Until recently, Soldier: 76 wasn’t actually a soldier. Not like the ones we’d find in our world. He was another cartoonish character in the futuristic world of Overwatch.
Released in 2016, Blizzard’s team-based shooter was pitched as the antithesis to the popular military shooters of the time. The official site describes it a having “an international cast of powerful heroes with captivating personalities and backstories.” Each character resembles a comic book superhero, catch-phrases and all. The setting is futuristic, the characters are diverse, and the battles are fantastical. Teamwork, versus the lone wolf attitude that Call of Duty and Battlefield employ, is encouraged and rewarded. You can play as both a scientist gorilla as well as a Korean pro gamer with a mech. So a playable hero like Soldier: 76, with his dad attitude, face mask, and machine gun fit right in.
But with the recent introduction of Formal: 76, his newest skin, everything changed. The skin wraps Soldier: 76 in the image of the U.S. military, giving him a dress uniform and a rifle with a bayonet. It’s supposed to be a reference to his past, but it sticks out among the game’s colorful roster of heroes and skins. By offering the image of the uniform without commentary, Blizzard endorses the status quo of video games celebrating realistic depictions of military wear and firearms, and all the cultural baggage that comes with it.
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A Violent Past
Soldier: 76’s backstory combines the salt-of-the-earth, American farm boy story of Superman with the super soldier enhancement program story of Captain America. John Francis “Jack” Morrison joined the military, excelled, and was made superhuman. His outfit turns the “76” into an emblem like the heroes he borrows from, and his rifle eschews modern designs for the imaginary tech of Helix Security International. Soldier: 76 is a vigilante superhero, not your typical soldier — at least not anymore.
At the game’s launch, you could wear two skins that put Soldier: 76 in camouflage and face paint and arm him with an M16-looking gun. These skins’ descriptions tell us that a young Jack Morrison enlisted in the U.S. armed forces to defend his country from the Omnic robot rebellion. They echo the real gear that U.S. soldiers use, but the context is much different in the game’s fiction. These were skins he used to fight an unknown, unrealistic threat.
The specifics about what Soldier: 76 did and how it ties into the real U.S. military are kept vague. His story was more focused on the future, where after leading the international peacekeeping force Overwatch, he roams the world as a vigilante. And even though he is a hero, his current goal seems to be a morally questionable revenge for those who wronged him.
He can be violent, like when he saves a girl from being harassed by a Mexican gang in his animated short, brutally beating them down to the chugs of an electric guitar soundtrack. But it’s played as heroic, positioning Morrison in contrast with the game’s paramilitary organization Talon — who are depicted doing far worse things, like assassinating a monk and literally planning to start another world war.
Formal: 76 and the Aura of Masculinity
Formal: 76 is the first skin to introduce explicit U.S. military imagery into Soldier: 76’s character. “Commemorate your glory as Formal: 76!” the official Overwatch Twitter account said as it introduced the hero’s latest skin for the Storm Rising event. The unlockable outfit dresses Morrison in a formal Army service uniform — medals and all — similar to those worn by armed forces today, and his Heavy Pulse Rifle is replaced with a realistic-looking drill rifle that traditionally lacks the ability to fire. His, of course, still functions normally.
The uniform connects Soldier: 76 directly to the real thing that Overwatch seemed intent on trying to avoid. It calls back the imagery that the U.S. government used to recruit soldiers as early as the 1940s, where the government sold a specific depiction of what joining the military would do to the common man.
These pieces of media would show soldiers enacting violence and an extreme lack of self-preservation that defined what it meant to be an honorable soldier. To serve in the U.S. military was to be powerful and selfless, and therefore attractive — the ideal masculine man.
That masculinity was defined as the willingness to take physical risks and become violent if necessary, according to Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon in the 1976 book The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role. But it wasn’t limited to only those that fought in battles. Simply the aura of “honorable aggression” was enough to align a man with the goals of the military. It wasn’t about the man himself, but the uniform he wore.
