[News] Video Games Are Being Transformed By This Autistic Character
For Samuel Hookham and his younger brother, Overwatch was an obsession that took root last spring. They played the fast-paced shooter video game almost every day, passing the PlayStation 4 controller back and forth across the couch in their family’s California home.
Samuel was surprised to find himself selecting a female avatar. Overwatch offers two dozen characters of different genders and races, each with a richly drawn personality. But when Samuel played, he was almost always Symmetra, a slight but potent warrior. Her weapon of choice, a photon projector, locks onto enemies and swiftly depletes their energy. In the hands of a skilled player, she could be one of the most devious and deadly characters.
Andrew McMillen is a freelance writer and the author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.
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As he played, Samuel began to notice that Symmetra’s behavior was sometimes strange. She often misunderstood social cues. When her teammate, Torbjörn, cracked a joke—“Hehe, there’s something on your dress!”—Symmetra would respond literally: “No, there isn’t.” She craved structure and got overwhelmed with too much stimulation. In the middle of tense battles, she would turn her back on the action in order to, say, rebuild defensive sentry turrets. In a voice clip, she told her teammates that she believed “the true enemy of humanity is disorder.”
It was all a bit odd. But in Symmetra’s strangeness, Samuel saw himself. Near the end of 2016, he had been diagnosed with autism, and the label was helping him understand the ways his behavior was different. Like Symmetra, Samuel tended to take jokes literally and could get confused by social cues that others navigated with ease. Samuel began to wonder if his favorite Overwatch hero was autistic, too.
So when his English teacher asked the class to write letters to public figures they admired, he saw an opening. While his peers sent dispatches to the Nintendo headquarters in Japan, In-N-Out Burger, and Prince William, Samuel wrote to Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s director and a well-known personality thanks to regular YouTube updates. It was a short note—just a dozen sentences— focused on the question that had been bugging him.
“Dear Mr. Kaplan,” Samuel began, “My main question is about Symmetra. She’s my favorite character, hands down. I just wanted to clarify: Is Symmetra autistic? As an autistic person myself, I’d love to know.”
He addressed the letter to Blizzard Entertainment’s offices in Irvine, California, expecting not to hear back. A month later, a letter arrived.
“Dear Samuel,” wrote Kaplan, “I’m glad you asked about Symmetra. Symmetra is autistic. She is one of our most beloved heroes and we think she does a great job of representing just how awesome someone with autism can be.”
With 30 million players, Overwatch is among the world’s most popular video games. Kids like Samuel spend hours immersed in games, even though the avatars they control rarely reflect themselves. Characters with disabilities, characters of different races, characters with different sexual orientations, characters with autism—all are rare in video games. That means that when kids are building their conceptions of what heroes look like, they are almost never people with autism.
The letter that Samuel held in his hands marked the first time that a video game character—not just a bit-player, but a fully playable character—was autistic. The news, he knew, was important.
Samuel posted a photo of the signed letter to his Tumblr on March 8. Within a couple of days, the word had spread.
By many accounts, 2017 should be a landmark year for autism visibility. The Power Rangers movie remake showcased Billy, a blue ranger on the autism spectrum, and smaller children tuning into Sesame Street met Julia, a Muppet with autism. That’s on the heels of a handful of TV shows, including Girl Meets World and Community, that have aired autism-linked storylines in recent years.
But if this year is a banner year for autism awareness, it is only because in the past, things have been bad. Typically, the media portrays people with autism as villains (Wilson Fisk in Daredevil) or weirdo sidekicks (Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man)—or they’re not depicted at all. That representation void doesn’t just impact people with autism: It impacts their peers, too. One in 68 American children is diagnosed on the autism spectrum; members of that group are five times more likely to be bullied than kids without the diagnosis. Visibility is key, though. If people are exposed to cool, functional characters, then an autistic kid in class might seem like a friend, rather than a target.
In this sense, Overwatch is an outlier. Besides Symmetra, you can choose to play with Ana, a 60-year-old Egyptian sniper who is missing an eye; Junkrat, an Australian explosives expert with a prosthetic leg; or Tracer, a time-jumping British adventurer who also happens to be gay. These four heroes represent one sixth of the game’s cast of playable characters, yet their inclusion subtly indicates to players that there’s nothing wrong with being a little different. In fact, those differences can become game-winning assets.
Outside this group, there are heroes in Overwatch that don’t fit the typical action-game mold. Zenyatta, for instance, is a floating robotic monk who calls upon orbs of harmony and discord to heal his teammates and weaken his opponents. Others are archetypes familiar to anyone who’s picked up a first-person shooter game in the last decade. Soldier: 76 is a grizzled, stoic veteran who knows nothing but war; McCree is a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking American cowboy who cracks wise as he reloads his six-shooter.
Symmetra is a truly original creation, however. Her character design is rooted in Blizzard’s somewhat miraculous idea that the heroes in Overwatch should reflect the range of life experiences that the players themselves bring to the game. Because about one percent of the world population has autism spectrum disorder, it is fair to assume that at least one percent of Overwatch’s playership is on the spectrum, too. That means that roughly 300,000 people with autism are playing Overwatch.
