The second season of the Overwatch League, perhaps the world’s most popular esports league, has commenced. Ahead of the league’s second week of play, one question must be answered about the widely played video game: Where are the black female characters?
The game’s developers, Blizzard Entertainment, position the team-based first-person shooter as the pinnacle of diversity and inclusion in the industry. Yet, nearly three years since it launched, Overwatch still lacks a playable black female character, although the game does include other women of color. When recently asked about the situation, Jeff Kaplan, the game’s director, talked about new heroes with Nathan Grayson of kotaku.com: “We have no shortage of heroes that we’re currently working on secretly back in Irvine. Right now I think the number’s around six that we have in development. I don’t think people are gonna be disappointed.”
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Take a look at the roster of heroes. They have different backgrounds, races and origins. In November, Overwatch introduced its 29th character, Ashe, the game’s seventh white woman, who appeared to be a darker-skinned woman in original concept art. For black female gamers, being unable to play with a character who looks like them is disturbing, yet familiar.
The situation industrywide has improved, albeit slowly. According to Alisha Karabinus, assistant editor for NYMG, a feminist gaming website, there were about 21 playable black female characters in video game history in 2013. Six years later, she bumps the number up to a range of 30 to 32. Thus, Overwatch isn’t guilty of a unique sin. Last month, however, Electronic Arts released Apex Legends, a first-person battle royale shooter that included two playable black female characters out of a roster of eight. Naturally, this precipitated more Overwatch criticism:
Overwatch has no playable black women as of three years of updates and Apex Legends has two on the launch day. Damn I guess it wasn't actually that hard to do at all
— dante gdc (@videodante) February 5, 2019
how does Apex Legends have two black women at launch and Overwatch still doesnt have any after three years pic.twitter.com/xRVOB5SwQ2
— Hoshizora (@HoshizoraOCE) February 7, 2019
Apex Legends just launched with like 8 characters and it already has more black women than Overwatch…
— piri piri sauce lesbian (@Gloriousdownfal) February 5, 2019
Jay-Ann Lopez, creator of Black Girl Gamers, an online community that aims to lift black women’s voices in gaming, has loudly leveled her grievances against Overwatch. “After three years of waiting for a black woman to be revealed, I stopped playing,” she said. “I have no issue with playing characters of any other race, but it stings, a lot, when who I am is left out.” She believes “an unambiguous and non-colorist representation of a black woman” could rekindle her interest.
L.L. McKinney, a novelist, gamer and advocate for diversity and equality, shares a similar Overwatch story: “I got my friends and family into it. They purchased their own copies to play with me and on their own. But as time went on and we kept getting new heroes — and black women kept being left out — my love for the game dimmed. I stopped playing altogether for a good long while.”
Another game, Paladins, piqued her curiosity after it introduced Imani, a new black female character. “I saw the video and was in love. Instantly. In seeing her I saw us, and I felt a multitude of things,” she told me. “And when I played with her, it was amazing. … Hearing her voice, seeing her on-screen, was incredible.”
On Overwatch online forums, some black women such as McKinney petitioned Blizzard to unveil a black female hero. Invariably, venom met these pleas.
One person responded, “You can still live in your lefty diversity dream bubble, but you should better wake up! Real diversity means that it does not matter if a character is female or black, as long it fits to the story.” Another replied, “You seem to put way too much importance on appearances. I highly doubt most people here have a real problem with black women as heroes, but whining to Blizzard and claiming they’re not doing enough is making you sound entitled.” And yet another complained that “people should also not be requesting a specific race, sexuality, or gender of a new character. They should let the creators make what they feel fits it. People coming on here saying they want a black woman because they are. … That’s pandering.”
Black folk have grown accustomed to hearing such rejoinders after complaining about the lack of representation in popular culture. The criticism that we encounter amounts to maligning us for asking to be included. Opponents of such requests believe that by asking to see our humanity in the art we consume, we seek some sort of special favor.
When people of color ask for inclusion, some gamers respond with the usual questions: What’s the big deal? Why does the race of video game characters matter? They don’t understand that the answers to those questions undermine their arguments.
If race and gender aren’t that big of a deal, then why the dearth of black female characters? A lack of diversity reflects the desires of decision-makers inside the industry.
When black people complain about the lack of representation in popular culture, we get hit with accusations of demanding political correctness. But if asking for inclusion is political correctness, then the most politically correct of all are white people who harbor desires for representation so strongly that other groups are excluded.