Is It Time Games Tackled Disability Issues?

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.

[drop2]In the UK there are approximately 11 million people who are registered as having an impairment, disability or as suffering from a long term illness (Source). According to recent estimates the UK population is around 62 million, which means 18 per cent of the UK has some form of disability. The USA has a disabled population of 54 million people (Source), which is 19 per cent of the country’s population.

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.

[drop]However, gaming is now at a stage where the industry is trying to be taken more seriously as a legitimate form of storytelling and transmission of ideas. Games have explored a huge variety of issues from the horrors of war to the delicacies of relationships but disability is rarely touched upon. When it does occur for a protagonist, it can be fixed quickly.

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.



  1. A paralymic games video game would probably suit kinect or move pretty well…. Have discussed various game types with friends before.

  2. I’d like to see Quantic dream or some other such company tackle the issue in a unique way, although I’m not sure what I’d want it to be. I find it very strange that there isn’t any Paralympic involvement in the 2012 video-game, but I guess it comes down to Sega not wanting to spend the money on extra development and time restraints, plus I doubt there’s a large market for any DLC.
    I feel also it would be difficult for GTA to include disabled people in a prominent way, as it is now a heavily satirical series and could be treading a very fine line between humorous and offensive when it comes to pedestrian dialogue/shooting people in wheelchairs etc. Which would probably only amount to bad press from sensationalist News programs.

  3. I don’t really know what game companies could do though I think the first game to feature a mentally disabled protagonist or a protagonist in a wheelchair would inevitably come in for a lot of criticism that they were just doing it for publicity. I understand films or books having disabled characters as a plot arc or to create emotional attachment towards them, but ij a game it would just feel gratuitous in my opinion, I don’t see how it could add much (although I guess it depends on the game)

    As for Liberty City being bereft of 20% disabled people, can you imagine the uproar if GTA allowed you to go around stealing wheelchairs and killing defenseless people with physical or mental disabilities? I realise it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as worse than just killing a normal civilian but there are a hell of a lot of people who wouldn’t see it that way.

    • I agree completely. In many settings, there would be much bigger uproar if characters with disabilities were included than if they weren’t.
      Can picture the headlines: “GTAVI rewards players for beating up people with downs syndrome”
      “In Saints Row 14, you are encouraged to run down dyslectics with your car”.

      Also, I can imagine that some people would take offence (probably the same people as always) if a main character was disabled, like as if the developers were out to cash in on or make light of other people’s misfortune.
      “You can roll around town in a wheelchair like it’s a game – well, it’s real life for some”.

      Of course, I personally would like if everyone could be included without anyone taking offense.

    • Firstly: “defenceless”? No reason why the person in that wheelchair you’re trying to steal wouldn’t give you a good punch in the knackers and send you on your way, just as the civilians sometimes do when you try to steal a car.
      Secondly: not including a group for fear of misrepresenting them is incredibly patronising. The absence of disabled people in GTA is as jarring to some as if there had been an absence of black people.
      The people who see it as worse than killing a “normal” (probably a poor choice of word there but we know what you mean…) civilian are wrong. They’re making a distinction based on a disability and, knowing many disabled people throughout my life, there’s nothing that a disabled person hates more than a metaphoric pat on the head.
      The point being made here is that using characters with disabilities shouldn’t be a shortcut to emotional attachment, it should be normal. Because being “disabled” (and how ridiculous is that term, given the amazing feats we’re seeing every day in London?) is normal.

      • Firstly apologies for the word “normal” I honestly don’t know where that came from it was an awful thing to say.

        As for what you’re saying I totally agree, it shouldn’t be seen as an issue that we have to tiptoe around, but unfortunately we live in a society at the moment where we do. It’s proven by what you just pointed out to me there, I made a mistake by saying normal and it has made me feel awful but fortunately you know what I was trying to say. But those sort of slips happen and it can get jumped on by the press and the general public on a larger scale. It’s like when Alan Hansen used the term “coloured” on Match Of The Day a few weeks ago, he meant no offence and it was just a mistake but due to the over-defensive and politically correct society at the moment, there was a media frenzy.

        I agree with everything you’ve said, but the point I was trying to make in my comment is that a lot of people wouldn’t see it as a step forward, regardless of what me, you, or other rational people think. A lot of media in particular would just jump on it and criticise.

      • Don’t feel awful mate, it was very obvious what you meant and that you didn’t mean any offense by it. I only pointed it out to illustrate how much benefit we could all get from further acceptance of minorities but, as you say, it also illustrates how easy it is to make a minor slip and potentially be taken wildly out of context.

