Diversity. It’s one of the largest points of contention amongst both the gaming community and the games industry. Even today, we still have fairly heated discussions about including a more diverse range of characters to games. I think that it’s pretty fair to say that games need more female characters, LGBT characters and characters of other races besides Caucasian. And trust me, I’ll be getting around to those topics soon enough. And while the games industry has started getting better with the inclusion of more diverse characters without the need of making them the token what-have-you character, one reader pointed me towards another group of people that are still very much both underrepresented and misrepresented in gaming: The Disabled.
Here’s what our reader asked us over twitter this weekend:
What’s with games and the lack of disabled characters? It feels like if they are included in a game, the video game industry insists on protagonists that have a physical disability to have some form of prosthetic that works either the same or better than the original body part. Why don’t we see more characters without the ability to use prosthetics? (eg: Paraplegics, Blind, Deaf, etc.)
To be honest, I kind of feel like this reader makes a good point. For the most part, if a game protagonist is physically disabled in some manner, it’s usually immediately fixed through the use of cybernetics, prosthetics, or even cybernetic prosthetics. From the Metal Gear Solid franchise, Venom Snake (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain) has his left arm replaced with a robotic one and Raiden (Metal Gear Solid 4 and Revengeance) has practically everything but his beautiful, luxurious hair replaced with cybernetics.
Even a quarter of the Overwatch have some kind of physical disability. Symmetra, Tobjorn and McCree all have missing arms replaced with robotic ones. Junkrat has both a missing arm and leg replaced with a robotic prosthetic and peg-leg respectfully. Genji seemingly has his entire body, apart from his face replaced with cybernetics, sadly missing out on getting hair to pretty up like Raiden. Even Tracer, the only character with an albeit fantastical medical condition, “Chronal Disassociation”, uses a high-tech piece of equipment that grants her control over time powers.
Nathan “R.A.D” Spencer from Bionic commando has his left arm replaced with a robotic one, Barret from Final Fantasy VII has his right hand replaced with a Minigun, Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution has most of his body replaced with cybernetics, plus not only got to keep his hair, but also his ability to drink, and the entire Star Fox team seemingly has their legs replaced with robotic ones.
Basically these characters are given their respective prosthetics and cybernetics for two reasons: Elective Surgery for militaristic purposes, or the less optional alternative, they were given to the character to either save their life or make that character more capable and just all around better than they were before. Both of which, especially the second reason, feels like a pretty big misrepresentation of disability in my view, basically seeing the idea of losing a limb or not having one in the first place as more of a bonus than a bummer, at least in a practical sense. Sure, you lost your arm to a freak explosion that should be traumatic to deal with, but hey, now you can rocket punch people!
What about characters with disabilities that can’t be easily fixed through prosthetics? What about the paralysed, the blind, the deaf, or people with bone conditions? Where are the disabled characters that actually get some kind of proper representation? Honestly, they’re kind of few and far between. Here are the ones I could dig up:
Bentley from the Sly Cooper series is paralysed and requires a wheelchair to get around after suffering a horrible injury in Sly 2: Band of Thieves.
The little girl from Beyond Eyes, Rae, suffers from blindness, using her other senses to help her find her way around the game world.
Caroline Becker from Wolfenstien: The New Order is also paralysed and confined to a wheel chair for most of the game as the result of being injured in a gun-fight.
And finally, Joker from the Mass Effect series suffers from Vrolik Syndrome, a condition that makes his bones incredibly brittle, requiring him to rely on crutches and leg braces to walk around.
These characters, I feel, are awesome representations because not only are their disabilities treated in a respectful and realistic manner, but their disability doesn’t define them as a character. In fact, they seem to be stronger characters as a whole because they are still incredibly capable skill-wise, not letting their disabilities become a pitiable aspect of their characters.
