Overwatch is a welcome franchise at Nonplayable. Featuring some of the strongest design in gaming, Blizzard’s latest IP has earned more than its fair share of praise. It’s also ridiculously fun.
We’re a little over two months in, so it’s safe to say the Overwatch honeymoon (Overmoon) has ended. With that, people, let’s talk about something that’s been bugging me since I first played the game.
So, my favorite character in the game is Pharah, the propulsion-powered Egyptian paragon of justice — with emphasis on the Egyptian. Pharah would be considered a shining example of Overwatch’s approach to global representation as someone who quite literally wears her heritage. From her given name (Fareeha Amari) to her motif evoking the Dynastic periods, there’s no mistaking Pharah’s Egyptian identity.
In combat, Pharah wears a dope battle suit. Like any dope battle suit, it can be made doper with the addition of skins, and in my opinion, Pharah has the best skins in Overwatch by a mile. Some explore her heritage further like the Anubis and Jackal skins. Others, such as Mechaqueen and Raptorion take Pharah from 0-to-anime in a heartbeat. If you want to play up her military background, then Security Chief is the one for you. Finally, if you’re all about roaming the plains and living off the land, there’s her Thunderbird skin…
I am 1000% certain that I wasn’t the only person rich in melanin to snap their neck at a full 360 degrees upon seeing this in the Hero Gallery.
The skin is astonishing as far as artistic accomplishment goes. The skin is also astonishing because it is an Egyptian wearing Native American culture as a costume, or as I call it here at Nonplayable, a textbook example of a decision that couldn’t have possibly been made with brown people in the room to cut the problematic light on.
Beautiful skin, bad idea.
So, how did this happen? I wasn’t in the room when the decision was made, but game director Jeff Kaplan was. In a July interview regarding the general direction of Overwatch, Kaplan had some time to explain Pharahbird. It was well, expected gymnastics. Yet, of his response, what stuck out the most to me was the following:
Specifically when you talk about that Pharah skin, it’s really interesting because the first time that we had seen the concept art of it, we were all blown away. We were like, “That is the most beautiful, awesome thing that we’ve ever seen. We absolutely want something like that in our game.” We wrestled with like, “OK, so Pharah is clearly Egyptian and that’s her heritage. That’s her nationality and we want to respect that and we also want to be respectful of Native American culture.” We sort of had this moment of asking ourselves, “Are we being disrespectful in any way?” The Native American parts of it feel awesome and feel like an homage and like, “Hey, isn’t this cool?”
So…uh…wow this is wild egregious.
“Wrestle” was used no more than 3 times in his explanation, and well … again, I don’t know who was in the room when that decision was made, but as a brown person in America, you could pay me a smooth $50k a year to say “STOP” the nanosecond “wrestling” with cultural appropriation became a serious option.
This response was mind-boggling because again, Pharah’s Egyptian heritage is handled with some degree of care. But to find out a skin that looks like it came from left field actually came from left field? Really, what’s the point of championing this commitment to diversity if it apparently took no time to kick around the very idea of slapping a headdress on Pharah and calling it a day?
In that same interview, Kaplan later uses a rather poor Big Ben example to justify the fantasy aspect of Overwatch’s design philosophy influencing the Pharahbird decision, and I didn’t think my face messed with my palm like that but there they were — embracing.
However, I feel the most telling line in Kaplan’s entire response was “We sort of had this moment of asking ourselves…”
Obviously, decisions at that level take some form of counsel, but it makes you wonder: Who’s “we”? I mean, if this idea was proposed before — presumably — a council of differing perspectives and it was still greenlighted, that council is either (a) not very diverse, (b) not very good, or (c) both.
“Awesome” is not a good reason to mishandle the culture and/or heritage of marginalized people. Not now, not ever. Things like the K-Pop scene alone grind my gears often as a Black person, so I can imagine what it means to play with an Egyptian in war chief cosplay as Native Americans have a hard enough time preserving what’s left of their traditions in the face of “awesome” fashion as it is.
If that appreciation of Native cultures were true in it’s sincerity, all you guys at Blizzard had to do was create a Native American character. I’m sure Jesse McCree would not have been missed.
Instead, another poor decision was made in a great game that is now possibly too far along to rectify.
Listen — devs and designers alike: You can’t mix and match brown people from entirely different parts of the world because you think it’s cool. We are not Legos.
Now, can we lay off cultural controversy for like, a season?