In May 2016, Blizzard released Overwatch, the latest addition to their wide repertoire of successful games. Overwatch is a colourful, cartoony team-based first person shooter, an art direction much different to the dark, grimy feel the genre usually takes. The game is not dissimilar to the widely popular Valve game, Team Fortress 2, although the game takes greater strides in gameplay, with numerous 'global' themed maps, such as a steampunk London and a Hollywood map. However, perhaps the most appealing part of the game is the massively diverse range of heroes, each with their own unique play style and character design, at least among the male characters. From the German shield-bearer Reinhardt to the Brazilian music star, Lúcio, there is no shortage of differing ethnicities and body types in the game.
But how do the female characters stand up to the same test? In the original release of twelve heroes, five were female, and one, the war robot Bastion, genderless. Amongst the women, there is Pharah, an armoured offensive character from Egypt, and Symmetra, an Indian architect with autism. All the heroes have complex and developed back stories, explaining how they came to be part of or fighting against the defence team of the game's name, Overwatch, which adds to the strength of the game. However, one trend amongst the first five female characters is their body type. Tracer, the time-travelling adventurer, is slender. Widowmaker, the spider-like sniper, is slender. Even Mercy, an angelic, flying healer unit, is slender.
This is an issue prevalent throughout the games industry. A certain freedom is allowed when creating male characters. You can have hideous ogres and demonic creatures, but when it comes to making the female equivalent in games, the solution is to take the male version, slim them down, give them large breasts, full lips, and attractive faces and be done with it. This laziness in female character design stretches far across video game history, all the way back to the origins of gaming. The creation of Ms. Pacman in 1981 saw the same familiar yellow circle as her male counterpart, but with a larger pink bow, lipstick, and a beauty mark, reducing femaleness to these simple characteristics, a restricting and harmful stereotype.
To the game's credit, later female heroes were released that featured departures from the tall and skinny mould, with Zarya, a muscular, heavily built Russian soldier, and Mei, a Chinese climatologist with a large frame. They even broke out of the trend of having all female characters be in their twenties with the release of Ana Amari, mother of Pharah, a 60-year-old support sniper, who sports a hijab and eyepatch, yet another indicator of the diversity of the game.
Nevertheless, none of the women are 'ugly'. While on the men's side, you have a hero who takes the form of a gorilla and another, a large, irradiated, ruthless killer, whose face is hidden behind a gas mask, all of the female characters' faces are pristine, attractive and visible.
With a new hero on the way, a hacker named Sombra, Blizzard have a chance to break this trend as they have done with others, but with a recently leaked image possibly showing Sombra's design, it doesn't look likely. The company have also had issues of a similar theme in the past, in particular a controversy regarding a victory pose of Tracer, which people argued was too sexualised. Despite this, Overwatch remains one of the more diverse games out there, and with its dedicated and expansive fan base, we might soon see the results of having such a colourful cast of playable heroes. I remain hopeful that they will continue to be progressive with their heroes and inspire the games industry to follow suit.
Original image by James Routledge