Although I’m both a science nerd and a video game fan, those don’t often intersect. Many scientist characters in video games are feared (or laughed at) from a distance rather than being understandable or sympathetic. Worse, they are often locked into one of two narrow roles:
The “Mad scientist” – a friendly yet distant (often 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 power, and often sees non-scientists as inferior or weak. Usually they are obsessed with finishing their research or their 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 newest character Moira O’Deorain, while the resident Mad Scientist is Dr Junkenstein, the Halloween event variation of Junkrat.
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. As a Talon member, she transformed Blackwatch leader Gabriel Reyes into the ghostly Reaper, and possibly brainwashed Overwatch agent Amelie Lecroix into becoming villainous sniper Widowmaker.
Her interactions show her as aloof, sarcastic, and condescending: kills with her Biotic Orb are followed by “Situational awareness could save your life– I recommend it”, while even her healing is accompanied by a disdainful “injured again?”. Many lines focus on her will, and her control over it; her Ultimate ability is triggered with a cry of “Surrender to my will!”.
Moira fits the Bad scientist role tightly, both in personality and in philosophy. She is strongly utilitarian; remarking after her own in-game deaths that “we must all make sacrifices in the name of science”. Stereotyped? Check.
Dr Jamison Junkenstein, on the other hand, is a Mad scientist to the core. As the main antagonist of Junkenstein’s Revenge, he develops creations like zombified robots, electric tyres and Junkenstein’s Monster in his plan to destroy the castle (for no specified reason). He also retains Junkrat’s obsession with explosives, destruction, and shiny things.
However, because 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. By putting Junkenstein in a self-aware and comedic Halloween mode, the Mad scientist can remain as a humorous pseudocharacter instead of being a genuinely negative representation.
If the game 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, Overwatch created 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 each contained different combinations of stereotypical and non-stereotypical traits.
- They seem to have thought about the role of science in the Overwatch universe first, and used that to develop the characters, rather than relying on the audience to put their own expectations of science on to the characters.
Winston, the current leader of Overwatch, is a superintelligent gorilla raised by a scientist, who later becomes a scientist and inventor himself. His worldview is built on optimism and hope for humanity, a view which underpins the majority of Overwatch (the organisation and the game).
Another original member of Overwatch, Mercy, is “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 about the ways people can use her technology for evil.
Finally, there’s Chinese 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 design, which leaves her as the only non-augmented human character in the game, is meant to show that anyone can become a hero, while her story arc is the most emotional and relatable so far.
Because Blizzard created multiple scientists, individual characters are able to hold stereotypical traits without those traits causing problems. Moira on her own would be negative representation, and Mei on her own would be postive representation, but Moira existing alongside Mei and Winston is the best representation of all because it shows contrast and diversity within scientists.
Finally, Junkenstein’s Revenge contains a conversation that reveals a lot about science in the Overwatch universe. Many Overwatch voice lines 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.