Like so many ideas for articles, this one came from a discussion. In particular, a discussion regarding the Paralympics and the exceptional feats being achieved by disabled athletes.
The London 2012 Paralympics are enjoying a positive reception and high ticket sales in the UK, as well as much more exposure for athletes with disabilities. So why wasn’t there a Paralympic game or at least some Paralympic DLC for the London 2012 game?
As the discussion went on, it was discovered very few disabled characters are represented in games, Joker from the Mass Effect series possibly being the most prominent. Sometimes characters have limbs missing, as some excuse to strap a weapon to the place an arm used to be, or they’re augmented to replace lost dexterity with super-humanity but rarely in a manner that attempts to address the issue in any meaningful way.
Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel about dating disabled women.
So why is it that the wave of narrative-driven games, ostensibly targeting realism, have ignored such a high percentage of our population?
It’s not necessarily imperative to have lead characters who suffer from a physical or mental disability, although that would of course be a huge step. But could we start with the near 20 per cent of the population being represented in open world titles? Almost one in five Americans has some form of disability and yet Liberty City is peculiarly bereft of wheelchairs. If our games fail to even show disabled individuals living in the world alongside our often unfeasably abled protagonists, what hope is there for a leading role?
And wouldn’t a disabled protagonist offer new and interesting opportunities to engage with and learn to understand the difficulties that can be faced in our world? Why do we cram our videogames with invisible barriers when there are opportunities to use very real barriers that are simply ignored?
This can probably be answered by what games have traditionally been: a form of escapism. All of us have probably used games at some point in our lives to get away from things, to use as a stress release and to temporarily remove ourselves from the worries of the real world.
Games allow us to be things and experience things we can’t experience in everyday life. You can be an assassin scaling buildings in 15th century Italy, a soldier fighting off an alien threat on a faraway planet or an adventurer hunting dragons. These characters are usually at the peak of strength and mental fortitude: the common idea of something as close to perfection as we might ever hope for.
Revolver Ocelot had a disability but it wasn't a major concern during gameplay.
If you lose a limb in Fallout 3 you might slow down. You might not see so clearly for a while. Worry not: a few stimpaks or a Doctor’s bag and you’re back to full health in less time than it takes to sell your scrap metal to a librarian.
It may be time that games looked at both physical and mental disabilities seriously and force the player to deal with any limitations or liberations that those situations might entail.
Gaming is in a unique position when it comes to being able to put across ideas. Films, TV series and documentaries can be invaluable for shining a spotlight on disabilities and their effects. But only games can give us an interactive experience.
Developers could work with individuals and organisations to portray those with physical and mental disabilities in a realistic and engaging way. We’re not talking about rocket-powered wheelchairs, crutches with deadly poisonous projectiles or a mental illness that causes people to see through walls (although, how cool does all of that sound?).
Game development might need to widen horizons and accept that it will be challenged, as all creative endeavour should be. We have an opportunity to put real situations into our interactive entertainment and fair, respectful inclusion for a fifth of the population doesn’t seem like too much to stretch for.