“If you don’t start playing video games, you’re going to kill yourself.”
My friend Paul tends toward the hyperbolic, but he wasn’t quite wrong. It was summer 2017, I was six months into my new life as an amputee, and I was regularly waking up screaming or just not sleeping at all. Medications and therapy were making a dent, but I had long spans of night when my friends just weren’t around, and I had nothing to do but write, watch long stretches of SVU and Golden Girls, and think about what I’d lost. It wasn’t a good look on me and people were worried. I was worried. I needed a place to put my anxiety that was a little more responsive than writing or television.
So I was gifted a refurbished Playstation 4, and a small budget to pick up a few games. And thus began my love affair with Overwatch. It’s set in a world a few decades in the future, after a human-robot war and the rise and fall of a team of superhuman peacekeepers. It’s a multiplayer first-person shooter where you play one of 28 characters on a team of (usually) six, against another team of six, trying to accomplish an objective, from defending a base area to escorting a payload vehicle down a path, to capturing a flag, and a host of others. The characters are colorful and diverse in look and personality; from a Russian female bodybuilder with a gravity cannon to an Egyptian-American Indian in a flying mech suit to a cyborg ninja/gangster archer set of Japanese brothers to a tinkering Swedish machine-smith dwarf, there’s a LOT of different looks and backgrounds thoughtfully presented here. And as the game has grown, so too has the diversity; three new characters are added a year. Since the game’s launch, we’ve seen new playable characters that are a female Egyptian senior citizen sniper/healer, a Mexican young woman who’s a mischievous hacker, a heavy weapons centaur robot with a personality programmed by a west African child prodigy, a Nigerian super-villain with a titanic right arm, a Celtic female mad scientist/biologist, a shield maiden who’s the daughter of the aforementioned Swedish dwarf, and now a hyper-intelligent hamster in a giant mech derived from a modified exercise ball.
The game is big, it’s weird, it’s bright, and I love it. While there’s a good deal of violence, it’s within the boundaries of childhood episodes of G.I. Joe; lots of shooting, without gore.
As I started spending more time with the game, and fell for it hard, I also noticed something a little different and subtle: disability has an interesting presence in the game. Specifically, as built into the game’s futuristic setting, many of the characters have overtly survived trauma in their backstories, or more subtly, hint at survived trauma via prosthetic limbs. There’s Junkrat, the Australian tinkerer with a prosthetic leg, or Symmetra, the Indian autistic architect and savant with a robotic left arm, McCree, the western gunslinger with a cybernetic right arm, and Genji, the ninja who survived a battle with his brother and had his body rebuilt from near-scratch. Torbjorn, the Swedish dwarf, sports at least one hand and eye that are prosthetic.
As a new amputee just getting used to my prosthetic, this meant a lot to me; I’d spend days hiding from the world, and would spend almost every night looking down at what was left of my left leg as I got into bed and bursting into tears. It was ugly to me. It represented otherness. It was a signifier that others had and would continue to use to judge my worthiness or lack thereof; in my mind, it made me less-than. But every time I picked up a controller, here was a roster of over two-dozen battle hardened warriors, half of whom brandished prosthetics, all of whom lived in a world of technicolor positivity and teamwork. What we invest in becomes our story and then becomes our world; on a level at leas un- or subconscious, Overwatch’s presentation of heroic disability helped save me.
Disability and diversity are woven and coded into the visual language of the game; these warriors are respected, often presented as role models, and are different sizes, shapes, colors, and possessing different alterations and methods of mobility–all without shame, all with equal sense of confidence and acceptance.
We’ve come a long way from Buster Bluth, I believe; with one exception (the sociopathic assassin Reaper), no character bemoans or exudes pathos from their appearance or scars. It’s refreshing and exciting to jump into this diverse world and kick a little ass.
So what can we learn about this radical visibility in pop culture? I think that’s pretty clear: we have to emulate it. We so often build a staid, beige-y sameness into how we present ourselves; we hide our differences and classify them as wounds, things that detract from our ability to welcome and connect.
And we are so very, very wrong on that front.
Overwatch takes a risk and presents a plurality of experiences and backgrounds, including disabilities gained from trauma that in turn lead to triumph; over 35 million people are crazy for this game, which is more than just a glimmer of hope that life can function this way. We can be this, if we want to be.