“We never wanted Symmetra to be known as ‘the autistic character’,” says Overwatch lead writer Michael Chu. “She is defined by a combination of different aspects: her upbringing, her specific abilities, and the challenges she faces.” The developers decided early on to downplay not just Symmetra’s autism, but also all of the characters’ races and nationalities. “We didn’t want that to just be the thing: ‘Oh, Tracer’s the British hero, Symmetra’s the Indian hero, and McCree the cowboy is the American hero,’” Chu adds. “We were mindful of keeping these characters as being three-dimensional, and representing a mix of attributes, rather than anything in particular.”
The developers consciously decided to diverge from the same archetypes that gamers have seen for decades. “We wanted the heroes to come from all sorts of different walks of life; different places, different backgrounds,” says Chu. “For Symmetra, this was something we had decided for her. It is an aspect of the character which is interesting, in addition to all the other motivations and characteristics of the heroes.”
Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan addressed the origins of the game’s range of characters at conference for video game executives held in Las Vegas in February. “I think it’s really interesting that people think that diversity was the goal of the Overwatch team, when it was not,” Kaplan said at the summit. “What we cared about was creating a game, and a game universe, and a world where everybody felt welcome. And really, what the goal was was inclusivity and open-mindedness.”
Kaplan phrased these intentions in stronger terms in a May 2017 interview with video game site Kotaku. “The only people that we want to exclude from our game is people who exclude other people,” he told Kotaku.
In May 2016, just before the game’s release, Blizzard hinted at Symmetra’s autism when it published an online comic named A Better World. In the 10-page strip, Symmetra was shown to be uncomfortable in crowds, and went out of her way to adjust a crooked picture frame during an important business meeting. Symmetra’s inner monologue referenced her being “different,” and hinted that others had asked her “where [she] fit on the spectrum.”
Symmetra‘s voice actor learned about this element of her character at the same time as those who read the comic. “I loved that it was so lightly touched-on,” says Anjali Bhimani, an Indian-American actor who is best known for on-screen roles in Modern Family, Silicon Valley, and Criminal Minds. “It is not the defining characteristic, or even a defining characteristic of the many that she has…Had they told me that earlier on, I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I would have given that more weight than necessarily would have been appropriate.”
By taking such a subtle approach to the character’s autism, Blizzard gracefully avoided Symmetra becoming yet another TV special-style example of spectrum disorder. Similarly, the list of autistic characters that have appeared in video games is short—just 10 characters since 2001, including Symmetra.
There was a secondary intent with Symmetra’s autism beyond representing neurodiversity: a desire to change the cultural narrative.
“There are a lot of instances you see on the internet, and in different gaming communities, where people who are on the spectrum or autistic are actually the subject of a lot of bullying, or negative reactions,” says Overwatch lead writer Chu. “We wanted the cast of heroes to be diverse. Tracer has this [in-game] voiceline where she says, ‘The world can always use more heroes’. We wanted to be able to show in our game that the heroes of Overwatch, like heroes in our world, could come from all these different places — including a character who’s on the spectrum.”
When Symmetra’s comic was published last May, it made a few ripples—but Samuel Hookham’s letter triggered a tidal wave. The Overwatch subreddit —which today has more than 913,000 subscribers—lit up, as fans shared their reactions to the news. Among the most popular threads was one started by XeernOfTheLight. “Autism is not an insult,” the post began. “It’s not some brainless meme…So I’m going to do the most frightening thing I’ve ever done, and use Reddit to express my feelings on a topic that affects me and my life every single day.”
In a post upvoted by thousands of fellow Overwatch players, XeernOfTheLight described how much he valued the way the design team had created Symmetra’s character:
“If she ran around the place screaming ‘I’M AUTISTIC GUYS!!!’ and wrote it on every wall, then that’d be poor representation She instead keeps herself to herself, building her turrets and presumably having a great time about it. That’s what I, as an autistic person, strive for in my life. That aura of, ‘I’m not letting some diagnosis stop me from doing all I dream.‘””
For Samuel, who is now 17, that diagnosis is still relatively new. “I grew up with being undiagnosed for most of my childhood, and I was bullied for my behavior very badly,” he says. “I didn’t get any psychological treatment until I was around 13. That started out being only for depression, but as I started getting more healthy, I realized there were other things that I had going on in my head.”
Nearly two weeks after he shared the letter online, Samuel took to YouTube to summarize the excitement and emotions he’d experienced when his Symmetra suspicion was confirmed. “So many people reject kids with autism, or use ‘autistic’ as one of those half-assed insults,” he said toward the end of a 15-minute bedroom vlog. “But I told [Jeff] I have it, and he didn’t care.”
Samuel sniffed and paused for a moment, struck by the significance. “Oh my god, I’m actually starting to cry. He treated me like a normal person, and he just wrote back. He literally said that anyone with autism can be awesome. That’s amazing! I’m just smiling,” he said to the camera. “I’m just so happy.”
via PSFK http://www.psfk.com/
July 17, 2017 at 01:01PM