Overwatch and Philosophy: Adam Smith on Why We Choose Hanzo

Overwatch and Philosophy

Adam Smith on Why We Choose Hanzo

By Sajan Prabhakar, Robert Thomas, and Matthew William Brake

Overwatch is a six-versus-six first-person shooter game developed by Blizzard Entertainment. The game, released in 2016, now has over 25 million players. Players may choose from a roster of 25 characters from four different roles: the Tank role (can shield characters and take the most damage), the support role (can heal and/or otherwise improve other characters’ abilities), the glory-heavy Attack role (can deal the most damage), and the somewhat dreaded and very much immobile defense role (more on that soon!).

Although there are a few different game modes within Overwatch, my personal favorite is Escort. This game mode sets an attacking team against a defending team (following so far?). The objective of the attackers is to get a vehicle, called a “payload” to move from their “spawn,” or where the attackers reappear after they are “killed,” all the way to the defenders “spawn” before a timer runs out. The objective of the defenders is to simply prevent the attackers from moving the payload. The payload moves whenever there are attackers in close proximity of it and no defenders are in the same proximity.

An ideal Overwatch team works more or less like an ideal Communist utopia. Every player may have different abilities, but each member works together equally to shield teammates, kill high-impact members of the other team, and….most importantly, MOVE THE PAYLOAD SO THE TEAM CAN WIN THE GAME!

This is where one of key problems lies in Overwatch. There is a fundamental conflict between those whose primary objective is to have their team win the game by performing their role well and those who just want to make themselves look really cool by performing a bunch of cool looking kills. The main character players pick to do this is named Hanzo. Hanzo (one of the dreaded immobile defensive class) is a sniper character who, if the player is skilled, makes a lot of “dope-looking one shot kills.” But being a sniper, he almost always plays to the back of the map—far, far away from the payload that must be moved (or stopped). This has often led to many screaming over the in-game headsets for that one Hanzo player to please, please, for the love of all that is holy, get on the payload before the timer runs out. But that’s not really his job.

His job is to make a lot of “dope-looking one shot kills.”

Why would someone play Overwatch but choose a character that puts the team’s goal of winning into jeopardy? Why are all of the Hanzo players out their ok with putting their personal goals ahead of those of the whole team?

Adam Smith may have an answer for us.

When most people hear the name Adam Smith, they think of economics, but Smith’s first major work actually focused on ethics–with a big emphasis on moral psychology.  A key thread for Smith’s ideas on this topic was his focus on moral imagination. He argued that the starting point for moral behavior and moral standards is our ability to sympathize with others, which he argued always relies on our imagination. Because we don’t have “immediate experience of what other men feel,” the only way we can get an idea of how something affects them is “by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation” (13).

Smith’s point is that it has only ever been through our ability to imagine ourselves in another person’s position (materially and emotionally) that we have begun to care about their well-being and take their interests into account. It turns out that the common childhood advice to put yourself into another person’s shoes is more than just fluff.

If that’s true, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear Smith point out that his own imagination (like that of anyone) “more readily assumes, if I may say so, the shape and configuration of the imaginations of those with whom I am familiar” (37).  How well we know someone, how closely and consistently we spend time with them, and how much of our life experience we share with them goes a long way toward determining how easy it is for us to think about their interests and how inclined we are to do right by them.  When we do something with friends or family members, it’s less of a leap to focus on their goals and feelings than when we’re doing something with total strangers. If we do something with people who we never even see face to face, they might as well not even be real people as far as our brains are normally concerned.

This brings us back to Overwatch’s “Hanzo problem.”

In a perfect world, every player would choose a character based solely on the needs of their team. If someone is playing with their friends, then it very likely that they will choose to put the needs of their teammates above their desire to get “dope-looking kills.” However, in the anonymous world of online gaming, it is far more difficult for us to empathize with the faceless others we play with, and we then become far more prone to think of our own needs and desires over those of a bunch of strangers.

Sajan Prabhakar holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Virginia. In addition to playing Overwatch, his hobbies include performing stand-up comedy, listening to ska, writing fiction, day drinking, night drinking, and reading anything he can get his hands on.  You can follow him on Twitter @hinduskakid.

Robert Thomas currently works as a government contractor and is in the process of completing a thesis on the relationship between organizations and moral character in conflict settings for an M.A. in Ethics and Public Affairs at George Mason University.  He has written on a variety of topics related to ethics, economics, and international affairs.

Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.


Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley. New York, NY: Penguin, 2009.

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