NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — What does it mean to be a strong woman in gaming?
That’s the question Overwatch actors Anjali Bhimani, Carolina Ravassa, Lucie Pohl and Blizzard senior casting and voice director Andrea Toyias strove to answer during their Games for Change panel Tuesday. The actors play Symmetra, Sombra and Mercy, respectively.
They dove right into it, each sharing personal experiences and encounters they’ve had through the wildly popular game.
“If I boil this talk down very simply: We created strong characters, we found strong women and we let them be strong women,” Toyias explained of her process for choosing actors. “We’ve had some really sad moments, because before we found our actresses and actors we do callbacks, and callbacks are when I find my top 10 and bring them back. It was so sad to me. It was so sad. So many actors came in and they do this cliche stereotype voice or accent and it just made me so sad … I’m so proud of this game because early on we said we don’t want any cliche.”
Ravassa took a moment to lay out why she holds Sombra and Blizzard in high regard: “I had decided that I wanted to play independently spirited alpha females with a cause, and then I booked this … They’re all wonderful characters in their own way. That’s what I love about this. I’m not just playing this illegal immigrant character, you know? That makes me very happy.”
“You, as you, are correct,” Bhimani added. “You are the thing, so just go play with the thing. It doesn’t matter what comes out of it. As an actor, I think our job as actors of color, or whatever we want to call it these days, our job is not to aim for diversity and representation and Noah’s Ark, one of everything, not that. But to aim for inclusivity and to aim for everybody belongs in this world with all of their complexity.”
Pohl placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of Overwatch’s embracing of uniqueness. “This is why these characters are so strong. It’s because of their individuality and their specificity,” Pohl said. “Mercy’s not only a strong healer. She has soft moments, she has vulnerabilities … For me, that’s the most beautiful thing.”
They also shared some of the fan mail they’ve received from avid Overwatch players. The impact their performances had took some of them by surprise.
“We got some fan mail. She’s [the fan] Hispanic and she’s on the spectrum so she loves playing Sombra, Symmetra,” Ravassa said. “She just loves being able to look up to these two characters, and I just said, ‘Wow, I never thought a video game could reach such a diverse audience and have people be so grateful.'”
“I met a fan who plays Mercy and told me that she wanted to become a nurse and help people because the character inspired her. That really hit me, because, you know, I’m fairly new to this world,” Pohl said.
Recruitment was more about finding “the right heart behind the character” than simply a voice that seemed to fit, according to Toyias. “We have to know our characters and understand them and know what makes their heart beat … I’m casting people, not characters.”
She didn’t pick Ravassa because she had a good Hispanic accent, or Bhimani or Pohl because of their’s. No actor was chosen because they fulfilled a predetermined set of criteria. “We want our game to represent life,” Toyias said. “All we’re trying to do is mirror the reality each of us live with and put it in the game in our own way and not be scared to do that.”
“There aren’t a lot of women in the industry, there’s a lot of guys,” Toyias continued. “Don’t be afraid to have a voice. The more women who have voices in the room, the more OK it will be for us to have voices in the room … Don’t be afraid to be ballsy. Having said that, though, as women, there are some women, I know women who want to be ballsy in the masculine way and kind of mimic male energy and I really found that the best way to be a strong woman is to be a strong woman.”
“Be a woman, embrace that,” Pohl stressed. “Allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be weak and say, ‘OK, today sucked and I didn’t get what I wanted and it was a challenge to be a woman in a room full of men,’ and that’s OK. That’s real, that’s true, it is a challenge. As probably a man is challenged in a room full of women. Don’t try to suppress that … Don’t try to be masculine and think that’s the way you need to be to be successful. Women are emotional, we’re irrational and it’s beautiful. Celebrate it, use that.”
“One of the most wonderful things about this community is if there happens to be the tiniest pebble of negativity, it gets swallowed up by the positivity of the whole,” Bhimani said.
You can find the full panel discussion, titled “The Women of Overwatch: The Journey of Bringing Strong Female Characters to Life,” which was moderated by Entertainment Software Association director of federal government affairs Nika Nour, here.