'Overwatch' gets a lot right about diversity, but totally fails with Symmetra


Since its release in May, Overwatch, Blizzard's massively popular competitive first-person shooter, has paved the way for diversity and representation in the gaming world. To the dismay of angry Gamergaters who rail against political correctness, Overwatch features playable characters who are queer, nonwhite and non-male. Fifteen countries (and the moon) are represented in the hero roster. The game routinely makes headlines for, well, "getting it right" in a way similar titles never seem to emulate.

For how explicitly forward-thinking Overwatch is, there's one area where it still falls short: its use of language. Even there, Blizzard has done an admirable job. Sombra speaks and even sprays graffiti in Spanish. Ana speaks in Arabic with a clear Egyptian accent. But when it comes to Symmetra, Overwatch fails any Indian players hoping to see a bit of themselves in the game.

How Symmetra falls short

According to Overwatch lore, Satya "Symmetra" Vaswan was raised in Hyderabad, a city in southern India. At a young age, she was taken out of poverty to learn from and work for the multinational Vishkar Corporation. Despite her entire life spent in India, Symmetra has never spoken Hindi, or any of the other 415 Indian languages, within the context of the game. It's inexplicable — a disconcerting oversight given the care with which the game's developers have fleshed out her character.

Blizzard's failures when it comes to Symmetra don't stop with her language. A February 2016 Reddit post titled "The Blizzard design team should really research India before making an Indian character" critiques her "ridiculous dance" and clothing.

"First of all, she is wearing a Kurta without pants," wrote Reddit user looktatmyname, referencing the traditional Indian upper garment. "To understand how weird it looks, imagine a man like me wearing a men's suit without pants and going into battle."

"To understand how weird [Symmetra] looks, imagine a man like me wearing a men's suit without pants and going into battle."

To be fair, Symmetra isn't wearing a traditional Kurta at all. It looks more like an altered version of an Ao Dai, a traditional Vietnamese garment that's also worn with pants underneath. So Overwatch may actually be misrepresenting Symmetra's identity and doing a disservice to another — all in an effort to show a little leg.

Why diversity in games matters

Accurately depicting various cultures and nationalities isn't just about checking boxes on a list. It's about creating an inclusive experience for all types of players. If the point of diversity is to represent multiple cultures, striving for cultural diversity over physical characteristics is imperative.

If there were a Persian character, for example, I would be waiting to hear mentions of Persian food like Ghormeh Sabzi or jokes about jumping over a fire in the middle of March. 

When I hear Farsi, it feels like home. I want that for Indians who play Overwatch.

When I hear Farsi, it feels like home. I want that for Indians who play Overwatch.

Overwatch has shown some promise in demonstrating cultural diversity. The recent Chinese New Year "Year of the Rooster" event introduced new cosmetics that accurately portray the significance of the holiday to different characters, particularly D.va, who is Korean, and Mei, who is Chinese. Korean customs were captured in items like D.va's skin and victory pose and even a skin for Ana, while Chinese traditions were presented with Mei, Mercy, Symmetra skins and various hero sprays. 

It's a great start, and more than most other games would even consider — but accurately depicting the diversity of language is an important next step.

Calling a character Indian and moving on is just plain lazy

The design choice regarding Symmetra's language also represents a long history of Western pop culture collapsing distinctions among the multitude of South Asian and Middle Eastern identities, according to South Asian activist Jasveen Sarna.

"Most people identify with their ethnicity or state before the country [of India]," Sarna said. "So if you are to ask another person what they are or where they're from, they'll probably tell you their ethnicity and not their nationality."

Moreover, being labeled "Indian" doesn't really mean anything in practice. "The Indian national identity is allegiance to the state of India, and that's about it," she said. "There are no common language, food, holidays or customs."

Symmetra represented an opportunity to shine a light on one of many diverse identities in an often misunderstood part of the world. Instead, Overwatch falls back on lazy stereotypes and Western-imposed nationalities.


Representation matters more than ever in the Trump era 

During the current political climate centered on brown folks from these regions, it's especially important to be precise when representing communities of people and their experiences. 

Under a regime in which people from majority-Muslim nations are targeted by immigration restrictions, featuring diverse and specific brown characters is an accessible way for consumers of pop culture to understand the nuances and history of the region.

Through cultural diversity, audiences might better understand that India is made up of dozens of different ethnic groups. Symmetra could help players fully grasp the complex geopolitical history of India and Pakistan. In similar instances, accurately representing cultures can help audiences understand the history of countries like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.

Maybe one day soon, we'll see some Symmetra voice lines in another language. Her voice actress, Anjali Bhimani, even tweeted that she'd be into it.

These specifics matter, because Overwatch heroes aren't just fictional characters — they're models of real-life people and their cultures. When people walk away from these stories, they will take what they learned with them. The Overwatch team has made its efforts toward diversity explicit, and its work is constantly in progress. Now will be the real test of its commitment.