The gaming industry is notoriously known to struggle with representation of diverse characters. Protagonists still tend to be male, white, cis, and able-bodied most of the time. AAA titles with the most basic protagonists still make tons of profit, while male gamers with a sexist mindset often react with outrage when faced with one of the rare, non-sexualized representations of women, because ‘everything has to be woke nowadays’. Despite more than valid criticisms and controversies surrounding the company and its policies, Blizzard’s 2016 game Overwatch (upgraded to Overwatch 2 in October ’22), offers a rather exemplary diverse roster of characters for its player base of up to 1 million daily players.
Overwatch is a multiplayer first-person-shooter, commonly described as a ‘hero shooter’. In hero shooters, the gameplay relies on each of the characters’ unique abilities. With a heavy focus on individual characters, representation matters even more than normal. And not everything is bad in the case of this sometimes quite controversial game.
The game takes place in a distant future, with extremely advanced technologies, fully sentient robots, genetically enhanced gorillas and hamsters. The Overwatch is an international task force established to ensure global stability in the face of the robot rebellion against their human creators: the so called Omnic Crisis. In this setting, Australia has a somewhat unique status, as it is a barren, barely inhabitable wasteland, almost completely destroyed in said crisis. Accordingly, the Australian characters are heavily inspired by the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. Their chaotic personalities contrast with many of the other heroes, who neatly fit into different, mostly futuristic hero archetypes.
The first character to look at is the attack hero Junkrat, who would be the result of what happens if you put a mad genius, DC’s Joker and a whole lot of Mad Max into a blender. He is represented as insane to the point of being self-destructive, sporting a self-made mechanical arm and leg. Even in the chaotic environment of this destroyed Australia, disabilities are not a dealbreaker. On the contrary, Junkrat is crafty enough to design his own prosthetics, even without access to the sleek-looking prosthetics some of his colleagues use (sometimes to enhance their abilities). Still, he is one of the heroes with the highest damage output and quite some manoeuvrability, simply due to him not caring about his own physical well-being.
His weapons of choice are a whole lot of bombs, a bear-trap and a remote-controlled exploding tire. Everything about Junkrat is chaotic, from his scorched, still burning hair to his crazed laughter. He even drops bombs upon being killed. While other heroes use high-tech equipment, Junkrat relies on the power of pure destruction inflicted by his rusty DIY gadgets, truly making the best out of his post-apocalyptic home country.
Junkrat’s voice actor (US American Chris Parson) attempts to mimic an Australian accent, but he is American, nonetheless. Blizzard seems to have learned their lesson in this regard, as the newest released Australian hero, Junker Queen, has an Australian voice actress (Leah De Neise), as well as a few Aussie slang voice lines (for example: “Oi! Pick up your feet, ya’ drongos!”)
Junker Queen, a tank hero, is an extremely tall and muscular woman, using a shotgun, an axe, and a throwing knife. She combines the brute force of melee attacks with her passive ability that allows her to heal herself in relation to damage dealt to enemy heroes. In her case, hurting others means to protect yourself and your teammates. Additionally, she is one of the most self-confident characters in the game. This translates into an aggressive play-style, which spreads over to the other heroes: Her ability Commanding Shout is a fierce battle cry giving allies a health buff. In Junker Queen’s work environment, you just scream at your colleagues to protect them.
She is not only the tallest woman in the game (only towered over by the other Australian tank, two robots and the German man in giant armour) but is also equipped with an unapologetic brawler attitude rarely seen in female characters.
