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The Casual Gaymer: Apex Legends, Overwatch, and mainstream visibility

Of payloads and PR stunts.

Welcome to another edition of “The Casual Gaymer!” This is a weekly column from AiPT! Gaming in which I’ll share my thoughts, questions, and concerns about video games and the gaming industry as a queer person with limited free time. Missed last week’s edition where I took a dive to the heart of my queer connection to Roxas in Kingdom Hearts? Eat up! This week, a question. What do a retired soldier turned vigilante, a speedy Brit whose body is stuck out of time, a mysterious hunter with a pet bird, and a beefy motorcycle thief with a shield have in common? They’re all queer and they all star in huge online shooters! Let’s take a look at Apex Legends, Respawn’s new battle royale game and what Overwatch could’ve done better in the diversity department.

Is it fair to be comparing just these two games? What about all the other online shooters that are even more lacking in diversity than Overwatch? My answer is that Overwatch at least has any queer characters in it and is therefore worthy of my attention, especially with regards to this column. Call me when other massive online shooters have some queer people in them, and they might get a column out of me.

That being said, if one glances over at the official site for Apex Legends, browsing the playable characters’ profiles reveals two characters who are canonically queer right out of the gate. Gibraltar, the defense-oriented “gentle giant with a wild side,” is mentioned as having a boyfriend with whom he stole his father’s bike for a joyride. Bloodhound, a tracker shrouded in rumors and intrigue, uses they/them pronouns and their voice actor, Allegra Clark, has confirmed they’re nonbinary on Twitter.

Yes, Overwatch also has two canonically queer characters in Soldier: 76 and Tracer, but these were characters whose queerness was revealed months or even years later than the game’s release. But Trevor, who cares, right? At least we have queer characters in AAA shooters at all! Fair point, Trevor. I’m very happy to see queer characters in mainstream games played, streamed, and used as a vehicle to scream slurs via voice chat around the world.

However, by withholding Soldier: 76 and Tracer’s queerness until after the game’s cementing as a critical and commercial success, questions are begged. Were these characters always queer, or was their queerness added later to earn more brownie points for diversity? Maybe the latter, maybe not. If the latter, would their queerness be revealed at all if the game weren’t such a hit and Blizz would have to worry about losing money? We’ve seen how the MCU movies will cut queerness out for fear of losing money internationally. Regardless of either scenario, is it not delicious that there are homophobic Overwatch players who have to see Tracer’s face on all the marketing and maybe even got the collector’s edition and have a statue of a certified gay daddy in their homes? No dessert, thank you, I’m stuffed.

Now, I realize these scenarios cut Blizzard little slack and completely throw the benefit of the doubt out the window. But with the way they handled Pharah’s Native American heritage, it’s not a huge leap to assume Blizz revealed 76’s queerness for good PR. Respawn stating these characters’ queerness from the start saves them from these less than flattering narratives. They’re here, they’re queer, they’re gonna help streamers earn sponsorships they’ll inevitably lose for using the N-word.

Again, I’m happy queer characters exist in both games. It’s important that queer people see themselves in mainstream gaming spaces which have historically either pushed queerness away or left it out of the conversation completely. However, let’s not forget you can play Overwatch or Apex Legends without ever knowing a character is queer. Aside from one of Tracer’s sprays, this information is tucked away in comics or official webpages. As great as it is that queer characters exist in mainstream games, not having their queerness plainly visible in the games feels like a half-measure. Not quite a post mortem Dumbledore moment, but not quite a plainly visible gay couple in Night in the Woods.

I am far from the first to voice these complaints–online or otherwise–but it bears reiterating that as queer people who endure the bigoted toxicity in gaming spaces for the sake of enjoying the hobby we love, we need to celebrate queer visibility in mainstream gaming, but keep the gold stars on the sticker sheets. I can’t overstate how much I appreciate the queer people at Respawn and Blizzard who push for queer visibility and are likely shut down time and again. I appreciate the scraps these corporations have thrown to queer gamers, assumedly thanks to those queer developers. I will not and we should not, however, be satisfied with scraps. We should uplift games from smaller and indie developers like Infinite Fall (Night in the Woods) and Pillow Fight Games (Heaven Will Be Mine). We should enjoy the hard-earned feeling of mainstream visibility while holding corporations accountable for the way they portray our queerness, ever-conscious of the ways in which they might profit from our identities. We should also demand more skins with details like the thotty cut of Soldier: 76’s Halloween shirt.

Apparently, we’re serving manifesto bullet points this week! So, let’s don our headsets, enjoy the new queer options we have in the Battle Royale space, and remember that if someone calls you a f----t out of anger, they probably have no qualms of using it casual in daily conversation. You don’t just accidentally use a slur when your frustrated like it magically flew into your brain out of nowhere. When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. See you next week!

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