Representing diversity in videogame characters feels like an obvious aspiration, particularly in the sphere of competitive, triple-A titles that reach millions upon millions of players and spectators. But there can be a fine line between representation and tokenism: the former is a means to bring characters of different genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, and more into a prominent spotlight historically reserved for straight, white men; the latter is a superficial gesture of inclusivity that actually pigeonholes a minority character as a simplified and stereotyped “other.”
Mental health diversity has struggled to find genuine representation in gaming. Horror titles like Outlast (2013) leverage public fears of mental illness by populating their worlds with enemies who want to kill you because they’re “crazy.” Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) recklessly invoked symptoms of posttraumatic stress in its lead in a naive attempt to imbue the game with an edgy, gritty tone, while games like BioShock Infinite (2013) often lean on the absurd trope that mental health problems cause amnesia as a means to clean up convoluted plotlines.
Mental health diversity has struggled to find genuine representation in gaming.
Blizzard’s Overwatch recently opted to approach mental health representation differently. A comic released on the game’s website in May strongly suggested that the character of Symmetra is on the autistic spectrum. “Sanjay has always said I was… different,” she thinks to herself. “Everyone has. Asking where I fit on the spectrum. It used to bother me. Because I knew it was true. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Because I can do things nobody else can do.”
This is a noteworthy decision on a number of levels. Firstly, by placing this information in ancillary material disconnected from the game, Blizzard is being subtle about mental health in a way rarely seen in mainstream franchises. On one hand, Symmetra’s status as a representative of people on the autistic spectrum is muted: it is not discussed in-game and plays no explicit role in how she is played, making her far from a “poster child” for autism in gaming. On the other hand, by quietly placing this detail about her in an external (but widely read) comic, Blizzard makes this aspect of Symmetra’s personality a part of who she is—without it reductionistically defining who she is.
The other notable aspect of Blizzard’s approach is that even within the comic, Symmetra is not portrayed as a stereotypical person with autism. She is interested in order and doing things precisely, and she expresses some confusion in anticipating the mental states of others. But “Rain Man” she is not, which would have been the easy, tokenistic route for a writer to take. Symmetra’s indicators of being on the spectrum are so subtle, in fact, that a Battle.net forum user, Masterweaver, who self-identified as autistic, wrote that they struggled to identify with Symmetra as sharing the same condition. They went on to suggest various traits or situations with which Blizzard might imbue Symmetra in order for her portrayal to more closely align with Masterweaver’s experience of autism.
She is interested in order and doing things precisely.
Masterweaver’s post is emblematic of both the laudable work Blizzard is doing and the amount of work left to be done in the industry as a whole. That Symmetra is not “typically” autistic helps reinforce that autism, like most aspects of ourselves, is a continuum, rather than something qualitatively different from “normal.” Autism is a concept widely heard but frequently misunderstood by the general public, and by not relying on an exaggerated, all-consuming vision of what that condition means, Blizzard opens the door for more nuanced and thoughtful incorporations of mental health issues into mainstream games.
At the same time, we must appreciate the fact that someone like Masterweaver currently has painfully few games to look to in which their experience as someone with autism is being represented. Blizzard is under no obligation to make Symmetra more like Masterweaver, but game developers as a whole should feel a social responsibility to consider the full spectrum of humanity when creating their work.