gay character we made for you so you wouldn’t feel left out” is actually a good thing. It’s raising discussion. It’s bringing smiles to the faces of people who don’t often get to see representation for what they are. If a kiss between two characters of the same gender happens, I don’t care if you blast dubstep behind it to get my attention. It’s still an effort to turn the tides on something being often ignored. Tracer’s sexuality isn’t being sexualized, or trivialized, or monopolized. It’s just there.
Don’t blast dubstep at me, though, just in general. It’s rude.