Overwatch creators explain they didn’t use King’s ‘creepy’ diversity charts
On May 12, the Activision Blizzard newsroom published a blog post titled King’s diversity space tool: a leap forward for inclusion in gaming. It explained that King, the Candy Crush developer acquired by Activision Blizzard in 2016, had been working since that year alongside the MIT Game Lab to make software that would “create and monitor guidelines for character conception and creation” to identify how diverse a set of character designs are.
This software, called Diversity Space Tool, was demonstrated with radar graphs showing breakdowns of the attributes of characters from Overwatch, in particular Ana, who was apparently given scores of 7 out of 10 for culture, race, and age, but 0 for body type and sexual orientation.
The post explained the Diversity Space Tool had been “tested by developer teams working on Call of Duty: Vanguard”, with Alayna Cole of Sledgehammer Games quoted saying, “we’re going to use that data going forward into the next games that we’re working on”. The post then claimed, “The Overwatch 2 team at Blizzard has also had a chance to experiment with the tool, with equally enthusiastic first impressions.”
The Diversity Space Tool was widely criticized online, with many pointing out the bureaucratic oddity of “creating a tool when you could just hire diverse designers and listen to them“. It’s also a bizarre way of going about it, instantly raising a lot of questions. The scale has as its zero-point the typical middle-class white cis male videogame protagonist, but how exactly do you score something like ‘race’ out of 10? Is someone at King using a color chart to measure exactly how dark characters’ skin tones are? Where do Overwatch’s robot and hamster characters fit on these scales exactly? Who needs a mathematical breakdown to point out Overwatch didn’t have any Black women in its roster at launch?
An update on May 13 tried to address some of the criticism, adding an editor’s note explaining “the Diversity Space Tool–currently in beta–was designed as an optional supplement to the hard work and focus our teams already place on telling diverse stories with diverse characters, but decisions regarding in-game content have been and will always be driven by development teams.” The update also removed the graphics (which I saved and have embedded in this article), and any mention of Call of Duty: Vanguard or Overwatch.
Dylan Snyder, senior game designer of Overwatch 2, said on Twitter that “the portion about Overwatch 2 was removed mostly because we’re not using it and didn’t know it existed until yesterday.” He followed up by saying that while he’s been working on Overwatch 2, “I’ve met nothing but genuine, wonderful people who not only want to make an amazing game, but are also incredibly open-minded and laser focused on making good on the inclusive world that Overwatch promises. This has been such a punch to the gut for us.”
Overwatch character artist Melissa Kelly also commented on the post, saying, “God I swear our own company tries so hard to slaughter any good will the actual devs who make the game have built” and “Overwatch doesn’t even use this creepy distopian [sic] chart, our writers have eyes. The artists: have eyes. Producers, directors, etc, as far as I know also all have eyes”.
The observation that videogame protagonists frequently draw from a narrow set of options isn’t new. “Kids love brown-haired 30-something white males” is now a venerable meme from a time when players complained about games being full of identikit gruff bros instead of complaining the women weren’t hot enough.
Apparently the galaxy-brain corporate response to this complaint was to spend six years working on a program that farts out radar charts measuring how mathematically progressive a game’s cast is, then crow about it on the internet without even running it by the people making the game whose characters were borrowed to demonstrate how great it is.