Rae shows that she is a determined girl with a sense of adventure while being more than capable enough to explore the world around her despite her lack of sight. Bentley is not only a capable hacker, but he’s also an ace with a crossbow and has even decked out his wheelchair with awesome gadgets that make him an invaluable member of the Cooper gang. And both Joker and Caroline are ace pilots in their own regards, not to mention incredibly capable fighters. Hell, in Mass Effect, Joker reveals that despite his disability, he was able to surpass his more able-bodied fellow cadets and teachers during his military training.
But with a look at the list of characters I gave as examples for misrepresentation and those I gave for examples good representation, it’s pretty easy to see that it’s a lot easier to come up with examples of the former than the latter. But why is that? The simplest way I can answer that is by asking you to look back at the list of characters from both groups again and then tell me which ones are playable characters. If you do, you’ll find that every example I gave from the first group are all playable, while only two of the four in the second group can be played as.
Honestly I think the fact of the matter is that, while it’s an incredibly crappy thing to say, it’s incredibly hard to make a character that is physically disabled fun to play as from a gameplay standpoint. At least without basically fixing said disability to the point of making the character better than a regular person or chucking them into an obligatory vehicle section or minigame. Sure, Joker and Caroline are awesome characters and they obviously are capable people despite their disabilities, but in the context of their games which both focus on “run and gun” gameplay, it’s difficult to suddenly switch the player’s perspective to those characters and expect these characters to be able to do the same things. Why play as Joker in the same combat and action intense scenarios when you can play as Commander Shepard?
By making a character’s physical disabilities basically non-existent via prosthetics, not only do the characters become as capable as those without any physical disabilities, but it offers opportunities to include a little power-fantasy by adding extra fun to the gameplay through by use of the high-tech prosthetic.
Raiden’s cybernetic body is exceedingly stronger and faster than a normal human’s, allowing him to do fantastical moves such as hop along missiles and suplex and a thirty-story tall mech.
Venom Snake’s arm doubles as a weapon, allowing him to shoot it at enemies in the form of a long-distance rocket punch.
Nathan Spencer’s arm allows him to grapple and swing around Spider-Man style.
Adam Jensen’s cybernetic body has multiple augmentations that unlock over the course of the game to improve his abilities like hacking and sneaking, ultimately making his entire body a skill-tree.
And Barret’s gun arm is…well it’s a god-damn gun arm! Kind of enough said.
Realistically, in the other group of characters, Bentley is the only fun character of himself and Rae because he’s in a game that is incredibly over-the-top and cartoonish. In that game world, it makes sense for his wheelchair to have a booster pack, a portable magnet and a bomb dispensary. But for the same reason as the characters I listed above, he’s fun to play as because his whacky wheelchair gadgets help to service gameplay.
Meanwhile, although it was an incredibly artistic and intelligent way for players to experience what being blind may be like, Beyond Eyes was received as an incredibly mediocre game at best and a boring game at worst due to the fact that there was just nothing on offer to keep players interested gameplay-wise. It just ended up being a walking simulator, albeit a thought-provoking and incredibly beautiful looking one.
But even if from a gameplay standpoint it is harder to make a disabled character playable, why don’t we see more disabled NPCs like Joker, Caroline or even Lester from GTA V? Honestly I wish I had an answer to that question, but there doesn’t seem to be one given by anybody in the games industry. And that’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it.
After all, a realistic heist and crime game can include a disabled character. A sci-fi game with an expansive universe to explore can do it. Even a game set in an alternate history in which you can kill Nazis on a bloody moon base can do it. I don’t see why there should be any reason that games can’t include more disabled characters in their stories where it is appropriate to do so, even if they are NPCs.
If we want to truly start seeing more diversity in games, disability should not be excluded from the debate. From what we’ve seen so far, these characters can serve to be incredibly inspirational role models who show that it isn’t out limits that define who we are, but rather the things we can do and offer as individuals. That’s the kind of message that I want to see more of in the games that I play.
This topic was sent to us via Twitter DM. We hope you enjoyed it and that we helped answer your question. We look forward to more questions from you in the future!
Are you ready, players?