In May 2016, billionaire Elon Musk and actress Amber Heard hung out at the Met Gala, just weeks before Heard filed for divorce from Johnny Depp. The two had met several years before, while Heard was filming Machete Kills, for which Musk had been brought on as a consultant — but it was at the prestigious fashion charity event that the two hit it off as friends. That same month, Blizzard Entertainment launched its first new game franchise in years with the colorful hero shooter Overwatch, which would go on to sell over 50 million copies. And, years later, these two moments in pop culture history intersected.
On Sept. 12, Elon Musk, a biography by Walter Isaacson, was released. Isaacson spent two years with the current owner of X (née Twitter), producing a wooden recounting of Musk’s life of entrepreneurship and struggles with family, mental health, and relationships. Casually tossed into the chapter about his on-again-off-again entanglement with Heard was this two-sentence bombshell, with no additional information:
He told her that she reminded him of Mercy, his favorite character in the video game Overwatch, so she spent two months designing and commissioning a head-to-toe costume so she could role-play for him.
At least one review of the book picked out this detail, which instantly became a new reason for the internet to clown on Musk. Undeterred by shame, Musk took to the replies of a joke post retweeting Dexerto’s coverage to wordlessly post proof in the form of a private picture of Heard in the costume (reportedly without her permission) and, in a separate post, mention how cool it was. The candid photo of the actress in a skimpy, corseted version of the support hero’s armor spread quickly through social media, especially in the Overwatch community. Everyone seemed all too happy to gawk at a photo posted in a way that comes dangerously close to revenge porn.
The billionaire is a longtime fan of Overwatch: He mentioned it being one of his favorite games in 2017, and he exchanged tweets with the official Overwatch Twitter account in 2020 a few times, revealing that he is a Torbjorn main.
For all of his money, Elon Musk acts like a typical sexist gamer bro who, in this case, has Overwatch as his game of choice. Him ignoring the privacy of his ex-girlfriend (who has written about having been “sexually assaulted” in the past) in order to prove it happened and win cool points feels no different than any other random dude bragging about something like this, despite Musk having been named one of this year’s most influential people. The fact that the Overwatch community joined in quickly afterward, using the exchange as an opportunity to mock Mercy mains, is also not surprising. Both parties have the same deeply weird and misogynistic relationship to the hero.
Mercy occupies a specific space in Overwatch culture, a lot of which is tied up in the persistence of sexist attitudes in the larger gaming community. She is deeply beloved by people who main her, but she’s also considered a uniquely low-skill hero due to her more collaborative play style and decreased emphasis on aiming (even though this characterization is an oversimplification at best). This dovetails with the perception that only women play Mercy, as well as the perception that women are not good at video games. This earns Mercy mains (regardless of gender) a truckload of sexist harassment, whether in text or over voice chat.
Despite being so hated, Mercy has an appealing visual design, which makes Elon’s own interest more legible. Being white, blond, body normative, and feminine allows Mercy to fall straight into stereotypical (and also white supremacist) ideas about purity and saintliness, while also making her the ultimate tabula rasa to project broad sexual fantasies onto. While Overwatch porn has long been a category of interest that tops the charts on Pornhub, Mercy herself dominates quite a few of those searches specifically, whether in animated form or by way of a performer dressed as her. The idea of a girlfriend doing this in private would absolutely be the dream of some guys.
This is where the rubber meets the road with Mercy as a playable character, a media object, and a performance; when something is so specifically gendered as female, all of these ideas then get reproduced in a myriad of strange ways. She’s a low-skill hero, but she’s played at a professional level in esports. She’s mained by “toxic” girls, but men still fantasize about getting their girlfriends to play as her, or about falling in love with their Mercy “pockets.”
It is not a stretch, then, to see why something like a “healsluts” community exists for Overwatch; a lot of Mercy porn frames her as demure and coquettish, or more explicitly submissive. Thus the logical conclusion: Wouldn’t it be great to have a hot, nerdy girlfriend who hung on your every word, obeyed your every command, and unquestionably respected your power? While this is a perfectly fine kink to practice in spaces that are designed for it, this conception of Mercy also has a genesis in the Overwatch community’s weird behavior about her, which can be mapped over the existing heteropatriarchal power dynamics that exist outside of designed kink spaces. All of this floats under the circumstances of Musk posting a photo of Amber Heard and it ricocheting across social media.
Musk’s biography spends a lot of time on how he was someone who eventually rose to success out of the hardships of being bullied, and yet he seems to be the biggest bully of them all, especially to the women in his life. For what he described as a “dark vortex” surrounding his time with Heard, Musk still felt emboldened to look cool to other random men online by sharing this private photo. It’s deeply insecure behavior from someone who is already functionally bulletproof due to his wealth and privilege, but it’s also just like a DPS player to need an overworked and underappreciated support to keep his self-esteem boosted.