On Playing Overwatch and Toxic Communities

I love the game Overwatch. I’ve been a fan pretty much since it launched in 2016. I typically don’t care for first person shooters – in part because I’m terrible at them, and in part because I don’t much like the idea of shooting people, even if they’re made of pixels. But Overwatch has excellent character design (well, mostly), a very well-designed UI, and beautiful maps. The designer in me was attracted to it, and I couldn’t look away.

As far as gameplay goes, Overwatch is a fairly nuts-and-bolts team-based shooter. The primary game mode is a competitive mode in which two teams consisting of 6 players each are pitted against one another with the aim of “winning” the map. Teams may take on three different roles, depending on the map – defending an objective, attempting to capture an objective, or battling against the other team in a “capture the flag” scenario. Teams consist of 2 healers, who help other team members regain health; 2 tanks, who can take high amounts of damage and defend their team members from taking damage; and 2 “DPS” (damage per second), whose role is to damage the players on the other team. 

Why has Overwatch kept players’ interest for so long? The game itself is evergreen – the game’s developer, Blizzard Entertainment, has obviously invested a lot of time and thought into keeping the game relevant as it ages. The addition of a new character or a new map a few times a year adds a variety of new ways to play the same game. Even tweaking the stats of a few characters here and there – which Blizzard does consistently – can vastly change how the game is played. But mostly, the primary mode of play features six real – and often random – people collaborating together in order to defeat the six real people on the other side. Nothing keeps a game fresher than not knowing exactly what you’ll be up against when you start playing.

Blizzard intends to keep the trend going with the release of Overwatch 2, just announced in November 2019, which will feature updated character designs, more new characters and maps, and more game modes.

Overwatch 2 promotional image featuring new character designs

My Personal History with Overwatch

I’ve been really enjoying Overwatch as a spectator sport for years. My partner picked up the game when it was released, and I started watching him play. I was drawn in by how well-designed the game and its characters seemed, and wanted to know more. I found the barrier of entry to be a bit high, but once I understood the basics of how the maps were played and what each character could do, it became a really fun game to watch. I currently follow several Twitch streamers who primarily play Overwatch, and tune in every so often. I’ve also been keeping up with the Overwatch League since it started in 2018, and am looking forward to the beginning of the next season in January. 

Overwatch League match in the Blizzard Arena in southern California
An Overwatch League match in Blizzard Arena in southern California

But I haven’t really played the game much. Though I’ve been enjoying Overwatch for nearly three years now, I didn’t start actually playing the game myself until a few months ago. That seems crazy, doesn’t it? I’ve spent all this time learning about Overwatch and watching a variety of people play it, but it took me two years to buy the game and start playing myself.

At first, I didn’t particularly want to play because Overwatch is just not the kind of game I normally play. I don’t like first person shooters. Games that require a lot of precise hand-eye coordination frustrate me. I don’t often have the patience to work at building the muscle memory I need to play such games well. I tend to prefer strategy games and puzzle games that rely more on speed of thought than on reflex and dexterity.

There’s a part of my brain that just says I’m bad at those types of games. And sometimes I listen to it more than I should. But when it comes to games like Overwatch, I’ve realized I don’t necessarily have to be good at the game to enjoy playing it. It’s one of those games where I win some, and I lose most. And I die quite a lot. I don’t particularly like dying in games – who does? – but I’ve found if I approach it sensibly, dying constantly doesn’t much bother me. Sometimes, dying in games is out of my control. Even then, dying becomes an opportunity to learn. 

So if I go into it with the right mindset, I’ve discovered I can play games like Overwatch and enjoy them. But I still don’t play Overwatch a whole lot. When I do, I play with people I know, or I play alone with voice chat turned off, even though I know doing so limits how far I can make it in the game. Why? Because I don’t want to open myself up for harassment from other players of the game. Using voice chat with strangers means outing myself as a female player. And it’s a dangerous thing to be visibly female in a competitive online game.

Overwatch’s Community is Toxic

What do I mean by toxic? I mean that there are a number of (quite vocal) people in the Overwatch community who get off on harassing and bullying other players. When gamers bring up games with toxic communities, Overwatch often ends up in the top ten. Blizzard has taken steps to police the community and discourage bad behavior, including implementing a reporting system, using machine learning to regulate chat, and adding an endorsement system. But it’s not enough, and a lot of bad behavior still gets through. 

The nature of the game lends itself to toxicity. Overwatch is a competitive game, and competitive games are stressful. There are links between stress and anger – being in a stressful situation can cause people who are prone to anger to lash out. There’s also only so much you can control about the way a match in Overwatch will go after all, you’re only one player on a team of six. In a game like Overwatch, if things aren’t going your way, there are 5 other people on your team you can blame for your misfortune. For some players, it’s easy to justify being toxic because they may never encounter those teammates again, and the social consequences are low. Ranked competition, relative anonymity, and a relative lack of consequences makes toxic interactions during game play rather common.

As with many other competitive online games, the primary demographic for Overwatch in the U.S. consists of younger white, straight, cisgendered men, and those players tend to make up the vocal majority in the player base. Behavior they don’t consider egregious (like, for example, rape jokes) often slips through the cracks. Making fun of women, or black people, or people with accents is so common as to be considered the norm. And unfortunately, it’s the players who represent minorities in the community (women, and in the U.S., non-white people and non-native speakers of English) who bear the brunt of the toxicity in the community. 

Blizzard is actively trying to regulate the community, but it’s clear they’re not doing enough to account for all of the different motivations people have for being toxic. It’s also clear that the solutions they have put in place address toxicity only from a high level (“bad behavior is bad, and you should report it”) without specifically addressing the types of bad behavior (like gender or racially motivated harassment) which disproportionately affect the more vulnerable people in the game’s community.

My Thoughts on Playing Overwatch Going Forward

I play video games for fun. I think most people do – the primary purpose of games is to have fun. What’s not fun for me – and, I suspect, for most people – is having a random person tell me I suck, that I should stop playing, that I don’t belong in the game. Even in the early days of Overwatch, it became clear to me that the Overwatch community has its fair share of toxic people, and that encountering them in game is so commonplace as to be accepted as part of the game. 

Sometimes, toxicity in gaming communities can get particularly bad – I’ve seen more than one Twitch streamer in tears because of what some anonymous person has said to them over voice chat. I’ve heard of people quitting games that they love because the toxicity leveled at them has been too harsh for them to want to deal with anymore. I’ve seen streamers whose defense mechanism towards toxic comments is to be just as toxic in return, which only makes the situation worse. 

And I hesitate to put myself in the kinds of situations where I know I’ll be targeted for being an unskilled player, for being a woman, or even simply for being a team member on a losing team. As much as I want to practice and get better at playing the game, I’m not sure the potential damage to my mental health is worth it. 

I suppose that’s why I’m so interested in studying toxicity in video game communities. I really, really want to play games like Overwatch, and I want to have fun doing so. I want to be able to play with other people who are also having fun, and maybe even form connections with the humans behind the avatars. I’ve spent so much time actively avoiding playing online games because I’m afraid of what I’ll encounter from the other players. I’m sick of feeling like a fringe gamer. I feel that by studying the motivations behind toxic behavior and the effects of it on players, I can help others understand what the problems are. Maybe then game developers and other players can take some real steps towards making game communities more welcoming spaces for players like me to be in.

I still plan to keep playing Overwatch – but in small doses, and most likely with voice chat turned off. I haven’t played a single match since August, because school has been taking up all of my brainpower. Overwatch is a lot of things, but I do not find it to be a relaxing game. But winter break is on the horizon, and I find myself feeling cautiously optimistic about playing again.