The Ease of Progressively Depicting “Females” in Overwatch

Warning: I’m about to take video games way too seriously for a sec.

If you follow me on social media, you know that I’ve been fairly obsessed with the game Overwatch for the past month, streaming it almost every day on Twitch. It’s a fantastic game for a lot of reasons, and I say that as someone who has never been into first person shooters before. The graphics are fun, the learning curve is gentle, and the characters are varied and appeal to people with different abilities.

I’ve been especially interested in how Blizzard (the company that makes Overwatch) treats its female characters, since that is often the low point of so many other otherwise great games. For example, the only other first person shooter I tried prior to this was the insanely popular Team Fortress II, which was all men with the notable exception of one character, Pyro, who never showed his or her face but did have a purse hanging in his or her locker.

Overwatch has a huge selection of heroes to choose from–currently there are 22. Ten are male humans, nine are female humans, one is a male ape, one is a male-voiced “omnic” (robot), and one is a robot with no voice other than R2-D2-like beeps. I consider 41% women pretty good, statistically speaking.

But how are the characters themselves treated? Are the women sexualized to a greater extent than the men, as seems to be the norm for video games?

widowmakerThe answer, in my mind, is definitely “yes,” with the qualification “but it’s not as bad as I expected.” Two women, Mercy and Widowmaker, have broken spines that cause their butts to stick out. Widowmaker (right) also has a ridiculous skintight outfit with a plunging neckline. Another hero, D.Va (below), is a weeaboo’s dream waifu as she is tiny, wears a skintight spandex suit, and throws plenty of winky faces around. And Tracer had her own controversy early on when Blizzard chose to give her a butt-centric victory pose which they removed after fan complaints.

None of the men are so sexualized, except for perhaps Hanzo, who wears a sassy off-the-shoulder number that shows off some muscles and a nipple.

All that said, there are a lot of really progressive choices that Blizzard made. One woman, Zarya, has a non-standard body type and her backstory is that she was an Olympic-level weightlifter. The newest character, Ana, is an older woman with wrinkles who is actually the mother of another character, Pharah. And gender aside, the characters represent a diverse assortment of ethnicities and races.

I wanted to start this post by listing the problems with Overwatch’s women so that you understand that though I love the game, I’m not completely blind to its faults. I need you to know that because I couldn’t disagree more with this article I just read titled “The Challenge of Progressively Depicting “Females” in Overwatch.”

The author, Caraline Nelson, starts by complaining that female characters are over-represented in the support category. There are five supports, of which three are women, so there are more women there. That said, there are so few characters in each category that it’s hardly statistically significant, and even so, not all supports are healers. Most players argue that Symmetra should be considered defense, as she does no healing. That means women comprise 50% of the healers in the game, which is nearly their representation in the game as a whole.

Nelson’s next complaint is that Tracer’s backstory involves a male character (Winston, the ape) saving her from skipping through time. She wonders why female characters can’t save each other or save male characters. This ridiculous argument isn’t even factually correct. Mercy, the doctor, saved two characters in lore. She brought both Reaper and Genji back from the dead, turning Genji into an omnic in the process. Ana dedicated and sacrificed her life to saving all her teammates, as shown in her intro video, and she goes above and beyond trying to save the life of her daughter, Pharah.

All of that is just in the lore, and leaves aside the fact that the entire point of the game is to form teams, in which characters are constantly saving each other. It’s the most fun part of the game, in my opinion, and one of the main reasons I love playing Zarya–I get to protect my teammates from certain death by shielding them at just the right moment. It’s fun and feminist. Two great tastes that taste great together.

Next, Nelson targets (ha ha, get it) Widowmaker for her incredibly tragic backstory. In the lore, Widowmaker was brainwashed by an evil corporation, forcing her to kill her husband and then become a cold-blooded assassin. It is one of the more fucked up backstories, but it’s certainly not much worse than Hanzo and Genji. Hanzo was tested by his mafia family, who charged him with murdering his brother, Genji. He did it, and has been wracked with guilt ever since (despite the fact that Mercy brought Genji back). Genji now has to live his life knowing his brother tried to kill him, plus he’s not even sure if he’s still human.

