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Is It Time Games Tackled Disability Issues?

Fair representation.

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.
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.

Revolver Ocelot had a disability but it wasn't a major concern during gameplay.
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.

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  1. Roynaldo
    Since: Nov 2008

    How exactly would disability add enjoyment to a game? Games are generally about doing super things, how can the implementation of any sort of disability make you feel like you were actually disabled?

    Deaf in one ear, wooden leg, blind, having a few fingers or toes missing…. none of these types can be done to any effective degree. About the only thing i can think of is a mental disorder but even thats hard to be made to feel real.

    I say it hasnt been done because it cant add anything to increase enjoyment or create feeling.

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 15:09.
  2. hazelam
    Since: Feb 2009

    the only wheelchair user i can recall playing in a game was from one of the Oddworld games, Munch i think he was called.
    i don’t know if you’d class his condition as disabled though, he was an aquatic creature so he was at home in the water.
    just not on land.
    and if it did, would the fact we need breathing apparatus to survive under water mean we’d be considered disabled to a theoretical aquatic race?

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 15:13.
  3. aerobes
    Since: Aug 2009

    “Is It Time Games Tackled Disability Issues?”

    Drawn out some really interesting responses here. Unexpected, quite honestly.

    The simple answer from me is no. Not at all. Couldn’t be less interested. I lean on games for personal entertainment, nothing more.

    As for giving the wide and varied disabled members of society the ability to play video-games, that’d be a huge step in the right direction.

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 23:58.
  4. Sympozium
    Since: Aug 2009

    I don’t know.. disability could but in the likes of violent games I don’t think so if I had the choice to attack a wheelchair user and other sorts I’d really feel deeply sick. A narrative rich game is to me a good place but definitely not sandbox.

    Comment posted on 05/09/2012 at 04:05.