The government packaged this concept and sold it to young men in recruitment materials and comics. For example, the main character in a 1963 Department of the Army comic has a woman at his side with the text: “Ted found that the ROTC paid off in other ways too.” And in a 1950 Navy-funded comic Li’l Abner Joins the Navy!, a “not much to look at” artist is suddenly empowered by his Navy uniform and has to fight off women’s advances later in the book.
According to historian Brandon T. Locke, that uniform wasn’t portrayed as transforming men into this type of hero, but actually unearthing dormant traits within them. To wear the uniform that simply symbolized the military’s values — thus unlocking your true manhood — made you sexually attractive. The uniform was a suggestion, the guise of a constructed reality that benefited men. The allure was manufactured to enlist more soldiers hoping to better themselves outside of the military. You can see this fetishization of real men in uniforms today, but also in the many pieces of Formal: 76 fanart.
Specific Warriors Wanted
American Military propaganda and imagery consistently align with the desires of straight, white, cisgender men. Occasionally, women could also embody this idea of masculinity, but Locke writes that “materials also came infused with the message that these roles and qualities were temporary, and that women were best off at home once the men returned.”
Anything effeminate was weak, and not representative of the strong-willed soldier. Men who admitted to having PTSD weren’t fit to serve, which led to many cases going unreported. David and Brannon termed this the “sturdy oak”, or the inexpressiveness and independence of manhood. Any sort of mental weakness invalidated your worth as a soldier, and therefore a man.
This specific depiction of the ideal soldier carries forward into today, years after the military has broadened its restrictions on who can enlist. A recent Army advertisement video series features swift shots of mostly men in combat situations while “Warriors Wanted” fills the screen. The image of the ideal soldier is largely unchanged. Women, gay people, and minorities are still discriminated against despite being allowed to join. And on top of that, as of April 2019, transgender people can no longer enlist at all.
Soldier: 76 is gay, as revealed in an official comic earlier this year. During his time in the army, he loved a man named Vincent, and, as writer Michael Chu confirmed later in a tweet, he identifies as a gay man. While the existence of a gay man as one of the most prominent characters in a video game isn’t insignificant, it’s not easily visible in the game itself.
“Vincent is someone in his far-flung past — an uncomfortable memory and acknowledgement of his intense loyalty to Overwatch,” Nico Deyo writes in her piece analysing 76. The hero doesn’t mention Vincent in any in-game voice lines, and the spray that includes both of them together was only briefly available. If Soldier: 76’s sexuality was more explicit, it might add a wrinkle to the new uniform he wears, but ultimately, it doesn’t subvert or comment on the military’s attitude toward openly gay men.
Bad For Business
With Formal: 76, Soldier: 76 embodies the honorable soldiers and the ideal man that the U.S. has used to propagate the illusion of masculinity. His commendations and perceived success exude the aura of honorable aggression that the government still sells to new recruits today. With the uniform, his body carries the weight of a country’s conflation of self-worth with patriotism and valor. For Overwatch, this kind of image is strange when compared to the rest of the exaggerated, colorful cast of characters.
Activision, Blizzard’s other half, uses realistic gun models in its Call of Duty series and possibly even licenses them from their manufacturers. The Division 2 developer Ubisoft sees the game — where you “restore order” in a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. by killing gangs and criminals also with realistic weapons — as a “fantasy,” arguing that to offer a direct point of view would be “bad for business.” These publishers often tout a non-political stance in their games that feature militaristic warfare, themes and imagery. But each one of them is complicit in regurgitating what is essentially pro-military propaganda.
With the Formal: 76 skin, Overwatch seems to want to have it both ways — to reap the benefits of the gaming industry’s obsession with realism and military imagery, while maintaining the game’s optimistic and colorful atmosphere. But including the skin without any commentary means that it amounts to little but an idolization and fetishization of men in uniform, ideas that the U.S. military has been promoting for decades. Ultimately, to wear the Formal: 76 skin is to wear a uniform that erodes Overwatch‘s hopeful vision of the future.