It’s going to be a long summer.
It was less than two years ago when the world watched #Gamergate unfold. A relentless online campaign controversy that majored on harassing women in the name of what proponents called “ethics in games journalism,” the movement represented the culmination of years of game developers and writers putting games first, and people second. In the name of prioritizing the esoteric concept of “fun,” developers created games that manipulated their audience, reveled in excessive violence, and routinely sexualized women.
In the US, we find ourselves in the midst of a disturbingly familiar situation. But this time, the worlds at stake are real, not virtual. In the next few months, we’ll see exactly how fast Trump’s presidential run can devolve into a total scorched earth attack on whoever it is the GOP nominee deems bad for America. Demonstrably incapable of playing the role of the “reasonable candidate,” he’ll need to convince his base that he’s serious about his previous outrageous claims.
The Trump phenomenon is Gamergate writ large, a seemingly isolated cultural movement extrapolated onto the national scene. All of a sudden, the dark side of video games has revealed itself to be, actually, the dark side of American politics. And in a way, it always was.
There’s a beautiful irony, then, in the overwhelming success of Overwatch, a team-based first-person shooter with Pixar-esque animation and a diverse roster of characters. In some ways, the game’s success is surprising. By making the already popular class-based team shooter more accessible, it capitalizes on an existing trend, rather than reinventing it. The game offers just a few online game modes and a sparse set of features, a cardinal sin in the traditional game space, which has historically expected developers to make a $60 game “worth it” by piling it up with stuff.
With Overwatch’s success, it seems clear that mainstream gamers finally have enough stuff. And in the arms race towards the most “fun” experience, audiences have grown tired of the standard ways games tend to keep players hostage… er, invested through endless progression loops that result in mechanical upgrades that allow players to continue to dominate players. In most online games, the less you played, the more likely you were to be destroyed by players who had leveled-up far beyond you. But in Overwatch, the player gradually unlocks aesthetic buffs that serve only to build out skins, graffiti art, and victory poses that affect how the player presents themselves to others.
That’s because ultimately, Overwatch is about relationships with others. In a sea of games that isolate and manipulate, Overwatch finds its core dynamic, optimistically, in the complex interaction between teammates. Teams of six (this is set in stone – there is no 3 vs. 3 or 1 vs. 1 mode) work toward a common goal, like occupying a space or delivering a payload. And while there is an enemy team, defeating them isn’t the point so much as achieving that goal. While matches are ostensibly about warfare (there are guns, turrets, and rockets, after all), the usual trappings of warfare are nowhere to be found. The game makes a concerted attempt to focus players on the relationships and interactions within their team. Even in the span of a single match, the player is left not with self-centered frustration or self-aggrandizing thoughts, but with the feeling of taking part in a regular laser-tag league. You’re all having fun, working to get better, but more importantly, you’re doing these things together.
Relationships are only successful if everyone involved is appreciated for who they truly are, or at least were meant to be. By offering 21 characters to choose from, Overwatch encourages players to consciously determine every single game, what their role within the team is, and how it interacts with the roles of others.
While it’s impossible for each team to use all the characters at once, Overwatch still manages to give the impression that each and every character chosen is necessary. If your team wins, you’re left with a sense of relational serendipity, the kind of cemented mutual respect a successful TV-show cast might have for one another at the end of a several seasons long run. It’s a good thing Mercy was healing me when I was fighting that Junk Rat. Thank God for Widowmaker! She was the only one who could have taken out that Bastion.
This is all extraordinary not because it is fun, but because this approach resonates with such a large, broad swath of people at this moment. Though it says less about our country collectively than it does about each one of us individually, Overwatch’s resonance points to the human desire, not merely to be accepted and belong, but to accept and appreciate others. It’s no small feat that a game engenders such appreciation for characters that are so drastically different than your own. A stronger, heavier character may have a deep appreciation for faster, more sprite-like characters. The elusive sniper might have a huge appreciation for characters on the ground who can isolate members of the opposing team and make them easy targets.
During a summer of political squabbling that will inevitably escalate into something more ugly and unsettling, Overwatch creates an atmosphere where appreciation for the other reigns. It is actually plausible that the very people that can be found punching and spitting on each other outside of a Trump rally may, later that night, go home and help one another achieve an impressive win in Overwatch. Maybe the win comes down to the wire. Maybe they express gratitude for that other person.
A recurring mechanical theme of Overwatch is that of limitations, many of which I have mentioned already. The developers retain an inordinate amount of control over the game, allowing for very little opportunity for players to distort or skew the experience in a way that then warps the humanity of the other person.
If there is any doubt that the game’s developer was deliberately reinforcing these attitudes, it is dispelled at the end of the game. The results are given not in the form of the traditional list of kill and death rates, but by highlighting the four most valuable contributions to either team. Like the end of a political primary, Overwatch insists that we’re all actually in this together. After all, we’re all playing the same game.
And in one last bit of subversive freedom, Overwatch gives you the option to vote for yourself, if you insist. But here’s the thing: sometimes you don’t.