As part of Overwatch’s Lunar New Year celebration, four heroes—Reinhardt, Zenyatta, Winston and Roadhog—will be decked in Journey to the West-inspired skins. But had they inherited the skills of the characters they are dressed up as, Zenyatta would easily be the most underpowered combatant in the roster. The reason is obvious to any Chinese who grew up reading the novel: Zenyatta is Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk who embarked on a pilgrimage to retrieve holy scriptures. Despite his venerable status, Xuanzang was renowned for being utterly defenceless against hordes of demons, who believe that feasting on his flesh would grant them immortality. Moreover, Xuanzang also had the habit of tossing himself into the midst of danger, much to his disciples’ chagrin.
To put it in familiar videogame terms, Xuanzang embodies the worst of escort missions.
As a Chinese, Journey to the West is a story my family and friends is familiar with, its countless films and television series adaptions a staple of entertainment for our annual Lunar New Year celebrations. So when its characters—Xuanzang, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing—made an appearance in Overwatch this Lunar New Year, our excitement was palpable; many of us were thrilled to see Blizzard pay homage to the figures that had regaled our childhood.
Asian representation in videogames are few and far between. Even when people of Asian descent are featured, they are sometimes depicted as ridiculously offensive caricatures, or portrayed in an unrealistic manner—an example is Street Fighter V’s villainous F.A.N.G, with his awkward crane-like poses and stature, or the numerous Japanese ninjas we see in videogames.
But when I heard the outcry against Overwatch’s Lunar New Year event, I wasn’t really convinced that Blizzard had made a faux pas this time. Part of Overwatch’s appeal lies in its diverse cast of heroes, like its portrayal of Sombra as a female Mexican hacker, Ana as a badass Egyptian sharpshooter, and mascot Tracer as a queer, exuberant pilot. Sure, accusations about Blizzard occasionally missing the mark and committing cultural appropriation aren’t unfounded—they had definitely slipped up before, such as with Pharah’s Thunderbird and Raindancer skins—but the company’s efforts at fair representation can be plainly seen.
On the other hand, the use of “cultural appropriation” as a term may have been bastardized too frequently in recent years. Once a phrase almost exclusively used in snooze-inducing academic papers, cultural appropriation is becoming a buzzword in outpourings of cultural sensitivity.
I won’t deny the harmful impact of cultural appropriation; the bastardization of the swastika by the Nazi party, originally a holy symbol of Hinduism and Buddhism, is one notable example. However, the use of cultural elements by members outside of said culture isn’t as contentious an issue as some people have thought.
Nonetheless, this is still a nuanced topic that necessitates thoughtful discussions. For starters, there is a distinct difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. The former is about the use of cultural elements by members of another culture, often with little understanding about their origins; these can range from misappropriating specific elements from topics such as fashion, language, music and religious symbols. Conversely, cultural exchange is the borrowing of these elements as a show of appreciation, with an emphasis on promoting diversity and freedom of expression.
While these two terms may appear similar at first, the crux of their differences is power. In cultural appropriation, the dominant culture adopts the traditional elements of another group without permission. This expression may be celebrated by the majority, or even mistakenly credited to this group. What is more inexcusable, however, is that the original group remains ostracized or demonized for the same cultural expression. One infamous example is Miley Cyrus appropriating black culture to appear edgy and shed her Hannah Montana image—a part of herself that she had found so repulsive. Of course, much like her fashion and music choices, that was unequivocally a terrible idea. By stealing the accoutrements associated with the poorer black community to bolster her “weed-smoking, liberal-ass freak” persona, she trivialized their plight and reduced their culture to a costume she can wear whenever she likes, even if this was never her intention. It’s truly abhorrent, and I think I can live with never seeing Miley Cyrus bare her grills or twerk on screen again.
On the contrary, cultural exchanges can sustain and even revitalize cultures through a vibrant exchange of ideas. “Cultural appropriation can sometimes be the savior of a cultural product that has faded away,” said Susan Scafidi, a lawyer and the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. An example of cultural exchange, as shared on the Atlantic, is the American invention of blue jeans, which was improved and strengthened by the Japanese without taking away from its American heritage.
And that is what I thought was taking place in Overwatch. The largely respectful and tasteful portrayal of the Journey to the West characters is a breath of fresh air, and it does so while preserving the personalities of the original heroes. Other heroes also have their own festive skins. Mercy’s outfit, for instance, is influenced by the cheongsam, a one-piece Chinese dress. While the cheongsam is an iconic Chinese outfit—one with a significant and colorful history—it is not a sacred artifact like the often-appropriated Native American war bonnet. Instead, it is a simple garment worn by Chinese women during the 1920s.
And who can forget the lovely Mei, the Chinese hero and the only character to receive two Legendary skins for the occasion? Her bright-red costume is the very embodiment of prosperity and joy, accentuated by the Chinese word for “fortune” that adorns her waist. Her second costume is also inspired by the attire of Chang ‘e, the Chinese moon Goddess. Having a Chinese hero dress up as such an iconic character, and making Mei the face of this event was a gracious and thoughtful gesture by Blizzard.
Lunar New Year is also celebrated by other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Korea, and some heroes are dressed in these cultures’ distinctive style too. More prominently featured are the Korean garments; D.Va is wearing the hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, while Ana has put on a ceremonial Korean mask. These efforts are warmly embraced by many Korean Overwatch fans, who seem just as delighted to see their culture represented in one of the most popular videogames in recent memory. Here is one Korean fan’s take on the festive event.
Blizzard is not infallible though; they had previously given the Pandaren, a humanoid panda race in Warcraft, a Japanese-inspired backstory, complete with samurai armor. However, this is a questionable decision because pandas have little to do with Japan; they can only be found in China, and are even the country’s national animal.
Luckily, Blizzard had learned from this lesson and done the legwork to ensure that Asians are respectfully and credibly represented. Appropriation can be discriminatory, but the borrowing and exchange of cultural elements can encourage diversity and inspire boundless creativity. Just take a look around Tumblr and other social media platforms; it’s evident how well-loved Overwatch’s cast of heroes are all over the world.
Edit: Removed mention of Japan celebrating Lunar New Year. Apparently the country doesn’t do that.