When Overwatch launched in 2016, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Its cast was a self-proclaimed mix of “oddities,” whose “soaring ideals of freedom and equality would never be forgotten.” It felt like a video game for everyone. No more deciphering who the undercover Asian was or playing as another square-jawed white man: I could play D.Va, a mech pilot from Korea, or Mei, the sarcastically apologetic Chinese scientist. And despite some noticeable missteps with characters like Tracer, Symmetra, and Pharah, Blizzard seemed earnest in its attempt to create an inclusive video game, despite everything behind the scenes.
Other studios, most notably Respawn Entertainment, quickly followed suit, realizing the same lessons that movie executives had learned a decade earlier with the Fast and Furious franchise and MCU: Multiculturalism sells.
Six years later and Blizzard’s slipshod track record demonstrates the limits of this milquetoast, Pixar-ification approach to diversity. Take for example Overwatch’s newest healer, Kiriko, whose origin trailer is a textbook example of how not to design or present a Japanese character. The trailer opens with cringe-inducing references to honor, intergenerational obligations, and long-forgotten mystic arts. It then segues to the Shinto shrine maiden/ninja boldly claiming that she has forged her own path. It ends with Kiriko literally wielding her culture — ofuda and kunai — as weapons. If you’ve consumed any American media from the ‘80s or ‘90s, this should sound very familiar.
Fortunately, the trailer throws a curveball by showing that Kiriko is the leader of a group of infinitely more interesting people called the Yōkai. I assume this is because other easily recognizable Japanese words, such as rōnin, were already taken. The problem isn’t just that Kiriko is yet another honor-bound, semi-mystical, ninja-esque Japanese warrior. Nor is it that her design blends traditional and contemporary motifs. I’ve long wanted to incorporate hanbok, which literally translates to ‘Korean clothing’ but practically means wearing traditional clothing with a modern twist, into my own wardrobe and Masami Teraoka is unequivocally one of the coolest artists alive. Rather, it’s that when presented with the entire nation of Japan and a virtually blank canvas, Blizzard — like so many other studios — can only do more of the same.
Putting aside story limitations, Blizzard could have given Kiriko any number of different backstories. They could draw inspiration from the Ainu in the north, or Yasuke, the famed 16th-century African retainer to Oda Nobunaga. They could have made her an overworked salaryman on the verge of karōshi (literally, ‘overwork death’) or an office lady frustrated by Japan’s stifling cultural expectations for women. Blizzard could have chosen any other combination of Japanese culture, body shapes, tropes, and skin tone. Instead, they sanded off all the interesting parts about Japanese culture in favor of an overused trope masquerading as diversity. The parts of Kiriko that make her feel like an actual human being are tucked away in places where no one will see them: character portraits, tags, and lore videos.
Tragically, Blizzard’s approach to diversity does little in the way of creating a kinder, more thoughtful community. Those who are against more melanin in fictional characters — and who would benefit the most by actually interacting with them — see these moves for what they truly are: ham-fisted attempts to attract an increasingly progressive demographic. So do those begging to see their experiences represented on-screen. As silly as it sounds, these mistakes have real-world consequences. It could be something innocuous, like a stranger jokingly asking if you know karate. It could be serious, like someone wanting to test your nonexistent martial prowess. But proper representation isn’t just about avoiding fights. Studies show that positive representation can lead to things we all want, like improved mental health, better economic outcomes, and greater community trust.
Positive representation can also serve as a powerful force for change. D.Va was temporarily a rallying symbol for women’s equality in South Korea, a country that consistently ranks at the bottom for gender equality. For a brief moment, the game managed to bring a group of marginalized people together, which isn’t something every video game can do. In many respects, I suppose I should be grateful that Blizzard didn’t sexualize Kiriko. Those depictions can have more serious consequences than a bruised playground ego. Scholars have pointed out that recent attacks on Asian women, such as the Atlanta spa shootings, are rooted in the persistent sexual objectification of Asian women in popular culture.
The uniquely frustrating thing about writing this article is not the terrible, bad-faith internet comments that will inevitably follow. Rather, it’s the fact that the people behind Kiriko’s design clearly know a lot about Japanese culture. Two of her legendary skins feature souvenir jackets, a uniquely Japanese type of clothing. Eventually, someone will point out that some of Kiriko’s creators are Asian. I’m sure that if we met, we would agree on many things. I also know from firsthand experience that there is an unfair amount of pressure placed on marginalized creators to ‘get it right’ every time. Perfect is never good enough. You have to be twice as good as anyone else.
Nevertheless, that does not excuse the studio’s approach to diversity, which is to copy and paste cultural artifacts onto the same Eurocentric standard of beauty. Fundamentally, Overwatch is not a game about freedom and equality. It is a suffocating box that oscillates between incompetence and fetishization, with brief glimpses at what positive representation looks like. Characters like Kiriko aren’t diverse or inclusive. They’re simply representations of diversity, a marketing smokescreen that allows studios to handwave away pleas for actual representations.
There are some, particularly those who have been historically underrepresented, that will see any visibility as a win. However, having a diverse cast is meaningless if the game promotes a viewpoint that caters specifically to those in power. Perhaps that’s the true limitation of this approach to diversity. In order to get on screen, Black and brown people are forced to contort themselves into increasingly stereotypical depictions that continue the cycle of marginalization. Those who speak out are often labeled as ungrateful, as though we should be thankful for the mere opportunity to exist on screen for a few brief seconds before quietly receding into the darkness again.
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