As her name suggests, she is the queen of one of the escort maps, Junkertown. Junkertown is built out of the remains of an Omnic factory in the Australian Outback. In Junker Queen’s cinematic short movie, we get a glimpse of a popular hobby in this rather dangerous Australian society: Fighting in the Scrapyard, a gladiatorial arena located in the Junkertown map. We get to see the rough society of Overwatch’s Australia, their use of scrap technology, as well as their awesome queen being the best tank of the game (not biased at all). She is presented as a woman who could not care less about gender roles, while at the same time not remaining one-dimensional or unreasonably violent. Junker Queen is not only surviving in post-apocalyptic Australia, but thriving:
The remaining character is another tank: Roadhog, who is Junkrat’s bodyguard. He is a fat man in a mask, mainly communicating in grunts. His outfit’s accessories further hint at road movies, with a spiked tire on his shoulder and a license place as his belt buckle. His weapons are a shotgun and a hook he can use to pull other heroes towards him and finally…”Whole Hog”; some kind of modification to his gun making it look like a meatgrinder firing bullets in a cone in front of him. To restore health, he inhales from his “hogdrogen” (not a typo). Roadhog, similarly to his boss, is a character mirroring the radiated wasteland they are inhabiting. Due to his hostile environment, he has abandoned much of his humanity and has become whole hog himself. Thus, it is still unknown what his face looks like.
While Roadhog is designed in the same Mad Max aesthetic, one aspect differentiates him from the other two. While his ‘official’ nationality is Australian, is has been heavily hinted that Roadhog, whose real name is Mako Rutledge, is of Māori descent.
His first name means ‘shark’ in Māori. Additionally, his ‘Toa’ and ‘Islander’ skins reference Polynesian cultures, including a stuck-out tongue reminiscent of the haka, as well as tribal tattoos. In game, he can also be heard saying “If I wanted to go to the wop-wops, I could have stayed at home.” This “is strictly an informal noun in New Zealand as opposed to Australia which uses ‘out in the sticks’ to imply that it is out in the middle of nowhere.” (Overwatch Wiki)
While Overwatch had some controversies regarding cultural appropriation, it is not unlikely that Mako is a intended to be of Māori descent, as there “are over 170,000 Māori living in Australia – 20 percent of all Māori”. (rnz.co.nz) It is an interesting nod to the relation between the two neighbouring countries, and I was not aware of this demographic situation before looking up the reasons for the controversy surrounding Roadhog’s nationality. Unfortunately, Roadhog’s voice actor is another US American (Josh Petersdorfs). Blizzard missed the great opportunity to give this role to a native Māori, providing some of the much-needed visibility to a marginalised group of people.
Overwatch sticks to clichés, but it does so consistently with all its characters (the German character Reinhardt does, of course, have beer related voice lines and I can definitely identify with VA Darin De Paul’s fake German accent). The game is walking the fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Generally, characters stereotyped according to their nationality have become a popular trope in hero shooters.
When it comes to proper representation, Blizzard still has plenty of room for improvement, especially compared with other games such as Respawn’s battle royale Apex Legends (2019), which also includes characters from New Zealand and Australia, respectively voiced by voice actors of those nationalities.
The American voice actors deliver a decent imitation of an Australian accent (though I am no expert whatsoever). Nevertheless, Leah de Niese performance as Junker Queen is the absolute best. But overall, the idea kind of works. All characters are unique and charming, with the Australians delivering plenty of personality and some of the most powerful gameplay.
Finally, one last thing that is interesting to observe is the in-game roles of the characters. Roadhog and Junker Queen are tanks, whose main role it is to shield their teammates and soak up incoming damage. Often, tanks are characters that are physically extremely strong. Junkrat is an attack hero, whose main role it is to deal as much damage as possible. There is no Australian hero in the support category. I would love to see how an Australian healer would look like in the Overwatch universe. Or is the lack of a support hero a subliminal message about Australia’s image as a hostile and dangerous environment producing confident, reckless, and extremely self-sufficient personalities? After all, if there is no healer on your team, Junker Queen quips: “You softies need a healer!”
Overwatch Skin Screenshots taken by me 🙂
Overwatch 2 Junker Queen Cinematic Trailer – “The Wastelander”: https://youtu.be/Mb3_hvPGH3g