Overwatch Pharah Thunderbird

Had fortunate opportunity to work on Pharah’s thunderbird skin. Every shots are definitely Team efforts!! especially Renaud Galand, Hai Phan, Matt Taylor.
©Blizzard Entertainment

Concept by Arnold Tsang
theme concept by David Kang
Face By Hai Phan
Weapon by Niles Doubleday
Animation and poses by Animation Team

I don’t understand this skin, to be honest. Pharah is Egyptian. All of the other characters got ethnically appropriate skins, and yet Pharah gets… a Native American get-up? This really doesn’t strike me as okay…

Oh hello there casual cultural appropriation still managing to not realize how horribly racist it is to disconnect the art and beliefs of a society from the peoples to whom it belongs. I really want to enjoy the aesthetic and the skilled artistry on display, but it’s just so sad how much labor went into such an unfortunate decision.

To me, this is so much worse than any victory pose could ever be, and it’s deeply disturbing that nobody cares.

As beautiful as the skin is it definitely is a little appropriative. It doesn’t have quite the same weight as if Pharah was a white character, there isn’t the same cultural baggage. But nonetheless it’s still a “cultures as costumes” deal. There are other cultural skins but they tend to be more appropriate. Symmetra has skins based on Indian deities, Roadhog has Pacific Islander skins potentially implying he is a pacific islander himself (certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for an australian to be of that descent.) Only Zenyatta’s Ra skin is out of place and that’s a lot less problematic given that it takes from  millenias old mythology rather than a contemporary culture. 

I definitely don’t really expect Blizzard to remove the skin at this late point (Legendary skins take a lot of work I presume) but perhaps they can take the criticism on board and a.) avoid this kind of thing in the future and b.) give us a badass (non-stereotypical) native american character at some point.

Those are definitely the two options I’d hope for. Particularly B. The costume wouldn’t be as much a problem if there were actual representation in the game, but there isn’t (yet). It’s true that it doesn’t have that colonial angle we normally see with appropriation where it’s like “this culture belongs to white people now.” But it does come with the possible tacit implication (as was pointed out to me by an anon last night) that “all brown people are interchangeable”.

Do I think anyone at Blizz or this design company even imagined that anyone could ever see that in their costume? No, of course not. I think they just wanted to make a cool skin (and it is cool). But accidental racism is still racism. Folk mistaking this for representation do not understand how representation works.

To be clear, it’s a nuanced problem. I’m not condemning Blizz or anyone who likes this costume and wants to use it. I’m certainly not condemning the design group behind this costume; I’m a huge fan of their work on Wildstar and have been for awhile. The costume is just an unfortunate misstep that needs to be pointed out. Like all of my criticism for Overwatch, it’s born out of respect and a desire for the game to succeed brilliantly.

I wouldn’t even necessarily call this “racism” but that’s, admittedly subjective. Cultural appropriation can be well-meaning misrepresentation and ignorant without being racist (again, IMO.) There is quite a bit of ignorance in the idea that brown people and their cultures are interchangeable, and it’s a pretty prevalent perception (which is maybe why a lot of people talked more about Tracer’s Butt than this.) And I, too, kind of side-eyed Pharah wearing Native American aesthetics. But not every cultural, ethnic, or even racial misstep or misunderstanding is “racist.” It can just me earnest, even if well meaning, ignorance.

My only theory of Blizzard’s thought process behind the decision (and other similar decisions): Overwatch is REALLY playing up the concept of this connected, international, and diverse world. Each character’s aesthetic, characterization, and even story is so dependent on their cultural or ethnic backgrounds, often with a tongue-in-cheek stereotype or archetype. It is presented that there has not only been a lot of cooperation and connection between regions and countries, but cultural exchange and influence between regions and countries as well. Pharah’s Native American skin and Genji’s Bedouin skin do seem out of place considering their cultural disconnects, but maybe there is some reason that in, in this fictional, future Earth, such cultural exchanges aren’t…offensive. Maybe there is even a story behind why Pharah would wear such garb.

Regardless, that doesn’t change the issues with cultural appropriation and representation we have now. And I agree with a previous poster–I’d much rather see a badass Native American character than a Native American inspired skin on an African character. So what may have been a well meaning, even thoughtful, artistic decision ended up being, well, a little ignorant.

If this game is meant to celebrate diversity of cultures, ethnicities, and races, Blizzard is on the right track. But representation isn’t just aesthetics, and they do have to be careful with how they incorporate said aesthetics when there isn’t a character to anchor them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s