Disability & the Gaming Industry
Spoiler Alert: Analysis of Uncharted 4, Overwatch, Mass Effect Series & Grand Theft Auto V
Gaming is an important hobby and social activity for many disabled people, where you can forget about your disability for a short period and have the same skill level as able-bodied peers. Personally, gaming provides some kind of escape where you can participate in physical activities that are naturally impossible. I’m not just talking about the big actions like shooting aliens, driving a supercar or having super powers but the small things like simply walking around, picking up an item or the ability to explore disabled-unfriendly environments like a jungle (Uncharted 4) or other planets (Mass Effect Series, Halo).
The gaming industry is an untapped media platform with the potential for realistic representations of disability. There are 3 core areas to focus on within the game industry regarding the representation of gamers with a disability:
- Physical accessibility of hardware or controllers
- Allowing players alternate configurations or button customisation
- Storytelling opportunities for disabled protagonists or just as non-stereotypical portrayals of a character with a disability.
I’ve previously written a blog on gaming accessibility (uncannyvivek.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/gaming/) how SONY, MICROSOFT or NINTENDO need to consider accessibility during the design process of controllers, which would greatly benefit all gamers and avoid disabled gamers unfairly restricted from enjoyment.
The recent release of games like Uncharted 4 and Overwatch are great examples of how game developers are now starting to embrace accessibility options. Overwatch a fighting game has endless control configurations allowing a user Zak who can only use one action per hand at a time to now play a game with mechanics that require multiple button inputs.
Uncharted 4 by Naughty Dog studios is a masterpiece in how to perfectly end a series by inserting an incredible story with likeable characters, beautiful life-like graphics, perfectly placed slow sections of environmental exploration to contrast with gripping combat. The most incredible aspect is how Naughty Dog made accessibility a priority by consulting with Josh Straub a gamer with a disability. The in-game accessibility options are:
- 5 different alternate button configurations
- A toggle for aiming down sights (ADS)
- Make QTE functions executable by holding ▲ instead of repeated taps
- Snap to aim function locks onto foes without having to manually aim
Uncharted 4 represents a standard of accessibility that should be more widespread within the gaming industry.
“There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory”
– Sir Francis Drake, 1587 (from Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune)
The way in which disability is represented in both the storyline and characters in games is important. However, it needs to be portrayed realistically, without falling back on usual negative stereotypes associated with disabled people. All too often people see a person with disabilities as someone innocent and needing help or protection. These opinions do not foster heroes; they foster a mentality that keeps disabled characters as sidekicks to be protected by the hero. Disabled characters can take care of themselves and should never be defined by disability.
The game Batman: Arkham Knight still relies on negative stereotypes within the story by restricting the character Oracle to:
- A damsel in distress by getting pushed off a building by Scarecrow
- Unnecessary scene glorifying her paralysis by Joker’s gunshot
- An unnecessary scene where Oracle supposedly commits suicide providing Batman with motivation
There have been a few good examples of disability representation; Lester Crest from GTA V is the mastermind behind all the heists who happens to have a disability. Joker Moreau the pilot of the Normandy in the Mass Effect series is the perfect example of how to design a disabled character. He suffers from Vrolik Syndrome but is only defined by his piloting skills, grace under pressure, wit & dedication.
Recently many indie game developers have experimented with disabled protagonists but it is only the beginning. Beyond Eyes (focused on a blind girl’s view of the world), Depression Quest (play as a character going through depression), Perception (play as a blind woman Cassie in a haunted house), & questionably Life is Strange.
Before I go, I want to introduce the concept of the Supercrip, characters that overcome disability to become something more than normal. Is this a better stereotype? No. This ableist concept is a negative stereotype suggesting that disability is a challenge to be overcome not happily lived with. Overcompensating missing body parts with a super-powered one (Adam Jensen of Deus Ex, Garret from Thief) is empowering, as a game-mechanic but is ridiculously unrealistic.