Overwatch, the gargantuan shooter that currently helms Blizzard’s competitive scene as well as captures the hearts of a massive fanbase eager to glean narrative content from a game that steadfastly refuses to give them more than the occasional morsel, has released details on the upcoming yearly Anniversary event.
Like previous years, Anniversary comes with a re-release of old Anniversary cosmetic items, maps, and missions, as well as some new goodies of decidedly questionable taste and intention, including the school uniform Academy D.Va skin that Overwatch Lead Designer Jeff Kaplan said would “break the internet” (according to reddit user PfeiferWolf, summarizing a livestream by Overwatch streamer OhNickel) and a new Riot Police skin for mobile tank Brigitte.
Blizzard is an American studio. If you haven’t been following American politics, these past few years have been a time of reckoning with the ongoing militarization of police forces throughout the country and the way that communities of color bear the brunt of this violence. According to website Mapping Police Violence, which tracks police violence by time, location, and available data, 1164 people were killed by police in 2018, following 1147 police killings in 2017. About one percent of those killings led to a police officer being convicted of a crime, even while reports argue that the vast majority of these killings could have been de-escalated by properly trained officers. The average time spent on de-escalation tactics by police recruits, however, is only about a seventh as much time spent on firearms training.
Overwatch is a game about shooting, bashing, and bludgeoning opponents in a structured environment. Everyone respawns, it’s all in good fun. Even in the game’s sparse established lore, the story of Overwatch is of a team of justice-minded ex-superheroes fighting to rid the world of the remnants of violent evildoers.
And Brigitte’s a cop now. Not even a particularly fanciful one either, as her design is clearly based on actual riot police gear, even sporting the “POLIS” logo on her chest armor (“Polis” being Swedish for “Police”, to reflect Brigitte’s in-lore Swedish background). Her “Riot Police” skin includes her trademark club being given a police-ized makeover (to more resemble a police combat baton) and her body shield being redesigned in the style of a modern riot shield.
To be clear, the Overwatch skin lineups have never really been anything approaching “canon”. Among the skins mentioned above, this Anniversary update also includes a skin that turns giant ape Winston into a stone gargoyle (Win-stone, get it?) and down-under hook-wielder Roadhog into… some sort of demon in a hazmat suit. They’re not meant to play into the game’s overall fiction as much as they are meant to be fun riffs on the character concepts that Blizzard has already created for the characters.
Brigitte’s Riot Police skin isn’t Overwatch’s first foray into police admiration, that honor goes to Korean mecha-pilot D.Va’s “Police Officer” skin, back in 2017. But it nonetheless feels… fraught to reskin more characters traditionally associated with “the good guys” into cartoonish send-ups of police forces, especially in a game designed by an American studio such as Blizzard. Her new skin recalls the black-clad troopers that menaced anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters in Ferguson, Charlottesville, Chicago, Portland, and countless other cities. According to the Washington Post, 360 people have been killed by police so far in 2019.
Brigitte is a character who, in lore, is shown as a valiant defender of the just and good, a modern knight in armor following in the footsteps of her idol Reinhardt. She can be that character, or she can be a riot cop, but she can't be both.