To celebrate Overwatch’s global audience of twenty million players, and the diverse nature of the game’s international cast, Blizzard periodically runs special events where players can buy or unlock new cosmetic items such as costumes, voice lines and emotes. They’ve held an Overwatch World Cup and special seasonal events for Halloween and the Summer Olympics, and now it’s time for the Winter Holidays promotion. Unfortunately the new event reflects a narrow and non-inclusive theme that doesn’t match the global scale of the game or achieve aspirations of representing a truly diverse global population.
While the Olympics event gave characters new costumes designed to represent their home-countries’ flags, like the uniforms of an Olympic athlete, this Winter event is focused on the Holidays, or rather, one holiday in particular. Several characters are given costumes like Santa Clause, Christmas elves, and reindeer. One character is dressed up as Ebenezer Scrooge. Another character’s costume is inspired by the Abominable Snowman from the Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer TV special. Many characters get voice lines like “happy holidays!” but there are no explicit references to holidays other than Christmas. Nobody says “Happy Hanukkah” or “Enjoy the New Year!”
It’s disappointing to see Blizzard ignore other holidays through which they could celebrate real practices around the world, but it’s worse to see characters from different cultures being forced into a particular celebration. Every character is given a unique spray (a pre-designed tag players can leave in game) designed to represent them as Christmas ornaments. Even though the version of Christmas presented in the game is a secular version, it is still steeped in references to primarily western traditions. It is not a problem that American Christmas is given attention, but Overwatch has a global cast of characters who come from countries with different practices. For Overwatch to accurately represent the cultures its characters come from, not all of the characters in the game should celebrate Christmas the same way, or even celebrate Christmas at all. Instead of appreciating meaningful holidays around the world, this Winter Holiday event seems focused on selling Christmas-themed accessories for its diverse cast of characters. This fails the visions of multi-culturalism Overwatch presents.
Overwatch is not coincidentally multi-cultural. Its central premise—an international taskforce of superheroes dedicated to saving the world—is a necessarily pluralistic fantasy about unity across cultures. At its worst Overwatch focuses on the notion of international unity at the expense of other cultures, non-western cultures. The robotic monk character Zenyatta is designed as a pastiche of Eastern religions with multiple versions of Buddhism combined together. For the holiday event he is dressed up as the Nutcracker from the famous ballet of the same name. The character has nothing to do with the Nutcracker and has to discard all elements that emphasize his theme to stay relevant. Perhaps this kind of costuming wouldn’t be worth remarking on normally, but none of Zenyatta’s other legendary skins continue his themes either. Compared to others, like the cowboy McCree, whose alternate costumes still emphasize his identity as a Wild West sharpshooter (even the Ebenezer Scrooge outfit), Zenyatta’s alternate costumes don’t share any major conceptual throughlines. Zenyatta’s Nutcracker costume reveals two problems: firstly, that those responsible for Zenyatta’s costumes willingly abandon his aesthetic themes to make him relevant to a Western holiday, and secondly, that while his inspirations come from religious imagery, they are treated only as an aesthetic. The Winter Holiday event is not the worst example of Overwatch aestheticizing other cultures at the expense of the culture being used—that is probably Pharah’s appropriative “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird” skins, where the Egyptian character is dressed in some loose collection of Native American designs—but it reflects a disregard for other cultures and their practices which comes from a similar place.
At this time of year people celebrate different holidays in many different ways. The thinness of the cultural range the Winter Holidays event presents fails Overwatch’s vision of diversity—a theme game director Jeff Kaplan spoke on while accepting the “Game of the Year” award at the 2016 Game Awards. If Overwatch is to continue its themes of unity and pluralism then it has an obligation to design for the world instead of presenting a primarily Western perspective as normal. The Winter Holidays event was an opportunity to celebrate not just a WASP’s image of Christmastime but to recognize festivity across different cultures and celebrate together. Instead Overwatch’s idea of togetherness is non-voluntary and doesn’t make room for a diversity of culture.
If Overwatch truly wants to be diverse it’s not enough to let characters fly the colors of their flags. Those making the game have to research and respect the cultures they draw images from instead of prioritizing Western aesthetics while marginalizing borrowed cultures from the rest of the world.
Delilah Sinclair is a shy writer based in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her @vorpalfemme on Twitter.