A majority of creative pieces can find their grounding in real world circumstances. Creative people can find inspiration in anything whether it is a myth, legend, historical fact or cultural influence. To cite an example from a video game, look at Wukong from League of Legends who is heavily influenced by the Chinese mythological figure Sun Wukong. Without using influence from the myth, we would never have this character. However, some would argue that League merely appropriated Chinese culture and trivialized it for the sake of a game. I’ve been seeing this a lot lately with games like Smite which use actual gods as characters and skins for Overwatch which use different culture for inspiration. And I’m asking myself, at what point does something stop being art and start being offensive?
To be more specific, let’s look at some actual examples. Let’s look at the skins in Overwatch. Now, for the most part, they are just there to look cool. Soldier: 76 becomes a daredevil, Mercy becomes a devil and Orisa turns into a weird mech/bug thing. The skins are all pretty cool, and somewhat relevant to the characters. However, in cases such as Pharah’s Thunderbird skin or Symmetra’s Devi skin, things start to get messy. For example, Symmetra’s Devi skin was actually called out by a Hindu leader named Rajan Zed. Zed demanded that Blizzard remove the skin as it was seen to trivialize a goddess of the Hindu faith. It is also worth nothing that Zed also had a previous issue with Smite wherein he asked that the Hindi characters would be removed from the game.
Now, it may seem like a small issue for characters of a certain race to portray aspects of that race. For example, Hinduism is one of the predominant religions of India, where Symmetra is from. Therefore it could be assumed this was Blizzard’s way of informing us what faith Symmetra belonged to. Similarly, Roadhog has a skin named Toa, which is the Maori word for warrior. From this, we can assume that Roadhog has some Maori ancestry. The problem comes with skins like Pharah’s Thunderbird.
The Thunderbird skin takes great inspiration from Native American culture. The problem with this is that Pharah is Egyptian. As of writing, she shows no definite ties to Native American ancestry outside of this skin. The skin caused many complaints and discussions. Many were led to believe that this was Blizzard appropriating Native American culture as a costume. Even more offensive, they used the skin on a character with dark skin, seemingly sending the message that every culture with that skin tone was interchangeable. Now, before anyone starts a riot over cultural appropriation, let me say this. Blizzard planned it this way.
There is a form of learning called Tangential Learning. Put simply, rather than beating information into your head via textbook, the information is slipped into a more enjoyable medium such as video games. Games use this form of learning almost constantly. For example, Final Fantasy players will know the name Shiva as one of the summon characters across several titles. But if you were to google the name Shiva, you would find out it was both the name of a Hindu god and a Jewish term. Names, places and even artwork within games are all great opportunities to educate players about different cultures and historical events.
So with that in mind, let’s take another look at Pharah’s skin. Fans have recently been trying to piece together parts of her heritage. While we know that her mother Ana Amari is Egyptian descent, the identity of her father is still unknown. Fans have created theories as to who it could be, with the fan favourite being Reinhardt. However, after the release of the comic ‘Reflections’ we saw Pharah spending her Christmas in Canada with an unidentified man. This led to much speculation and eventually, one fan drew a comparison between the Thunderbird skins and the Haida tribe who are native to British Columbia in Canada. At this point we are all but sure that the man in ‘Reflections’ was her father and a native Canadian. However, Blizzard has yet to confirm.
My logic is this: This skin was intentionally controversial. Had Pharah’s Thunderbird skin not existed, people would not have started digging to find a link. We wouldn’t have started learning about the culture of the Haida tribe to make connections. And yes, we would have missed out on a vital part of Pharah’s heritage. This was all possible because Blizzard didn’t back down. When faced with backlash they stood their ground, allowing us to learn about other cultures in the process. The same can be said for Smite and their refusal to remove Hindi gods from their game. They opened up a path to educate players on the faith.
It is my opinion that culture should be respected. If your culture is being insulted, I do not expect you to stand idly by. However, with that said, I think we all need to be more open. If we attempt to shut down and silence anything related to our culture, we cannot share that culture. Art deserves as much respect as a culture. If a piece of art, such as a video game, forces people to discuss and learn it has done well. It is through these mediums that we can share our knowledge of the world around us. Who knows, maybe we’ll all gain more tolerance towards each other in the process. We shouldn’t have to pit artistic rights vs. cultural rights. We should use them in tandem to help both.