Fighting For Representation: Soldier 76 And Sexuality

Blizzard Entertainment is undeniably one of the most influential video games creators in the medium’s history. Seriously, look up any list of top games of all time and you’ll likely find almost every single major title the studio has released at least mentioned, if not near the top of the list. The studio’s long-running success is staggering, and in 2016 they added to a stable of games that includes such legends as World Of Warcraft, Diablo and StarCraft with the release of Overwatch, a game that smashed together elements of first-person shooters and online battle arenas and saw players fighting each other to the death online as one of many unique characters, each with their own playstyles and abilities. The still-growing cast of characters is almost unfathomably wacky, running the gamut from a cybernetic ninja to a music-weaponizing Brazilian DJ to an intellectually advanced hamster in a spherical tank, every one of whom is just oozing with unique personality.

Every one of them, that is, except for Soldier 76. A grizzled, scarred veteran uninclined to mince words, clad in blue armor that looks like a haphazard cobbling together of Halo and X-Men attire, and wielding a rifle that it would be almost generous to call uninspired, Soldier 76 was an embodiment of every last first-person shooter protagonist trope, so much so that he was actually considered by many to represent Blizzard thumbing its nose at those protagonists. That was until Blizzard, in early January 2019, released the short story “Bastet,“ which, with a single line, revealed something that we not only hadn’t known about Soldier 76 but had never even suspected: he’s gay. In doing so, they not only brought an added dimension of depth to a formerly-rote character, but also provided us a perfect space to talk about privilege and sexuality.

There are two different ways in which I want to dissect privilege in this story. The first is the reason why this matters so much, and the privilege that heterosexuality is afforded when it comes to representations of ourselves in the media. Just as important as what is shown - avoiding racial, gender, and sexuality stereotypes - is what isn’t. When diverse people are absent from all walks of life in media, it can create the impression that some people simply don’t belong in some spaces, that, for example, gay people simply don’t serve in the military or that black girls aren’t scientists, and that can have a massive impact. Media like this, after all, is routinely consumed by children and adolescents, who are constantly evaluating and coming to grips with their place in society, an understanding that is profoundly shaped by the media they consume. I, as a straight white male, grew up with the understanding that I truly could be whatever I wanted, an understanding that was largely fueled by the vast diversity of straight white male protagonists I was exposed to in books, movies, TV shows, and the like. Many people less privileged than I don’t have that luxury, and it can make a real difference. The reveal of Soldier 76’s sexuality, and the impact it had on many with whom the character now resonates more powerfully, makes that evident.

The other is in the discussion that followed the release of “Bastet.” You see, despite the general positive reaction to the reveal of the character’s sexuality, there was (as there always is) a small but incredibly vocal minority who took issue with the characterization of Soldier 76 in various ways. These accusations were as predictable as they were ridiculous: Blizzard had “retconned,” Soldier 76 into homosexuality, they had made a big deal about 76 in order to “virtue signal” to the “SJW” crowd, they had, made him gay to “pander” to people with whom that choice resonated. The disconnect between these accusations and the rather understated way in which this reveal was actually handled is laughable… and another example of privilege at work, in a decidedly poisonous way. When a character is revealed as straight in a piece of media, even if doing so comes out of nowhere or is ridiculous, there are never complaints that this is pandering or that the character being straight in and of itself is problematic. Homosexual characters in media are called upon to justify their existence in a way that heterosexual characters never are, and I would argue that this bias trickles into real life in ways both powerful and insidious. In arguing that homosexual characters are required to be homosexual in the right way or justified or any of the words that get thrown around in discussions like these, we’re arguing that homosexuality doesn’t have the same right to exist as heterosexuality. How is that anything but blatantly and terrifyingly dangerous?

All of this only makes it all the better that Soldier 76 is gay. Not only does he become a more interesting, less stereotypical character as a result of the change, but the way it was presented also. Soldier 76 isn’t gay because it furthers some plot point, or sets up a juicy story with another gay character, or in recognition of some event, or to make a point, or anything like that. He’s just gay because, you know, he is, like people in the real world are, and thats more than enough reason for him to be so. I don’t believe it was Blizzard’s intention to send the message I’m about to attribute to them, and I’m not trying to argue by any means that the, but the reveal of Soldier 76’s sexuality, to me, seemed to say that he - and thus in some small way homosexuality in general - did not need to justify his existence as a gay man to us, that he was allowed to simply be. And that can only have a positive impact on a world that currently only affords that luxury to straight characters - and often people.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex

P.S. It’s worth mentioning that, while I talked here about hetero- and homosexuality explicitly, these points can be extended to any sexual orientation under the sun. Orientation is a spectrum, guys!