overwatch director Jeff Kaplan recently gave a speech at DICE on the importance of creating games that are inclusive. Following his speech, I sat down with him to talk some more about this subject. I wanted to hear about the process and the challenges of creating games that step outside video gaming’s character confines of overwhelmingly white, straight, male heroes.

Game making is a creative process, an amalgamation of individual ideas and biases into a collective consensus. Games are consumed by people with their own passions, frustrations and desires. These games are also subject to international censorship laws and the conservative media’s outrage machine.

We’re told that it’s impossible to please all the people all the time, but this has turned out to be a thin excuse for gaming’s lack of diversity. For a long time, developers and publishers have satisfied themselves with pleasing the small slice of humanity they feel comfortable portraying. Not coincidentally, this male, white and East Asian demographic is also dominant in development, retail, publishing and, yes, journalism.

“There’s always going to be someone upset with things that we do,” Kaplan says. “We know we’re not always going to get it right. But it’s about trying to be welcoming to a lot of people and thinking about others.”

The general pitch is, look, we recognize that representation is important, and we’re trying to do something about it. This chimes with fellow DICE speaker Marvel Games creative director Bill Rosemann, who said much the same thing during his well-received keynote.

League of Legends‘ Greg Street recently indicated that Riot Game’s MOBA could have an LGBT character soon, but warned that differing human rights laws and attitudes in various countries is an obstacle.

CHANGING PLACES

So, just how diverse is Overwatch, especially compared to multi-character games of yesteryear?

Overwatch‘s portfolio of 24 heroes features 12 women, 11 men and three non-humans. Among those born on Earth, nine are from majority Caucasian countries in Europe, North America and Australia. Ten are from countries in Asia, South / Middle America and Africa. So the male / female and the white / non-white split is about fifty / fifty.

Compare this with 14 characters in 1991’s Street Fighter 2 (including CPU bosses and 1993 additions.) It only featured one woman. The Japanese game offered some geographic diversity. Six came from Asia, with other non-white characters hailing from Jamaica, Mexico and Brazil. Of the two U.S. characters, one was African-American. Two characters came from Europe.

Of Mortal Kombat‘s original characters, nine were men (or aliens identified as male). Most hailed from either China or Japan, with two coming from the United States.

So yes, progress has definitely been made. Overwatch is way more gender-representative than games of the past. Also, its de facto mascot is a queer woman. Gay characters are still rare in video games. Historically, they are almost non-existent.

Overwatch is also making efforts to take a global approach with its geographic diversity. Although there is a concentration of white faces from European countries, there is more than a token sprinkling of non-white characters from the rest of the world.

The most recent character addition, a robot called Orisa, was created by a West African girl inventor, Efi Oladele. Sub-Saharan Africa has been woefully under-represented in video games. It’s something of a disappointment, for me at least, that she isn’t one of the actual heroes.

Overwatch backstory character Efi Oladele
Blizzard Entertainment

For Blizzard, the problem of diversity began right at the start of the project, when it was decided that the game would take place on Earth. (For more onOverwatch‘s genesis, read this Polygon feature.) Series like StarCraft and World of Warcraft take place in fantasy settings.

“Diversity is something that we were really cautious about,” says Kaplan. “When you’re representing Night Elves or Terrans no one gets horrifically offended at you unless you do something terribly ignorant, or you misrepresent them in some way [according to canon].

“Earth was very challenging for us as a team. It hadn’t been a space we were used to. When I talked about the diversity of the heroes in Overwatch, a lot of people wanted to know if we’d represent someone from every country. But there are hundreds of nations. We’re not the type of game where we’re going to have hundreds of heroes, or at least not anytime soon.”

With 193 countries counted as members of the United Nations, this is clearly impractical. But there are entire regions of the world that have been sorely unrepresented in gaming.

“If you have a game with a couple of heroes from one single walk of life, and then a hero is added from a different walk of life, then there’s a big conversation about that,” Kaplan says. “But once you hit a level of diversity that’s broad enough, then the conversation totally shifts. You cross a certain threshold where I think people expect and understand that anything is possible.

“So we created a universe where, at any moment, people can believe that anyone from anywhere might be the next character, I don’t think anybody would be shocked by a South Pacific islander or an Italian. So in Overwatch it was less about that obligation that we had to represent everybody and more about creating an approachable, welcoming world, where people feel safe and comfortable.”

jeff kaplan
Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan
Blizzard Entertainment

LUNAR SENSITIVITIES

This attempt to grapple with the complexities of cultural sensitivities is not without its difficulties. But the rewards are satisfying. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we all appreciate having the peculiarities of own own cultures recognized.