So yes, Widow’s backstory is fucked, but it’s not sexist and it’s not out-of-place. To be fair, I’m not even sure if Nelson disagrees with me, here. She talks about Widow’s story but says she doesn’t mind the character being female and doesn’t deconstruct why she brought it up in the first place.

dva peaceFinally, Nelson discusses D.Va. She is strangely critical of the fact that her backstory (of quitting the pro e-sports scene to start fighting omnics) wasn’t immediately obvious to her, but that’s the case with all the characters. If anything, D.Va’s story is the most obvious from just playing the game, considering all of her video game-related voice lines.

Nelson’s main point regarding D.Va is that a real female e-sports player, Gegury, was accused of cheating at Overwatch because she was so insanely good. She was accused by other (male) players, not by Blizzard (who cleared her), and she played Zarya, not D.Va. But Nelson uses D.Va to bring her up and suggest that Overwatch’s poor treatment of Tracer and Widowmaker feeds into the idea that girls can’t play video games. It’s strange that she mentions this in the same section that she points out that Overwatch has a female character who is a wildly successful and famous video game player.

In terms of understanding and honoring the fact that a huge percentage of women play video games, I think Blizzard did pretty damned well by making almost half their playable characters female and giving all of them complex and interesting backstories. As I said, they could do better–Widowmaker’s anatomy makes my back hurt just looking at her, and D.Va’s obvious fan service sometimes makes me cringe. But in the grand scheme of things, Overwatch is a big step forward for video games that acknowledge that women make up half the population, and about half of all video game players, to boot. And I think that’s pretty awesome.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. No, no, no Rebecca,

    That’s not how you disagree with a feminist critique of video games you don’t agree with. You’re supposed to call her a feminazi and accuse her of trying to censor video games. Then you launch a multi-year attack against her on social media including death and rape threats, along with doxxing. You can’t just publish an article saying how and why you disagree. This won’t do at all! I guess it’s true, women really don’t get video games. /snark

    Seriously though, good article. I really should get a PS4 one of these days to play all these awesome games I keep hearing about. But, my “disposable income” fund is currently going towards a 3D printer.

  2. Pharah with her practical power armor and offensive role, Mei with her clothing and pitiless icicle murder.

    I was drawn to Overwatch largely for its diverse cast of interesting female characters. It’s quite pleasing.

    I’d like to see more, and with greater variety.

  3. Mercy also maybe brought Soldier 76 back from the dead, and in the process made Soldier and Reaper something more than human. She’s got this implied atmosphere of being a mad scientist with a dubious grasp on ethics and a love of human experimentation. In one of the prematch conversations between her and Mei, they ask each other how neither have aged over the last 30 years. Mei was frozen. Mercy… dodges the question.

    There’s a surprisingly lot of dark shit in Overwatch, which is fascinating because the surface tone is so cheery and supportive. Symmetra is also brainwashed by an evil shadowy organization, Bastion is from a series of robots that massacred countless people, which is why he hides in wildernesses, and in general the whole world is barely coming back from an apocalypse that saw Australia get wiped off the map and a worldwide robot genocide.
    But despite all this darkness, Lucio always says “Look at this team. We are going to do great things,” and my heart swells.
    And then we all go out and kill people together.

  4. D.va and her poses are clearly influenced by the main character drawings in Appleseed. That’s the trope she’s referencing.

  5. I love how diverse Overwatch is. It’s not perfect, and in addition to your criticisms of it above, it’s can be over reliant on ethnic stereotypes, but it’s still one of the best examples of diversity in a computer game.

    I worked out some stats before Ana was introduced, but here’s the updated numbers including her:
    9 female characters, 6 male (including a male identified robot), and 1 gender neutral robot.
    9 people of color, 10 white characters, and three non humans*.
    5 characters are women of color.

    Here’s some percentages:
    41% of charactes are female. 54% are male.
    41% of characters are people of color, and 45% are white.
    White males, by far the most common protagonist in videogames, make up a mere 27% of the playable characters.

    There are more women of color (5) in the game than there are white women (4). Women of color make up 23% of the playable characters in the game. Older women of color make up a whopping 4.5% of the playable characters, possibly the highest in any video game, ever.

    Oh, and it’s been strongly hinted that the next playable character will be a woman named Sombra, who is very likely to be Latina. So we may be getting another woman of color, soon.

    *One of the non humans is Nepalese and could be argued to be culturally representative of Nepalese buddhists. So maybe he’s a robot of color. It’s arguable. A blog post I read (can’t find it) suggested that Zarya could be white passing mixed race, as most people from Sibera are nonwhite. For stats, I’m not counting Zenyetta as having a race, and I’m counting Zarya as white.

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