Soldier 76 is gay now. And while many would argue that we should be happy for the representation, not only have we gotten another Canon Gay in Overwatch, but he’s an older queer man (something not often seen in videogames, where queer identities are mostly relegated to young women). But I have a hard time meeting this with fanfare. We live in a post Dream Daddy world, and this is a safe, predictable and calculated move. It’s not actually about inclusion.
Look, it’s great that Overwatch gave the fandom another queer character. It’s great that it’s not a typical decision. It’s also pretty great that homophobes are really pissed off about it. But while it’s okay to like and be happy about this latest character sexuality revelation, it’s also important to approach it with a degree of skepticism and critical inquiry.
You can love your new gay soldier dad, but don’t start handing out cookies to Blizzard.
Overwatch ’s approach to character development is to excerpt it entirely from the actual game and tease it out over time in ancillary media. From beautifully crafted cinematics to short stories and comics, any narrative or character work Blizzard does is outside the scope of the game. This is important for two major and interrelated reasons.
Not having any real story or character work within the confines of Overwatch (the game) means that Blizzard isn’t constrained by narrative. They don’t have to justify or realize decisions from the supporting media within the competitive shooter. Basically, to borrow from the Las Vegas board of tourism: What happens in Overwatch cinematics, stays in Overwatch cinematics. They’re free to pursue the outlandish financial opportunities of things like esports and international sales without running into issues of censorship, cultural taboos or legal restrictions, or worry about upsetting a fanbase too much. No matter how gay Tracer or Soldier 76 get in the comics, players and sponsors never have to really think about it too much. It’s telling that Blizzard never does these reveals at their major marquee events—only ever in an easily overlooked space, one typically reserved for (and carved out) by fandom.
But that also means these slow moving decisions to establish character identities that differ from the normative (cisgender, heterosexual, white, able-bodied, neurotypical) are, let’s face it, cowardly. Making Tracer a lesbian was safe, because the status quo accepts young queer women more readily in media. Since Tracer’s outing, gay dads have also been rendered more readily acceptable too. In a sense, while it’s nice to have gay representation, Blizzard isn’t doing anything to make it meaningful. They’re flipping a switch from NOT GAY to GAY. And they’re getting praised for that. But you know what? They could have done this all along.
In fact Overwatch is so disconnected from its story and characters that Blizzard could flip all kinds of switches if they really cared. Moira could have come out guns blazing as canonically transgender, SpiderByte could have been the default from launch, we could get a glimpse of Junkrat massaging Roadhog’s feet after a long day on the payload. We could have gotten 1/100th of what the fandom has already done, and it wouldn’t have impacted the game at all. And it would have been more meaningful, because it wouldn’t read as an afterthought.
Representation shouldn’t be something you do when it’s convenient, safe or easy.
It’s not convenient, safe or easy being gay or trans or bisexual or Black. It should be something you do because it’s important, because you want a game that reflects the playerbase (and guess what? a lot of queer/trans/people of color play Overwatch, so deal with it). Representation has to represent, it needs to have significance and weight, and it requires creators to do work. It can’t be because it makes marketing sense. And no matter what Jeff Kaplan says, these decisions are primarily motivated by Blizzard’s bottom line. Activision-Blizzard is publicly traded and they report to shareholders—everything they do is motivated by the bottom line in some way.
None of this is to undermine the work of the artist and writers who have created these characters and small, outside stories, or the queer employees who work at Blizzard. They exist, and they absolutely work hard. However, they do so within a massive corporate entity that is, by design, less interested in their identities and experiences, and more interested in how it can convert their skilled labor into better profits.
Blizzard is not your friend. Blizzard is not an ally. Blizzard is a multi-billion dollar corporation.
With Overwatch, in many ways, the majority of character development and narrative work has been the purview of the fandom. Agree with it or not, fans have been the primary driving force behind the vitality of Overwatch’s heroes. And Blizzard is keenly aware of this, and even courted it. Fandom interaction with a property drives continued interest, and continued interest sells more copies, merchandise…and lootboxes.
Blizzard in a very real way has monetized the labor of fans, who from day one have been exploring the possibilities of sexual and romantic identities and pairings of Overwatch’s heroes on a daily basis. And while it might be comforting to read Overwatch’s reticence to establish canonical identities for its heroes, it’s important to understand that head/fan canon exists outside of a top-down authority. In this case, Blizzard is that authority, and their moves toward canonicity have always been extremely safe, and after scores of fans have already established much messier, more interesting, and involved explorations of identity and experience for their beloved heroes. It’s the cheap road to diversity. A representation that gestures at queer lives at a distance, in isolation.
Meanwhile, as Blizzard reaps even more massive praise for its commitment to the representation (even when it’s a problematic mess), there are independent queer developers and developers of color working tirelessly to create games where marginalized identities and experiences are central, planned and expressed from the beginning, because they are part of these characters—not a layer thrown on later. They create games and virtual worlds where queerness can be understated or ostentatious, but is also allowed to be messy or imperfect. Because of that they’re more representative of our lives as marginalized people. And they do so with whatever resources they can scrounge up from day jobs and kickstarters, and not the backing of a massive media enterprise.
Soldier 76 and Tracer and whoever else Blizzard decides to unveil as the newest LGBTQ+ hero aren’t bad, and no one is wrong for embracing those characters if they want to. But imagine a world where games by independent, marginalized creators garner the same level of attention and praise (even if just for their adding palpably to the diversity of our media landscape), and where Blizzard’s Diversity & Inclusion flagship game isn’t helmed by a white, cis, straight dude at the very least. Where Overwatch’s commitment to diversity and inclusion acknowledges its debt to fan creators, and does them justice by refusing to be safe and reticent. That’s the world I prefer to keep working towards, and to do that we have to be critical, skeptical and mindful of what major corporations are doing when they claim to be for us.