Child of a Jackal: Quick Thoughts on Overwatch’s Pharah
Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s class-based multiplayer shooter, recently released to critical acclaim. Among the praise for the game has been a lot of talk of “diversity” and the varied cast of characters, both in terms of nationality and gender. Both the press and the community seem to be responding strongly to the designs of the cast, and there’s no shortage of fan interpretations of the characters and wonderful art. That said, as varied as the cast is, there’s plenty of work to be done as far as the quality of the representation on show. Roadhog, for instance, plays into several demeaning tropes about fat people. Blizzard has also had some seriously questionable choices regarding alternate skins for its characters, with not an insignificant amount representing religious and Native iconography carelessly, to say the least. (A good breakdown of the specific use of Native American iconography can be found here: https://twitter.com/dialacina/status/746158071517483009)
Turning our focus to those issues, I want to talk a bit about Pharah, the Egyptian rocketeer. Given name Fareeha Amari, Pharah works for a private security firm defending a secret lab researching artificial intelligence. For the most part, Blizzard have at least not fallen into the regular tropes that plague the designs of Arab characters, namely associating them with radical sects of religion, giving them offensive accents or steeping them in other spiritual bullshit. Pharah is a capable Arab woman, who looks like one, takes her job seriously and occasionally expresses a touch of humor. They do however, deeply associate her with ancient Egyptian iconography:
Her right eye is tattooed to resemble the Eye of Horus, the ancient Egyptian falcon god, and her default character model takes cues from the falcon design to build a character who is strongly associated with airborne attacks. Additionally, one of her alternate skins is of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian jackal god. Along with her braids, there’s a clear allusion to the ancient history of Egypt at play.
Also notable is that the lab that Pharah works at is situated at Giza, well known for housing the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, one of the few remaining wonders of the world. Giza, is of course represented as follows within the game:
Which, sure, ancient Egyptian temples, sandy roads, with hieroglyphics and ancient iconography adorning the walls. I guess that makes sense. Well, until you realize that Giza actually looks like this:
Giza is the third largest city in Egypt, and of course, the home of Egypt’s prominent tourist spots. It is a center of industry, heavily populated and home to sports teams and universities. To be fair, the Giza Plateau, the location where Overwatch’s stage takes place, is largely an archeological site removed from the city, and is closer to the look within the game.
But what actually makes more sense, for an AI research facility to be located in the crumbling ruins of a civilization that died out thousands of years ago, or in the thriving heart of one of Egypt’s largest cities?
This gets to the heart of what bothers me about Overwatch, and essentially any piece of Western media that attempts to represent Egypt: a deep, Orientalist obsession with the artifacts of a dead civilization that has barely anything to do with the thousands of years of history that have taken place since then. To the West, Egypt only exists as a place of mythology and mysticism. It’s a country to be visited and toured, its aesthetics to be repurposed for an “iconic” look. Egypt and its people exist only in the abstract, as passerbys on the tour.
This is an attitude that’s existed for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t too long ago that the cycle returned to mine Egypt of its ancient history with an obsessive eye. That trend, to some degree has continued into today. Compare these photos from the 1920’s to the video for Katy Perry’s Dark Horse:
There’s a loaded historical dynamic here, one that I’ll have to get into further at a later time. The point I want to make is that this obsession with the ancient history of Egypt, the mining of its aesthetics, has created a singular vision of Egypt and its people, one rooted in a mysticism that doesn’t represent the actual lives and history of the people living in it.
It hasn’t been that long since the Arab Spring reached Egypt. A time when Egyptian activists took advantage of social media to organize a revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, the long time president of Egypt who, in kind terms, was overdue for retirement. Egypt has been a thoroughly modern country for a long time, with a population thoroughly capable of taking advantage of that.
That’s why Pharah, and Blizzard’s representation of Egypt, is so disappointing to me. It’s not the design itself (which unlike the horrific Native costumes I do actually enjoy aesthetically), but rather that it plays into that singular idea of what Egypt is. It’s hard to play the game without remembering all the people who’ve enthusiastically responded, “That’s so cool!” when I told them I was Egyptian, only to follow it up with “Do you live in a pyramid?” It’s why, even as I so desperately desire characters of my heritage that I can relate to, I feel a distance from Pharah. No matter how cool she looks, no matter how fun she might be to play, there’s always the question eating at me, “Is this the way the world sees us?”