        I agree with everything you say actually – it’s a very tricky situation, which is why I thought it was so interesting when Aran pitched the idea for this article. This kind of discussion and consideration is exactly what I hoped would happen.

      • To quote the NHS:

        “Vulnerable adults are people who are at greater than normal risk of abuse. Older people, especially those who are unwell, frail, confused and unable either to stand up for themselves or keep track of their affairs, are vulnerable.

        Other vulnerable adults include people who are open to abuse because of learning difficulties, physical disabilities or mental illness.”

        This is part of the problem, the fact disabled people are commonly seen as vulnerable adults. This can be true in some cases, but certainly can’t be generalised to cover all people with disabilities.

        Where do you draw the line though? If you include disabled people in GTA, opening them up to abuse, what about pregnant women? Children? These groups aren’t necessarily any more or less helpless than a “normal” man either, yet are often seen as needing extra care. At what point is it considered patronising? Is assaulting someone in a wheelchair any better or worse than assaulting a kid, or a pregnant woman? Is there any difference between that and assaulting an innocent “normal” man/woman? I know I wouldn’t stand much chance if I were randomly attacked in the street.

        Just a thought anyway, personally I don’t have an answer.

    • “Alice, madness returns”, there’s a mentally disabled protagonist for you.
      If you need more I’ll have to get back to do a little research.

  4. Very interesting topic. After thinking about it, ME’s Joker probably is the only character with a disability that I could come up with on the spot.

  5. That’s a great philosophical question. I like the way Jimmy Carr seems to be silently agreeing, like “Yes, but only if he’s being a proper nob”

    • Damn you and your stealthy comment removal

      • Yeah, my comment also seems to be absent… Weird.

      • @KeRaSh The spam filter had accidentally caught your comment in its net.

      • Aaaaand it’s back. :D

  6. Such a delicate issue that it’d take some unbelivably brave developer and publisher to put something along the lines your discussing out there.
    Take, for instance, if 18% of the residents of San Andreas had a disability of some kind, all it would take is one ignorant nob to post an inappropriate video on YouTube and Rockstar have another political shit-storm on their hands.
    I can’t see disability being introduced into open world games any time soon because of the nobs

  7. hmm its hard isn’t it this. As much as I wouldn’t be bothered seeing or playing with a character with a disability, I just don’t think companies will be doing anything to help, because to them, able people are the larger population so they will want to target them more.

  8. Its good that you guys are discussing the idea, I’m not sure if there is a lack of representation though. Fair enough, in sandbox environments that try to simulate the real world there is room for something to be done, but there is already a presence in games like Deus Ex with the main character being a multiple amputee and plenty of war games that feature reactions to horrifyingly violent situations and the depression or instability that follows.

    Maybe instead the industry should be asking people who can’t play video games, for whatever reason, how they can be helped? I know for a fact that Frimley Park Hospital have a Wii for kids (and adults) who can’t hold a traditional controller, just for some fun. I’ve also read an article about how much fun Flower was for a young lad with Cerebral Palsey, straightforward and not dexterity driven inputs being the key.

    I realise developing games specifically for those who can’t use a traditional two-stick controller would be too expensive. I don’t know how far it goes but London 2012 does have some Kinect and Move integration and Mario and Sonic at the Olympics obviously uses the Wii motion controls. They might not be made for people with limited dexterity or learning difficulties but it’s a start.

    • Oh and the film Battleship should be given massive kudos for being released the year of a big budged western Paralympics and featuring a double leg amputee, it was a decent action flick too :) Also, I’m off to the Wheelchair Rugby on Friday, can’t fking wait!!

  9. I would like to see a controller made for amputees but not at a disadvantage to them when compared to able handed players. I hope also that people with sight issues i.e. partially blind are able to play while the game has options to compensate for their lack of vision.

    • Ben Heck has created some controllers for people with various disabilities. I believe the most general purpose one was laid out flat with modular spaces for buttons and sticks etc. etc. for people that are unable to hold a controller for a variety of reasons.

      • Sod that. I was walking through Cambridge (one New Year’s Day) and was overtaken by Professor Stephen Hawking! His chair is way too fast. It’s us able-bodied folk that need pimping out.

  10. If there are wheelchair users in GTA then I demand extra bonuses for killing them in a hit-and-run whilst leaving the chair intact. Actually, I’m off to pre-order now as it’s obviously going to happen.

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