Loading up Apex Legends for the first time, I saw two black women as playable characters. It was a strange and arresting feeling to see them. I’m still trying to understand my feelings about it.
I’m usually quite wary of falling into what my coworker Riley MacLeod calls “the diversity trap,” which is to say, giving a game a lot of credit simply for doing the bare minimum. I know that most companies are in the business of making money. While having diverse casts may meet some altruistic goals, it also could open up the appeal of that media product to more people who will spend money on it. Apex Legends, the new battle royale game from development studio Respawn, is a free-to-play game, but it does have loot boxes and, if you want, you can use real money to buy more loot boxes. Because of that, I can understand why someone might be cynical about the game’s visibly diverse cast.
Still, the game has a diverse cast, and you can tell from the first glance. There’s a character who is a Pacific Islander, multiple women, men of varying races and body shapes, and—in an achievement that few games can boast—there are two black women. In fact, you have to play as one of them in the tutorial mission, during which you go through the basic moves as the support character Lifeline. As soon as I completed that mission, I went and queued up for a game with my friend Julian and my other coworker Paul Tamayo; I then selected the other black woman, the rough and tumble soldier Bangalore.
Like Overwatch, the stated backstories of these characters don’t matter much when you’re actually in the fray. Bloodhound, who has been confirmed by the developers to be non-binary, doesn’t say “I don’t fit into the binary definition of gender” when they kill someone. Nor does Gibraltar, whom the developers have said is gay, talk about how he is gay while you play as him. Still, there’s something nice about a game where I can run into other players who have chosen a character who isn’t a white, straight, cis male. When I played with Julian and Paul last night, almost every single team had someone playing as Bangalore, since her air strike ability can be devastating and great for flushing out squads.
Just seeing those characters, and knowing those small lore details about them, does actually make a difference to me. It makes me want to explore more of the game and its systems, spend more time in the world, and figure out how to be even better at it. It reveals, and then invalidates, my innate fear of playing competitive games. I was made fun of so much as a kid and a teenager for looking the way I do—being mixed race, being a girl, and liking the things I like. Seeing characters that look like me—not just one, but two—being played and embraced by the community makes me feel like I won’t be made fun of for my core identity. I might just get made fun of for not being good at the game. And that’s something I can change, with practice.