How far have we come, and how far do we still need to go?
Diversity within video games has become an ever-growing discussion over the years, for good reason. As gaming grows more popular with all kinds of different people, more voices are speaking up about representation, taking a lens to the depiction of women and their bodies or cultural appropriation, a recent debate with Genshin Impact’s release of the nation Sumeru. What seems to fall under the radar, however, is disability representation. While there’s discussion around the accessibility of video games to real-life disabled individuals — which is, of course, a much needed one, and is thankfully an improving situation — less focus is drawn to the presence of disabled characters. Seeing yourself represented on screen is an emotional experience; it’s important, therefore, to see how often disabled people get this experience, and how much care is put into their representation.
In a study conducted by Curry’s PC World, it was found that physical disabilities are portrayed the most, with 54% of the games with disabled characters studied featuring amputees, burn victims and more. Mental disabilities, on the other hand, are only portrayed in 3%. While all types of disability are important to represent, there is a preference from developers to represent physical disabilities, perhaps since they are easier to depict visually and may not have to be confronted narratively. The real problem, however, is that these physical disabilities are more likely to be “fixed” — perhaps as a “reward”, implying disability is a form of punishment — with 47% of the games studied following this route. As Ian Hamilton, the study’s Accessibility Expert, says:
"This notion that people with disabilities are broken and need to be fixed ... was rejected and abandoned in the 1970s, yet still persists in media, and in games, often through the trope of medical conditions being replaced by superhuman powers or superhuman prosthetics. Moreover, games are often guilty of furthering the myth that a disability is rare, with all the impact that has on broader prejudice and discrimination."
With this in mind, it’s worth taking a closer look into disabled characters to see the kinds of representation depicted — from the good to the bad.
Out of all the physical disabilities depicted in gaming, amputees are arguably the most common — this makes sense, as popular narratives usually depict war, with explosions that could cause loss of limbs being more common. An example of a character who doesn’t lose a limb this way is Octane, one of the playable characters in Respawn’s battle-royale Apex Legends. Octane is an “adrenaline junkie” who blew off his legs trying to launch himself over a finish line using a grenade, and now uses prosthetics. Octane isn’t mocked by the narrative for losing his legs like this; instead, it’s a source of humour for him, with some idle animations featuring him taking off one of his legs to check the hinges before popping it back on. Octane’s disability doesn’t hinder him — in fact, Octane is the fastest legend, with his abilities surrounding speed and momentum. This also doesn’t lean into the trope of disabled characters becoming “superhuman”, as there are able-bodied legends who also harness unique abilities. Apex Legends manages to ride the line of depicting a disabled character without making his disability his only personality trait.
There’s also Billie Lurk, a character from Arkane’s Dishonored series, who loses her eye and hand. Billie is a Black queer woman who becomes the series’ protagonist in Death of the Outsider, an important milestone in gaming history. However, Arkane’s handling of her disability is questionable. In Dishonored 2, the player can decide to use time travel powers to prevent the accident where she becomes disabled from happening — while this is optional, Death of the Outsider decides that choosing to “fix” Billie’s disability is the canonical decision, only to tear away her eye and hand again for shock value so they can be replaced with magical abilities. Not only does this put a queer Black woman through trauma, it also suggests that even within a world of magic, disabilities are something that need to be fixed.
When representing mental disability, there’s Senua from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a warrior who fights her way through Viking Hell. Senua has psychosis, which manifests through visions and a constant cacophony of voices following her. This representation is enhanced by the knowledge that studio Ninja Theory put years of time and care into accurately depicting psychosis, from working with neuroscientists at Cambridge University to speaking with psychosis patients so that the experience of playing as Senua could help deepen the player’s connection with her, as well as demonstrating what real-life disabled people experience every day, culminating in an emotional yet beautiful narrative.
Another depiction is side character Josh from Watch_Dogs 2, who is autistic. Ubisoft treats him with grace, rather than falling into tired tropes about autism. While he’s seen as a super-smart genius, which could lead into the “superhumanly smart” stereotype, he’s in the game’s hacktivist group Dedsec made up of other intelligent hackers; his super-smarts isn’t isolated, he’s surrounded by other genius individuals. Additionally, Dedsec don’t “other” him or infantilize him - in fact, when a character in a DLC does infantilize him, he outsmarts her by using her offensive expectations of him against her. Ubisoft still makes sure to depict Josh’s autism traits rather than only stating it, such as him not understanding certain jokes and speaking in a monotone voice. Josh isn’t defined by his autism; it’s a part of him, but it’s not all of him.
Most examples used here are representation done right, because it’s always important to highlight positive change; however, as the study mentioned highlights, disability representation still has a long way to go in gaming. Hopefully, we can look forward to a future where disabled characters and narratives are given the care and respect they deserve.