In 2016, when Overwatch debuted, it was like a breath of new air. Its cast was a self-described “oddities” who “would never forget the soaring ideals of freedom and equality.” It had the vibe of a universal video game.
I could play D.Va, a Korean mech pilot, or Mei, the sardonically apologetic Chinese scientist, instead of trying to figure out who the undercover Asian was or pretending to be another square-jawed white man. And despite all that went on behind the scenes, Blizzard seems sincere in its endeavour to make an inclusive video game, despite some obvious mistakes with characters like Tracer, Symmetra, and Pharah.
The MCU and the Fast & Furious franchise taught movie executives that multiculturalism appeals to audiences, and other studios soon followed suit, most notably Respawn Entertainment.
The shortcomings of this milquetoast, Pixar-ification approach to diversity are still evident six years later in Blizzard’s shoddy track record. For instance, the origin trailer for Kiriko, the newest healer in Overwatch, is a classic illustration of how poorly to create or convey a Japanese character.
The opening of the trailer features cringe-worthy allusions to honour, intergenerational duties, and long-forgotten esoteric arts. The Shinto shrine maiden/ninja then openly asserts that she has carved out her own path. At the very end, Kiriko uses the ofuda and kunai which are symbols of her culture as weapons.
This ought to sound extremely familiar to anyone who has seen or read any American media from the 1980s or 1990s.
Fortunately, the teaser throws a surprise by revealing that Kiriko is the head of a tribe known as the Ykai, who are considerably more fascinating. This, I suppose, is due to the fact that other famous Japanese terms, like rnin, are already in use. The issue goes beyond the fact that Kiriko is another ninja-like, semi-mystical, honour-bound Japanese fighter.
She also doesn’t combine modern and traditional aspects in her design. Masami Teraoka is without a doubt one of the best artists now working, and I’ve long wanted to include hanbok, which is literally translated as “Korean dress,” but actually refers to wearing traditional clothing with a modern twist, into my own wardrobe.
Instead, it’s the fact that Blizzard, like so many other firms, is limited to producing more of the same when faced with the entire country of Japan and an essentially blank canvas.
Aside from the constraints of the plot, Blizzard could have given Kiriko a plethora of possible backstories. They could take their cues from the Ainu in the north or Yasuke, the renowned African servant of Oda Nobunaga in the sixteenth century.
They might have portrayed her as a stressed-out salaryman on the point of karshi (literally, “overwork death”) or as an office woman irritated by the oppressive cultural norms placed on women in Japan.
Blizzard has the option to select any alternative set of physique types, Japanese cultural traits, and skin tones. Instead, they eliminated all the intriguing aspects of Japanese culture in favour of a tired cliché that passes for variety. Character photographs, tags, and backstory films are some of the areas where Kiriko may be found that make her feel like a real person.
Tragically, Blizzard’s attitude to diversity has no effect on building a more compassionate, considerate community. People who oppose increased melanin in fictional characters—and who would gain the most from really engaging with them—see these initiatives for what they are: feeble attempts to appeal to an audience that is becoming more progressive.
The same is true for people who plead to have their experiences portrayed on TV. Despite how ridiculous it may sound, some errors have real-world repercussions. Something innocent like a stranger playfully asking whether you know karate may be the trigger.
It may be something serious, like someone asking to judge your fictitious martial skills. But effective representation goes beyond staying out of fights. According to studies, the good representation may result in things we all desire, such as better mental health, more favourable economic results, and more community trust.
A strong force for change may also be found in positive portrayal. In South Korea, which routinely scores last for gender equality, D.Va served as a temporary rallying point for women’s rights. It’s not something every video game can achieve, but for a small period of time, the game was able to reunite a group of socially excluded individuals.
I suppose I should be thankful that Blizzard didn’t sexualize Kiriko in many ways. More severe repercussions than a hurt ego on the playground may result from those portrayals. Recent assaults against Asian women, including the shootings at the Atlanta spa, have been linked by academics to the constant sexual objectification of Asian women in popular culture.
Not the awful, malicious comments on the internet that will unavoidably follow, but the process of producing this piece has been particularly unpleasant. Instead, it’s the fact that the designers of Kiriko obviously have a deep understanding of Japanese culture.
Two of her legendary skins include souvenir jackets, an article of apparel that is exclusive to Japan. Someone will eventually bring up the fact that some of Kiriko’s creators are Asian. If we met, I have no doubt that we would have a lot in common. I also have personal knowledge of the excessive pressure put on disadvantaged creators to consistently “get it right.” Perfect is never sufficient.
You must be two times better than everyone else.
However, this does not justify the studio’s strategy for dealing with diversity, which involves pasting cultural items onto the same Eurocentric definition of beauty. Overwatch is not, at its core, a game about liberty and equality.
With only fleeting views of what positive representation looks like, it is a constricted box that alternates between competency and fetishization. Kiriko-like characters lack diversity and inclusivity. They are merely diversity representations, a marketing ruse used by studios to dismiss requests for real representations.
Some people will view any visibility as a victory, especially those who have been historically underrepresented. A varied cast is useless, though, if the game supports a point of view that exclusively benefits people in positions of authority.
Perhaps this is the real drawback of this diversification strategy. Black and brown people are compelled to distort themselves into increasingly stereotyped portrayals in order to appear on TV, which feeds the cycle of marginalisation.
Those who speak out are sometimes accused of being ungrateful as if we should be grateful for nothing more than the chance to exist on television for a few fleeting seconds before silently fading away again.
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