I like video games because they give me choices that I don’t have in real life. When I want to feel like a princess, I choose Peach in Mario Kart. If I want to fight like Bruce Lee, I can choose Marshall Law in Tekken.
When picking out which character to play in a game, players factor in an avatar’s strengths and weaknesses, and even their appearance. But players also make their choices based on attributes that aren’t apparent during gameplay and have no influence on the game, such as a character’s sexuality. And my research has found that other players in turn might treat those characters differently within the game. This is important for the gaming industry. Some companies actively support social movements through publicity and marketing campaigns and product labeling. However, backlash could deter these companies from supporting marginalized groups and discourage gay players from participating.
How do players factor in these kind of character traits, and what are the implications for online harassment and discrimination? The first-person shooter game Overwatch, which is widely popular and has generated more than $1 billion in revenue so far for its owner, Blizzard, has turned out to be an ideal laboratory for me and my colleagues to investigate these questions. In that sense, what happens within Overwatch has economic and societal implications.
In Overwatch, players can choose between 32 avatars that have different appearances and skill sets. As an additional marketing highlight, Blizzard regularly updates the background stories of these characters. Their stories have no effect whatsoever on the game; they don’t change the characters’ skills or appearance. Still, these stories are so important for the fan base that they influence Overwatch in another way. In May 2019, an Overwatch writer updated the background story for one male character, Soldier: 76. He wrote that Soldier: 76 had been in a romantic relationship with another man and identified as gay. It was a bit of information that is far from unusual in the real world, but in online gaming, it was somewhat revolutionary.
The announcement resulted in hundreds of responses on Twitter and other social media channels. Many players supported the announcement and liked the tweet. But some players were uncomfortable with the decision, accusing Blizzard of making money through political correctness, complaining that the announcement was unnecessary, and even threatening to stop playing Overwatch.
Our research team wanted to know if this announcement influenced the game itself. Would players change their attitude toward Soldier: 76? We examined the pick rate—the frequency with which players choose a specific character—before, during and after the announcement. Surprisingly, we found an extreme drop in the pick rate for Soldier: 76 after the news. Players shied away from playing with the newly outed character.
Interestingly, instead of choosing Soldier: 76, several players chose the only other LGBTQ character in the game: a lesbian called Tracer. Though Soldier: 76 had previously been assumed by most to be straight, Tracer had been openly gay since the game was published.
To understand what was going on, we used an online survey to ask players what they thought about the announcement and how it influenced their gaming experience. Hundreds of players responded. Most respondents were men (83.77 percent) and from North America (49.4 percent) and Europe (39.5 percent). The majority had heard about Soldier: 76 being gay but didn’t care. They reported that changing a character’s sexuality had no influence on the game. A large minority, however, felt uncomfortable and that other players discriminated against them when they played as Soldier: 76 after the announcement. They got tired of homophobic slurs and constant harassment and temporarily switched to other characters to avoid it.
Additionally, many players mentioned that the gaming community makes an important distinction between the only two LGBTQ characters in the game. Whereas Soldier: 76 is a man, Tracer is a woman. Some players reported in the survey that they felt other players see lesbians as appealing and interesting, but that the same players voice disgust toward gay men.
Detecting discrimination is important and sheds light on a problem. The next step, however, is to find a way to decrease discrimination. In another research project, my team worked with a soccer federation trying to decrease discrimination. In a randomized trial, we found that an e-mail to coaches about how the sport can promote inclusivity and reduce racism helped raise awareness. We hope to do the same in e-sports by working together with people from within the industry who want to improve the equity and inclusivity of the community.
Some people like to imagine that video games offer idealized versions of reality and teach values that seem to be lacking in the real world, such as fighting for a common cause or working together as a team. But our findings show that the world of video games has the same biases and discrimination we find in our everyday lives, and that games can be much more welcoming for some than others. Video games are always innovating, pushing art and technology forward to create new experiences for players. In the past, players and fans have adapted to this fast-changing environment. The online gaming community needs to embrace its diverse players and reckon with its biases. Players should get over themselves and accept all characters and the players who pick them.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.