Blizzard officially confirms that Overwatch character Pharah has Native American heritage. There had been much speculation about the character’s ethnic background as well as the identity of her father (Pharah’s mother, Ana, is also a playable character).
The confirmation of Pharah’s heritage also comes after Blizzard was criticised for cultural appropriation over some Overwatch skins, including Pharah’s Raindancer and Thunderbird skins.
Overwatch: Pharah’s Native American Heritage Doesn’t Dismiss Cultural Appropriation Concerns
A page in the official Overwatch artbook, The Art of Overwatch, confirms that Pharah has Native American heritage. It explains:
“Pharah’s Thunderbird skin (below) was based on the art motifs of the indigenous peoples who inhabit the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. More than just a unique design, this skin also tied into the hero’s multicultural origins: her mother is Egyptian, and her father is from an indigenous culture in the Pacific Northwest coast.”
This official explanation from Overwatch developer Blizzard arrives several months after it was criticised for cultural appropriation over the skins. Fans questioned why Pharah, who has Egyptian heritage, has skins for a culture that she isn’t part of. Outfits like this are of real importance to the cultures that they belong to and are not just costumes for people of other cultures to wear.
But this new lore regarding Pharah’s heritage does not mean that those cultural appropriation concerns have been dismissed entirely. An open letter to Blizzard by Native writer Dia Lacina notes that “It was a late stage decision after you’d seen the costume, after you’d seen blowback from the costume, after you’d seen plenty of people saying “Oh wouldn’t it be cool if Pharah was part Native?”
“I never asked for Pharah’s Thunderbird and Raindancer skins to be removed. But I also didn’t want you to try and make them OK,” explains the writer. “I wanted an apology: a sincere recognition that you had no idea what you were doing, shouldn’t have done it, and were going to move forward and let this be a teaching moment.”
The article, which also highlights the ways that Native American culture has been erased and co-opted, says that it would have been much better if Blizzard had created a “real Native hero in Overwatch”. Blizzard could bring in indigenous consultants to ensure that the representation was “meaningful”. The developer could have also planned to reveal more information about Pharah’s specific culture in future, as well as how she relates to it.
For example, fighting game Killer Instinct brought in Native consultants to improve the design of Native character Thunder after it realized that the original portrayal of the character was inauthentic. Platforming game Never Alone was also created in collaboration with Iñupiaq elders, properly representing their culture.
Some may be quick to accuse fans upset by this development as being ‘ungrateful’ as though marginalized Overwatch players have an obligation to accept sub-par portrayals of their identities. That is obviously unfair and again, as the article highlights, it’s about portraying marginalized identities in a responsible way as doing otherwise can have a real, negative impact on those communities.
Blizzard has shown that it can perform due diligence when it comes to presenting cultures correctly, with skins for Doomfist and Mei being key examples. But it’s frustrating to see the developer make the same kinds of missteps as it strives to make its game more diverse.
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