Overwatch was once praised for the diversity of its characters, but the longer the game goes on, the more its problems with representation appear. With the introduction of the game’s latest hero, Sigma, Blizzard seems to be putting its worst foot forward, adding a character that does nothing to expand the diversity of the cast while playing on harmful tropes about mental illness.
At the time of its release, Overwatch reviews frequently noted the game’s diversity, not just in how the characters offered players different ways to approach the game, but how they included people not often represented in games. The cast of characters had its share of the kind of bland gun-toting men that star in most shooters, but it also featured far more women and people of color than most games. The initial cast also featured two gay characters, though their sexual orientation wasn’t revealed until later, and there were some problems with how it was handled. As the cast grew, players also became frustrated by the complete lack of playable black women, especially as more and more white women joined the roster.
Sigma’s introduction signals just how far opinions of the game’s handling of representation have fallen from that first impression. The new hero was revealed in a trailer that showed him in a mental health facility, evidently in the throes of a psychotic episode. It was worrying, as characters with mental health issues have often been treated poorly in media, either used as the butt of jokes or, as in Sigma’s case, portrayed as villainous, and things only got worse once Blizzard unveiled his final in-game design. Sigma is shown without shoes, which, aside from just grossing some players out, led to one person asking the character’s artist about the decision. On ArtStation, concept artist Qiu Fang replied:
"We decided to keep the feet bare to sell the 'asylum' look a bit more; in many institutions, patients are not allowed to have shoes because they might cause harm with the laces. While Sigma isnt neccisarily [sic] in danger of that, we felt that having no shoes helped draw that connection."
While it comes from a single artist, rather than an official statement from Blizzard, it cemented the fear that Overwatch would fumble its representation of Sigma’s mental health. Sigma’s mental illness is not just a part of his backstory; it’s essential to his design, which draws the connection between his psychosis and his villainy tighter. The casual evocation of suicide also points to an extreme lack of sensitivity to subjects that should be handled with the utmost care. Even the reference to “the asylum look” suggests that Blizzard is more interested in leaning on harmful stereotypes for aesthetic reasons than doing the work to actually represent a person struggling with mental health in a compassionate way.
Sigma represents not only a failure to represent mental health properly, but a missed opportunity to add more of Overwatch’s touted diversity to the game. Adding another white man to the roster seems to betray its claims of diversity, especially when, with 31 heroes, Overwatch still has more anthropomorphic hamsters in its cast than it has black women.
Source: Qiu Fang/ArtStation