A few weeks ago, vice president-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton and the internet got into big fights over it. No surprise there. While there is no need to retread the controversy itself, or get into political debate, Pence and his party’s politics are well known. This event got me thinking, though, why would he want to see that musical? Was Pence unaware of the racial and social issues inherent in the musical? Maybe. Surprisingly enough, this made me think of many online multiplayer games in which we can see the same phenomenon happening. In games like Overwatch, people sometimes behave in a racist or sexist manner even while playing with a very diverse cast of characters. But I started to notice that this behavior is more prevalent when characters’ identities aren’t reflected in stories.
During online multiplayer gameplay, people will occasionally spurt racial slurs or jokes (usually towards Black people or folks of Middle Eastern descent) or sexist comments. While this is unfortunately nothing new to online games, this sort of harassment feels even more out of place in a game like Overwatch. The cast is multicultural and of many genders, and their various skills are all useful and necessary in different ways. Specifically, Lúcio, who is Afro-Brazilian, and Mei, who is Chinese, are considered especially useful and in some cases necessary to a proper team. I feel quite bewildered when someone calls me (or someone else) the n-word as they themselves are running around playing as a Black-Brazilian DJ. There is a disappointing dissonance here, that a person sees a character with a marginalized identity as valuable and necessary because of the skills they bring to the game, but does not see value in a real-world person of the same demographic.
A similar phenomenon happens in the culture of sports worship, where some fans will watch every game, but still harbor and express racist views in comments sections and discussions. How can this happen? I have some theories. With sports, it’s the most apparent: the athletes’ identities are not directly tied to their performance on the field. You can like the player for their abilities without caring much about their identity as a person. In Overwatch, this sentiment is still mostly true. While there are some flourishes around the characters that hint towards their cultural heritage, such as quotes in other languages or separate costumes, you can pretty much ignore the characters’ races or genders. We don’t engage with their identity in any meaningful way; knowing that Symmetra is an Indian woman, or that Sombra is Mexican, or even that Zarya has Russian heritage doesn’t have any real bearing on the gameplay. (The lack of cultural awareness isn’t limited to people of color or gender.) And finally, this brings us back to Hamilton. Despite the cast being largely people of color and despite the fact that it includes queer people and women, the story is still about white men. Rapping and diversity don’t change this.
I believe this is why we can get, for example, a politician with documented homophobic and racist beliefs who can still see and even enjoy media starring people they don’t care much about in real life. If characters don’t actively reflect their demographics, it can be difficult to empathize with that part of them. In a way, their culture can feel more ornamental than tied to them. It’s like a twist on the sexy lamp test: if a character could be replaced by a character of a different demographic and the same skill set, would that change anything significant about the story? In Overwatch, the story has such little effect on the gameplay that players never have to interface with the parts of the character that could teach players to have empathy for real-life people in that demographic.
In the case of Hamilton, part of the charm is that the founding fathers are racebent but still retain their historical impact. For example, you get Lin-Manuel Miranda telling Daveed Diggs that he is a slaver. This dissonance can give bigots a chance to dissociate identity from systemic issues. It’s one thing when you have one white man tell another to stop owning slaves; you keep the racial aspect intact. But when a Puerto-Rican man tells a Black man to stop owning slaves, slavery becomes a purely moral problem, separate from the racist institution it actually was. While I do find the value in having characters from marginalized groups live out stories that don’t only focus on their marginalization, I think reminders of their demographic can be useful to include in their life. I’m a Black man, and I participate in Black culture; I don’t just fight racism all day. If there was a story about my life, I would like it to reflect that. Stories about trans folks should be able to be told without transphobia, but their trans identity shouldn’t be hidden. Women characters shouldn’t have to be “one of the boys” to have a valid story.
By including these markers of identity, the character becomes more fully realized and encourages privileged people to see characters as a whole person rather than just something that exists for their amusement. Hopefully, in seeing them as a whole person, that privileged person can start to shed their internalized biases and learn to identify with someone different from them rather than simply expecting to be entertained by them. If creators add these markers to characters more often, I believe it will help to break down some of these walls.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!