For the recent Lunar New Year, Overwatch made sure to include Korean traditions as well as Chinese. “Even though both China and Korea celebrate Lunar New Year, they celebrate it completely differently,” explains Kaplan. “The color palettes and the music are different.

“So we did an event called Overwatch Year of the Rooster. When you started up the game there were two screens. One featured Mei in the traditional red and gold Chinese New Year colors. But we also built a Korean temple for D.Va. It would have been disrespectful to show her in a Chinese setting. We also composed a completely separate piece of music.

“We did the research and realized that if we weren’t careful, we might come across as very offensive even as we were trying to honor these cultures.” This sort of care has been rewarded in Korea, where D.Va is very popular. A feminist group of Overwatch fans was photographed waving D.Va insignia at the Seoul women’s march earlier this year.

Inevitably, Overwatch‘s characters become avatars for the hopes and the prejudices of the game’s many fans. They are drafted as warriors for online culture wars.

BEHIND THE CURVE

There are many who believe that increased diversity is “pandering.” Others see Overwatch‘s characters as cleaving to whitewashed or exoticized ideas about otherness. This creates a schism in the Overwatch community, something that companies like Blizzard are keen to avoid.

The most notorious example of this in Overwatch‘s Tracer pose controversy. In March, 2016, an image of a proposed new Tracer victory pose created a massive argument on the game’s forum pages. Some argued that the sexualized image was inappropriate to the character. Others countered that this kind of consumer-meddling might compromise the game’s core creativity.

“They were being very mean to each other,” says Kaplan. “I didn’t like it. It was the first big rift we’d had in our community.”

In the end, the pose was replaced. At the time, as now, Kaplan agrees with those who believed the post was out of character. But Overwatch utilizes similar poses for other characters — men and women — who are more traditionally sultry and showy in their physical representations.

“When we made the first round of victory poses we had to make like 21 heroes times three poses. They didn’t all get the total creative care and attention they should have. I made a pretty hasty post where I basically said, ‘don’t worry our goal is not to make anybody feel uncomfortable, we want to change the pose’.

“The truth was we wanted to change the pose anyway. It just wasn’t right. It was more of a knock-off of Widowmaker posing or Hanzo posing. Those fit within in the creative core of the characters. But I had ignited this controversy on the internet. We were looking at the social media trends and it was the largest spike that we’d had, at that time, in Overwatch social media mentions”

Tracer
Overwatch’s Tracer
Blizzard Entertainment

A LONG ROAD

Kaplan and Blizzard are taking tentative steps away from gaming’s mistakes and lazy biases of the past. But this is still a company mainly staffed by men of European and East Asian ancestry or origin. Kaplan says it’s essential that his team remain open-minded.

“We’re extremely open minded about who we hire,” he says. “We spend a lot of time getting visas for people from overseas. We genuinely care about tapping into game development talent from all over.

“I interviewed one of our artists, a woman, and I asked about how we can improve diversity. She said that what she most cares about is the level of open-mindedness and how much we build a team that is open to exploring other cultures and being respectful of people, not matter where they’re from.”

Still, even the most progressive entertainment companies are wedded to heroes of a certain type: slim, attractive, youthful, outgoing. There’s a long way to go until we really see heroes who break new ground, above and beyond the most basic representative check-boxes.

Blizzard has a difficult course to navigate. Every new hero, every backstory, personality, pose, skin-tone and body-type is going to be scrutinized and discussed. Blizzard will be judged constantly.

Progress, such as it is, must be recognized as a statement of intent, a move in the direction of inclusiveness, rather than its full embrace. But games companies like Blizzard are, at the very least, distancing themselves from the crass “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it,” school of thoughtlessness.

“Easily the biggest fear when representing people is glomming onto the wrong stereotype or making anybody feel uncomfortable,” Kaplan says. “At the same time, we’re wrestling with our own creative integrity, what we want to do and what we believe is right, not only for the game but for the future. We think of Overwatch as being beyond the 6v6 shooter. We think of it as a universe we hope to build many games in some day.”

Moving away from the relative comfort of off-world fantasy realms has proved to be a sharp learning curve. “There was this shift on the team, where we realized we had to stop thinking of Earth as this boring place. It’s an amazingly cool place and what makes it cool is all its differences,” he says. “We no longer look at the cultural sensitivity as a land mine or as an obligation. We look at it as an opportunity.”

The Article First Appeared In polygon.com