According to the CDC, 26% of Americans have some form of disability. We live in a diverse society, where everyone is different. Yet when it comes to video games, there is far less diversity – even in games that depict a reflection of real life, or simulate what it is like to be human, you would certainly expect to see more people with a wide range of disabilities. If there were, it may show a new generation of video gamers that living with a disability is normal. It would also help to open up the discussion about disability and how it affects daily life.
According to research done by Tech Talk, the most common disabilities to be depicted in video games are physical disabilities, these make up 54%. There are a handful of characters who are wheelchair users, particularly in shooting and war games, and you may find characters who are amputees or victims of ballistic trauma. However, there are many disabilities that you simply don’t see commonly depicted in video games, such as cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a condition that occurs during pregnancy and birth that affects movement and coordination. Multiple Sclerosis and ALS are two other common conditions that don’t really get depicted within gaming. Notable video characters with physical disabilities are Lester Crest from Grand Theft Auto V, who is living with an unnamed wasting disease, and Joker from Mass Effect, who has Vrolik Disease, which causes brittle bones. It is worth noting that for both characters, their disability does not define who they are, or their talents and skills.
Around 20% of the disabilities depicted in video games are mental and 20% are sensory. Common issues like depression and anxiety are rare, although there are some characters, such as B.J. Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus whose PTSD is carefully interwoven into his backstory. The Wolfenstein games certainly don’t shy away from portraying characters with disabilities. In Wolfenstein: The New Order, the character Max Hass, had a brain injury when he was a child, and you can see the physical mark that this has left. Deadly Premonition is another game to look out for, when it comes to opening up the conversation about mental disabilities. The character of Francis York Morgan lives with psychosis and possibly schizophrenia.
Building a backstory
Building a credible and believable backstory is extremely important if a video game is going to portray a character with disabilities. In Life is Strange, one of the main antagonists, Nathan Prescott is portrayed as being a violent psychopath. This is attributed to the fact that he has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. According to Mentalhealth.gov, only 3% of violent acts are committed by someone that has a mental illness. In fact people living with mental illness are 10% more likely to be victims of violent crime. The topic of mental health is quite poorly handled in Life is Strange, and linking mental health and violence does nothing but wrongly perpetuate this connection.
What can be improved?
There is often a notion in video games, that characters with a disability should be “fixed” by giving them superhuman prosthetics, or superhuman powers. A “fix” in real life is of course extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean that disability shouldn’t be depicted. Possibly one of the main reasons that disability is also avoided in video games, is the fear of handling it badly. However, now at least that disability has become a mainstream topic, this may help to inspire video game developers to depict more diverse characters with fuller and more realistic backstories.
Simply representing disabled people in video games is extremely important. Although some people might see this as “forcing diversity,” in fact it’s just a way of showing how the world really is. We all have our triumphs, our goals, our unique talents and our limitations – that is part of everyone’s own personal story. People with disabilities deserve to be represented in all forms of entertainment, whether it is movies, TV or video games. This can help change attitudes and stereotypes.
The lack of characters with disabilities in video games helps to further the myth that disability is uncommon – when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The subject of disability certainly needs to be tackled more often in games, to give a broader view of life to a new generation of gamers.