It's exceedingly rare for a video game protagonist to be a member of the LGBTQ community, with only a handful of gay characters (like Ellie from The Last of Us) playing major roles in gaming narratives. Some games will allow the player character to pursue a same-sex relationship, but that's typically about as deep as efforts at representation go. In gaming, cisgender, heterosexual characters are the norm, and to make matters worse, there’s an entire subsection of gaming culture that casually uses homosexuality as a punchline or insult, if not becoming outright hostile to people who openly identify as LGBTQ.
That’s why it matters when major characters in one of the most popular multiplayer games in the world are revealed to be gay. Blizzard Entertainment recently revealed that Soldier 76 is gay, joining his fellow Overwatch character Tracer as two of the most high-profile gay characters in gaming.
Overwatch isn’t a game that deals in overarching plot. There is no real single-player mode, with the gameplay focused on being a multiplayer shooter. What story elements that have been introduced come primarily via animated shorts produced by Blizzard, as well as a number of comics and short stories. It was in one of these tie-ins that Tracer, who is one of the game's most recognizable characters, was revealed to be in a relationship with another woman.
In the newly released short story "Bastet," by Blizzard lead writer Michael Chu (with illustrations and artwork provided by Arnold Tsang and Bengal), old friends Soldier 76 and Ana reunite for the first time in years. While Soldier 76 is going through old photos, Ana notices one of him when he was younger, standing alongside another man. Soldier 76 matter-of-factly reveals that the man in question, Vincent, is now married and happy. The story focuses on the two realizing all the things they’ve sacrificed to fight for the world, including their relationships.
The revelation was hinted at in a previous Overwatch comic, but the new story makes Solduer 76's orientation an overt part of the game's continuity. Chu even posted to Twitter to confirm that it wasn’t a one-time hookup, that Soldier 76 is, in fact, gay. For gaming, that’s a huge step forward.
The various characters of Overwatch (29 at the time of this writing) all have a host of strange and unique abilities that affect the game as it’s being played. Soldier 76 plays in a way similar to most FPS games, so he was designed as the tutorial character. Still, he remains one of the most versatile characters in the game, and for many players, Soldier 76 is just as important to the franchise as Tracer.
By making both of them gay, Blizzard is forcing players who may have been hesitant to embrace LGBTQ characters to realize they’re as valuable as anyone else in the game, and not just as romantic options. They don’t have to be over the top stereotypes or killed in the first minute. They can be the characters we identify with, play as, and learn to love, the same as any other character.
It's also important that their sexuality has never felt forced. Blizzard allowed the characters to reveal themselves in quiet, realistic ways, just like real people. For Tracer, it was a quiet holiday with a loved one. For Soldier 76, it was while reflecting on a lost love. Like the other side stories that exist as part of Overwatch, it delves into the characters succinctly and efficiently, adding shades to the characters that otherwise couldn’t be addressed in the nonstop action of the game itself.
The gaming industry and fan community is at a crossroads. That’s something that has been said multiple times over the years, but it increasingly looks to be true, especially when considering the treatment of the LGBTQ community. For years, slurs have been thrown around as blanket insults during online gaming sessions, with gay video game streamers having been belittled, threatened and seeing their personal information released by the hateful section of gaming that is openly homophobic. But gaming has been slowly rising to the challenge.
A group of Fallout 76 players who harassed players by running around killing “all gays” have received lifetime bans from the game. SonicFox, a 20-year old pro gamer who is openly gay, won the award for Best Esports Player of the Year at the 2018 Game Awards. There’s actually already an actively inclusive fan community around Overwatch, who have used fan art to pair basically any and every character together, regardless of gender.
The gaming community is growing more accepting, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. And making a mainstream, major character like Soldier 76 openly gay, while allowing him to be the face of one of the biggest franchises currently out there, is a major step in the right direction.