Science in Video Gaming: What makes Overwatch special?

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Although I’m both a science nerd and a video game fan, those interests don’t intersect often. Scientist characters in video games are often feared (or laughed at) from a distance, rather than being understandable or sympathetic. Worse, they are usually locked into two narrow roles:

The “Mad scientist” –  a friendly yet distant and absent-minded tinkerer, whose inventions take on a life of their own or wind up as destructive rather than helpful.

The “Bad scientist”- a character who focuses entirely on their intellect and considers themselves superior to non-scientists. They can be obsessed with finishing their research or completing their next latest invention, regardless of its use or consequences. Many take utiliarianism to an extreme, seeing no problem with immoral or hurtful acts if they might achieve a greater good.

Overwatch, like many other games, has characters which fit these stereotypes. The Bad Scientist role belongs to  Moira O’Deorain, while the resident Mad Scientist is Dr Jamison Junkenstein, the Halloween variation of Junkrat.

“Stupidity is not a right” – Moira O’Deorain.

Moira is a geneticist who places her goal of researching DNA alteration above anything else. Although Moira claimed she had discovered how to alter the DNA of individual cells, her work was rejected due to its ethical danger. Moira worked within Blackwatch, the secret division of Overwatch, and then for terrorist organisation Talon. In Talon, she transformed Blackwatch leader Gabriel Reyes into the ghostly Reaper, and possibly helped manipulate Overwatch agent Amelie Lecroix into becoming villainous sniper Widowmaker.

Her interactions are aloof, sarcastic, and condescending: kills with her Biotic Orb are followed by “Situational awareness could save your life– I recommend it”, while her healing is accompanied by a disdainful “injured again?”. Many voice lines focus on her will, and her control over it; her Ultimate ability is triggered with a cry of “Surrender to my will!”. She is strongly utilitarian; remarking after her own in-game deaths that “we must all make sacrifices in the name of science”

Moira fits the Bad scientist role tightly both in personality and in philosophy. Stereotyped? Check.

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“I must return to my lab, but don’t worry! I will return!” – Dr Jamison Junkenstein

Dr Jamison Junkenstein, on the other hand, is a Mad scientist to the core. As the antagonist of Junkenstein’s Revenge, he engineers lethal invetions such as zombified robots, electric tyres, and Junkenstein’s Monster. He also retains Junkrat’s obsession with explosives, destruction, and shiny things.

However, as Junkenstein’s Revenge is in the explicitly non-canon Arcade section, I think it avoids being a negative portrayal of scientists. Overwatch’s Arcade section is non-canon so that the developers can include stories and characters purely for fun without breaking their established lore and interactions. Placing Junkenstein in a self-aware and comedic Halloween mode means that the Mad scientist can exist as a  humorous pseudocharacter rather than a genuinely negative representation.

If Overwatch had launched with only Moira and Junkenstein as scientists, it might have been just another alienated version of science. So, what did Overwatch do right? To me, it contains a more interesting and relatable portrayal of scientists than most other games because developers Blizzard made two connected choices:

  • They included multiple science-influenced characters, who express different combinations of stereotypical and non-stereotypical traits.
  • They seem to have established the role of science and scientists within the Overwatch universe, and developed the characters with that in mind, rather than expecting the audience to place their own expectations of science on the characters.
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“Together, we can solve any problem. Winston

Overwatch is led by superintelligent gorilla Winston, who becomes a scientist and inventor after being brought up by a scientist. Winston’s worldview is built on optimism and hope for humanity, a mindset which underpins the majority of Overwatch (the organisation and the game).

Another original Overwatch member, Mercy, is described as “a peerless healer, a brilliant scientist, and a staunch advocate for peace”. Mercy is driven to save lives – at the same time, she is conflicted over how people can use her technology for evil.

There’s also climatologist Mei, my favourite character. Mei is the polar opposite (pun intended) of Moira- cheerful, compassionate, and focused on keeping the world safe for others. Her voice lines are some of the most optimistic, including “The world is worth fighting for!”. She is the only non-augmented human character in the current-day game, a design choice meant to show that anyone can become a hero. Also, her story arc is the most emotional and relatable so far.

Although I’ve highlighted these characters, I could have discussed the entire cast. Overwatch includes scientists, engineers, hackers, medical inventors, robots, and hard-light reality-benders. Even the few non-scientist characters have been influenced by the scientists; Mercy’s healing tech is used by multiple other healers, while some characters only exist in their current form because of being rescued (or corrupted) by others’ inventions.

Because Blizzard developed a cast full of scientists, individual characters are able to hold stereotypical traits without those traits causing problems. Moira on her own would be a negative representation of scientists, while Mei on her own would be a postive representation. However, Moira existing alongside Mei, Winston and Mercy is even more effective positive representation. It allows the characters to be both scientists and people (well, or gorillas) and to express other traits aside from their enjoyment of science.

Finally, Junkenstein’s Revenge contains a conversation which reveals a lot about science in the Overwatch universe. Many of the voice lines with Overwatch idolise science, such as Winston’s “through the miracle of science!”, and Moira’s “if only the world could see the wonders that science has built”.  But an exchange between archer Hanzo and healer Ana in Junkenstein’s Revenge shows a surprisingly subtle viewpoint.

Hanzo: “You say you do science. The good Dr. Junkenstein would profess the same”.
Ana: “Science is a tool and a method. The hand that wields it decides its course”.

This one conversation, from an auxillary part of the game, expresses a more nuanced understanding of science than any other video game I’ve played. By showing science as a method, rather than a collection of facts, it out-performs plenty of science news and websites too.

A lot of media can portray science as a universal saviour or a universal suspect. Overwatch instead shows the motives and backstories of multiple scientists, and how their stories affect each other, then lets you put those pieces together. One tagline for Overwatch is “Soliders. Scientists. Adventurers. Oddities”, and I can’t think of any other game which places its scientists so highly or makes their science so essential to the plot.

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