Last week Blizzard announced the newest addition to their wildly popular team shooter Overwatch, and the gaming internet hasn’t felt the same. The character, named Ana Amari, not only brings a sniper support character to the game, but is also the canonical mother to Fareeha Amari, the hero known as Pharah. She’s a disabled veteran of Overwatch’s original strike team and a sassy older lady to boot. Everywhere I turned, even within an hour of the announcement, people were making meme images or doing fan art of her. Ana Amari is a noteworthy character in many ways, and I think this is why so many fans have already fallen in love with her.
The most noticeable difference between Ana and the rest of the women in Overwatch is her age and experience. Prior to her inclusion in the game, the ages of all of the women were between 19-37, with most of them somewhere in their late 20s. Most of the cast looks young, so much so that the former eldest Angela “Mercy” Ziegler is remarked upon in-game as not looking as if she’s aged at all. Ana, by contrast, has visible wrinkles, under-eye bags and her clothes are worn and have seen better days. Even her voice has a smoky, crackly quality to it. It shows more parity with how some of the men in Overwatch are allowed to be old and grizzled without a second thought. The full weight of her experiences and life hang off of her like medals.
The incidence of older women, particularly those who show the same level of battle-worn demeanor as their male counterparts, is particularly low in gaming, not just Blizzard franchises. The number of playable ones is even lower than that. I can only think of a few off the top of my head: Olivia “Central” Gladstone (Invisible Inc.), Flemeth (Dragon Age), and Dr. Karin Chakwas (Mass Effect). Like the few other older women characters out there, Ana is important because when we ask for inclusion of varied female characters in videogames that should rightfully include women of all ages and types. Seeing older women having complex and interesting lives is not only interesting and realistic, but is something the audience might see in themselves. Quite a few women on Twitter remarked that seeing people so glowingly refer to Ana as awesome made themselves feel great about being slightly older than the “typical” gamer.
One of the other problems that games tend to have in terms of representation, especially when it comes to women, is motherhood. While fathers have seen more and more action in terms of gaming narratives (often because the people developing games are becoming parents themselves) mothers still tend to be pushed by the wayside, killed off, or simply not present in a game. It’s not enough to explore parenthood from the perspective of being a dad, given that not everyone in the audience who is a parent is a father.
Blizzard historically is one of the worst when it comes to this: very often in their games, mothers are nowhere to be found. Major lore characters in World of Warcraft frequently come fully-formed into the world with a father, but no mother to speak of. The few representations of motherhood as a concept tend to be reproductive only, or feature some other lurking problems. Adria from Diablo III, for example, turns out to betray your party as well as her daughter, Leah, when it’s revealed she’s the major antagonist who uses Leah as a vessel for Diablo returning to Sanctuary. Blizzard making Ana be not just a mother, but one who communicates it in a genuine way, feels transgressive; it’s not just a story point that’s pushed to the side due to Overwatch’s gameplay, but something actively reinforced by Ana’s in-game sprays, hero poses and character barks. It is an integral part of her being and the reason she is the way she is as a person. Besides this being her focus, Blizzard also wrote her in such a way to complicate existing ideas about motherhood; she’s a world-class sniper who consistently enacts violence in order to make the world a better place for her daughter, even if she knows that what she does isn’t entirely moral. It is a nice twist on the idea that mothers only exist to be flatly nurturing, gentle creatures. She’s acerbic, pragmatic and doles out concern and destruction in equal measures.
Lastly, motherhood and womanhood are not the only two things that Ana Amari as a character tends buck trends on—she’s another woman of color in Overwatch, one who is concretely Egyptian. Blizzard hasn’t had the greatest track record even with Overwatch when it comes to nailing down some of the cultures presented in the world or its characters; Egypt, where both Ana and Pharah hail from, is represented in a way that doesn’t reflect on its own technological or cultural advancements, but rather relies on many ancient tropes. That being said, it feels like Blizzard listened to some of the criticism; Ana, unlike her daughter, has barks entirely in Egyptian-accented Arabic, including Pharah’s signature “Justice reigns from above,” which is a cute nod. It’s very interesting to be playing a videogame, albeit a shooter, and to hear Arabic in a more accurate and positive context, even if Ana is on the enemy team. She’s clearly an actual character given much love and focus, rather than being cannon fodder, unlike Middle Eastern and Arabic-speaking characters in many other games of the FPS genre.
While I think that Blizzard has a long way to go still in correcting some of the cultural and gender-related missteps in many of their franchises, including Overwatch, Ana represents a new trend in their attempts to rectify the situation. She’s a woman with a past, a mother who’s come back from the dead, as well as a sharp and complicated woman of color, something I would not have expected or imagined even two years ago.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic and curmudgeon who lives with in the Midwest. She self-publishes at her blog Apple Cider Mage, and can be found on Twitter at @appleciderwitch.