Once again, Overwatch has come under scrutiny over its aesthetic collectibles, not because of butts, as was the case when one of Tracer’s poses were cut due to her rear being to prevalent, but because of cultural appropriation.

There are several skins that are being targeted and criticized for this. The first, which is the most notable example, is Symmetra’s ‘Devi’ skin. For those who have not seen the skin, it has a very strong Hindu influence, as further indicated by its name being shared with the Sanskrit term for goddess. Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, stated that “controlling and manipulating Devi with a joystick/button/keyboard/mouse was denigration.”

This quote, and most of what is said by Zed can be interpreted as inherently wrong, in that the player is not playing as a Devi. Symmetra is simply wearing garb that is Hindu in influence, with inspirations from Devi, as evidenced by the skulls being referential to Kali. The premise of Zed’s case is that Symmetra is actually a Devi, which she is not. Another interesting thing to consider is that a skin, exactly the same as the Devi skin (except for some changes in colouring) named Goddess has not been considered an issue, which appears strange.

Regardless, as a response to the skin’s presence, Zed has urged both Michael Morhaime and Bobby Kotick to remove the skin from the game. As to whether you consider the removal of Tracer’s butt-centric pose censorship or not, since there is room to debate whether it was or not, it has at least set a precedent of Blizzard being willing to change something within Overwatch due to external pressure. Sure, this can be a good thing when it comes to gameplay, balancing and other technical issues, but when it comes to artistic vision, people begin to take issue. With the mentioned precedent established, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to see this skin cut either, which is unfortunate, considering they’re some of Symmetra’s more interesting skins.

Pharah’s Thunderbird and Raindancer skins are also considered to be instances of cultural appropriation. The ‘issue’ that exists here is the Native American influences to the armour. This seems to be a skin that no official figure has called out, but has had some negative reception online.

Pharah Raindancer and Thunderbird SkinsThe thing that confuses me about this is that the Native American population is dwindling, and Native American culture is rarely represented within video games. Since the audience decrying the skins are those that generally call for more racial diversity within games, this feels somewhat odd. Especially more so considering the efforts Blizzard has gone to to make Overwatch‘s cast as diverse as possible on so many fronts, including ethnicity.

And the list goes on and on. People have found issues with other skins with reference to other cultures. For example, Zenyatta’s Djinnyatta and Ifrit skins are inspired by different kinds of mythological Middle Eastern spirits, known as djinni or genies. Roadhog’s Toa and Islander skins have strong Polynesian influences, with Hawaiian and Maori touches. These are all being branded as cases of cultural appropriation.

But what should be done with these skins? This varies from person to person. Some are just pointing and accusing Blizzard of cultural appropriation, others are calling for the skins to be completely removed, effectively censoring them, as is the case with Rajan Zed. It’s also pretty clear that many will have issues with the removal of these skins, as seen by the amount of gamers that were bothered by the removal of Tracer’s pose, so it’s only sensible that they be a prominent part of the discussion here defending the skins presence.

Let’s get things clear, though. By definition, this is cultural appropriation. Elements from a culture has been used by members of another culture, but is cultural appropriation inherently wrong? Many like to claim it’s taking away a culture’s individuality and so is oppressing a minority group. We should note that this is clearly not done to oppress.

Overwatch is special in that it has a roster behind it of interesting characters, diverse in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age and aesthetic among other things. Zarya is a Russian character, who is incredibly well-built and Symmetra is an Indian with autism, for example. They nail representing diverse characters without feeling as if it’s pandering at all. With this much work put into being accommodating and accepting, how could Blizzard engage in cultural appropriation and undermine all this work and offend its playerbase?

The answer is simple, they are not doing it to offend their playerbase. This is cultural appropriation for the sake of being more inclusive. And, frankly, it appears that they haven’t offended much of their playerbase (although there are some reports of people taking it offensively).

We must also consider this: Zed is not the be-all and end-all figure as to what should and shouldn’t be in a game. Throughout online forums and threads, there have been reports of Hindus being happy with the Devi skin. Why? Because everyone has different standards. By removing the Devi skin, Blizzard will be aggravating those that are for creative freedom, and those who are happy of the depiction. By keeping it in, they will be offending a group of Hindus who find the skin offensive. This is a lose-lose situation for Blizzard, as Jeff Kaplan said during Tracer’s butt removal:

“the last thing we want to do is make someone feel uncomfortable, under-appreciated or misrepresented.”

With that quote in mind, Blizzard is going to upset people, regardless of the outcome. While I think the skin should remain in the game, I also have to acknowledge that Blizzard are in an unenviable position, here.

  • jakdripr

    Nice article, lol I actually have nothing else to say or add. Just a really nice article that covers the issue in a smart way without sounded to preachy or judgemental of either party. I agree, I hope Blizz stick to their guns and not only not take the skins out, but not let this deter them from continuing to do this in the future.

    I for one would love to see some traditional Nigerian attire end up in the game(if we can’t get an actual Nigerian).

    • Ricky Baranauskas

      Thank you for reading! I do try my best when writing about contentious issues like this to try and present my opinions without belittling another party. If any party involved feels as if they’ve been attacked, it feels harder to create a civil dialogue, which is ultimately what I desire to create with a piece like this.

  • J.j. Barrington

    Not sure I think any of this counts as cultural appropriation. Doesn’t that usually refer to what a “conquering” culture does to those it subjugates?

    • Ricky Baranauskas

      I believe it is if you assume the definition of “cultural appropriation” as a culture adopting elements of another. Certain people believe that if a bigger, more prevalent culture implements elements of another culture then it is considered a form of oppression. I disagree with this notion, and I use the term more as a generalisation than a badge of shame like certain other groups like to do.

      Otherwise, thank you for reading! 🙂

      • J.j. Barrington

        But wasn’t the term coined for the purpose of explaining that adoption of certain elements specifically while rejecting others and otherwise belittling or marginalizing the rest of the culture by the dominant culture?

        Furthermore, exactly which culture would be the dominant one, in this case? Overwatch’s “culture” isn’t anywhere near more prevalent than a faith with hundreds of millions of adherents.

        • Ricky Baranauskas

          As to why the term was coined I’m unsure, but the general use of the word is as you describe it, which does go against it’s neutral definition that I see and used above. If we’re to go by the definition that you present, then Overwatch definitely isn’t engaged in cultural appropriation, it hasn’t belittled or marginalised any culture in any real, discernible way. To take the term at it’s most literal state, to appropriate culture, or rather to use/take elements of culture, then Overwatch has engaged in cultural appropriation, which is, again, not a bad thing in my eyes, since the term basically has no weight at all.

          The dominant culture here would be hard to determine. I wouldn’t determine Overwatch as a “culture,” as you seem to implicitly agree with. It could be argued that it’s the product of some culture, but as to what culture would be hard to determine. I’d assume Blizzard’s dominant culture?

          Personally, I use the term as an identifying term, to be used in a neutral fashion. If cultural appropriation was to be damaging, which it rarely is in art, be it movies, literature or games, then I believe it’s better to label it as cultural misappropriation, which is, at it’s most literal level, to misappropriate culture, to unfairly use/take elements of culture. Maybe I should have gone with the traditional definition to avoid confusion, in retrospect. Writing like this is always a learning experience, so I’ll be sure to take all of this on board in future pieces.