Game ‘Shift’

At a time when attention spans are getting shorter, it seems contradictory to see people dedicating hundreds of hours of their lives to, wait for it… video games. With the competitive nature of some games such as, League of Legends, Overwatch, CS:GO (to name three), a new “sport” has emerged from the shadows, born out of the immeasurably skilled players and a frighteningly engaged audience.

Gaming culture has shifted dramatically over the years. Many celebrities now proudly declare themselves to be gamers – it’s a new kind of ‘badge of honour’. Drake rolling in Fortnite with Twitch streamer, Mila Kunis rocking Call of Duty, Snoop Dogg and his dodging skills in Battlefield 1… The list goes on. Celeb gamers are just a small piece of the puzzle as gaming culture slowly becomes mainstream.

It’s no secret, I love playing video games. Sometimes a single player game to indulge in a story, sometimes it happens in a co-op with friends. It’s how I catch up with mates who live in other cities and, most importantly, it keeps me connected. But there’s one thing I don’t do and that’s use in-game chat. Why? Because the gaming community is known for its toxicity.

It’s interesting that one game is flying the flag to change this stereotype.

Overwatch, a team-based first-person shooter (FPS) game, developed by gaming company Blizzard, is the most gender-diverse on the planet. The proportion of its players who are women equals more than double that of the closet FPS. Woman make up 16% of Overwatch’s player base. That’s around five million female players, generating a staggering $250 million in revenue for Blizzard. [1]

There are many facets to Blizzard’s success with Overwatch i.e. most shooter games don’t have female protagonists. This one is obvious. Their effort required to make their inclusive character design earned my respect and that of the female gaming community. Traditional “War” games tend to go for historical accuracy and thrive for realistic settings, while Overwatch is set in a future state leaving greater room for them to be imaginative.

Overwatch has one of the most vocal communities because the parent company understands the importance of listening and acting upon the words of the gamers. If a topic blows up, from server issues to game balance, the developers spend the time to talk (like humans) about the things their players care about. They don’t just say it, they mean it and work hard at fixing it.

As I mentioned, the toxicity of some players and vitriolic language used is a problem for most gaming companies that use an in-game chat feature. Policing this used to rely on players reporting and banning problematic behaviour, but this didn’t work. So, Blizzard listened and rolled out a new feature in an effort to increase positive player activity i.e. ‘Endorsement.’ After each match, players can celebrate others who made positive contributions on both your team and the enemy team. The result? Daily abuse has decreased by just under 30% in the Americas and 22% in South Korea [2]. If you’re a gamer, being given a pat on the back in the form of a well-timed compliment such as, ‘Shot Caller’ or ‘Good Teammate’? A little acknowledgement goes a long way. Simple, but effective.

Blizzard’s effort in making positive game impact doesn’t just stop at a virtual level. In May, they ran their first charity event with the Breast Cancer Research Fund to raise more than US$10 million with one particular character in the game – Mercy – a brilliant scientist and the guardian angel of Overwatch who protects the team in a battlefield. It’s surprising and heart-warming to see Blizzard doing such good with their loyal and active player base.

Jeff Kaplan, director of Overwatch, beautifully stated, “There’s always going to be someone upset with things that we do. We know we’re not always going to get it right. But it’s about trying to be welcoming to a lot of people and thinking about others.” [3]

Overwatch is one of my inspirations when it comes to inclusive design. Game making is a creative process. It starts with individual ideas which are then turned into a collective consensus. Games are consumed by all kinds of people from all around the world with their own passions, frustrations and desires. It’s impossible to please everyone all the time. However, this shouldn’t be an excuse for designing something that’s lacking in diversity. It’s only been two years since Overwatch’s launch, and I truly hope they’ll keep championing diverse, inclusive game design that continues to inspire the gaming community.

– Jenny Liu