On Tuesday, Blizzard dropped a major bombshell in the Overwatch fandom: Tracer, the game's title character, is in a same-sex relationship with a woman named Emily.
This revelation sparked an eruption on social media, with tons of fans expressing their support for a promise that Blizzard had made for months that "multiple" heroes in its roster are LGBTQ. As you might expect, there's also quite a bit of homophobic backlash against this comic.
For people who identify as LGBTQ, or who have friends and family members who do, one queer character in a video game probably doesn't seem like a big deal. When you're surrounded by progressive ideas about sexuality and gender, it's easy to dismiss these dissenting opinions as a vocal minority, but the outcry should serve as a sobering reminder of how important — and massive — of an achievement this really is.
The backlash to the Tracer reveal proves the need for more representation
Though you might not need us to spell it out for you, it's clear a lot of people do: Basic representation of queer people in media is incredibly important. This point is so crucial, it's worth restating in GIF form:
Why? For a person who's questioning their sexuality, seeing a character that they look up to — like Tracer — in a happy, same-sex relationship can make a world of difference.
David Gaider, a former writer for game developer Bioware, wrote a lovely explanation on Tumblr in 2014 (via IGN, emphasis ours). He talks about why queer representation rubs some gamers the wrong way, and why it matters that we challenge them:
There are people out there for whom the presence of any gay content will automatically render it "the gay game." The presence of two bisexual male followers in 'Dragon Age II,' only one of whom made advances on a male player without first being flirted with, means "every man in Thedas is gay and wants my man-meat." These are the same people for whom the mere existence of a gay character, or a plot that deals with gay subject matter, really anything that forces them to acknowledge that homosexuality so much as exists, is going to be a personal insult.
I remind myself that it's not that much to include, and really it's very little in comparison to the entire rest of the game and thus, considering what it means to those fans who receive that validation almost nowhere else, it's not too much to demand a bit of tolerance and compassion from the portion of the audience for whom this content is not even intended.
The same is true for Overwatch. For a subset of the Overwatch community, Tracer's relationship is being interpreted as a personal offense, much like the responses Gaider described surrounding Dragon Age II.
Here are a few of the dissenting responses people have captured from Blizzard's forums:
While it's easy to laugh off these comments as nothing more than a vocal and intolerant minority, it should also serve as a reminder of the climate in which this comic exists. Despite the progress that's been made in the last several decades, homophobia still infects every facet of our culture.
For example, Blizzard blocked the comic from appearing in Russia because of Russia's anti-LGBTQ propaganda law, which prohibits anything that might promote "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.
It goes without saying, but these bigoted attitudes are not limited to gaming. For example, our Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, has appeared to publicly advocate gay conversion therapy. Trans people — and trans women of color, in particular — are murdered at vastly higher rates than straight, cisgendered people.
Including queer characters is the bare minimum — but it's so much more than most big-budget games are willing to do
The fact that a queer character exists is enough to send homophobes to Blizzard's forums to whine about it in droves. Blissfully, a good portion of these comments have been downvoted to oblivion, but the point stands: Having the lead character in arguably the biggest game of 2016 identify as queer is a huge deal. And that should be recognized for the massive achievement it is, especially when so many other games fail to meet the most basic of benchmarks. Yes, it's the bare minimum, but it's still so much more than most big-budget games are willing to do.
Which is to say nothing of the fact that Overwatch, in the most basic sense, is a game that doesn't need to have any narrative at all. It's an objective-based team shooter with zero single-player content, and yet it has more fleshed-out lore and a more passionate fanbase than most games to come out in 2016.
So, regardless of your critiques of how Blizzard handled the reveal of Tracer's sexuality (some of which were eloquently outlined in a discussion over at Kotaku, if you want to read more) our job right now is to send a message to massive gaming corporations like Blizzard that we need more representation — more, more, more. That establishing Tracer as canonically queer is a wonderful thing. That having an out, queer character isn't a death sentence for a massive gaming franchise.
But we should also never forget how much work still lies ahead.
More Overwatch news, updates, tips and tricks
For more on Overwatch, read up on Blizzard's decision to block the "Reflections" comic in Russia, check out Blizzard's response to the outcry over Mei's winter skin, catch up on the latest rumors of a Terry Crews-voiced Overwatch character and uncover the hidden details in the Winter Wonderland event.