Yep, It's 2017 and Games are Still Ableist AF

September 30, 2017

[Warning: this article discusses assisted suicide and ableist language] 

 

I've had the chance to talk a little bit about why I love Life is Strange. Now it's time to talk about one of the game's biggest problems. Namely, this: 

 

 

 

Focusing on the ramifications of time travel, LiS, like many of its genre, provides an alternate timeline wherein your actions have terrible and unforeseen consequences. In Max's case her choice to save Chloe's father from a car accident results in Chloe getting in an accident of her own years later. Instead of dying, she ends up paralyzed. Worse than simply providing us with this scenario, the game forces you into a situation where you have to choose whether to help Chloe end her own life or refuse and leave her hating you. It's not just horrifying, but downright ableist. 

 

I should note that this is not a question of whether assisted suicide itself is morally "right" or "wrong"-----that's an important conversation to have and the answer depends largely on each individual's situation. Rather, the problem is in how LiS characterizes disabled life. As many have already pointed out, Chloe's disability is framed as a punishment, both for Max (for messing with time) and for Chloe (for wanting to steal the school's disability fund). 

 

 

 

As you explore this timeline the game emphasizes that there's no positive outlook here. Being paralyzed to the extent Chloe is reaps nothing but hardship. Conversations focus heavily on how her parents can't pay for all her treatment and equipment. Chloe and Max reminisce about how they should have "taken Arcadia Bay by storm" when they had the chance, implying that someone in a wheelchair can't lead an exciting or impactful life. Indeed, soon Chloe won't have any life at all. Her respiratory system is failing and she wants to die now before the "inevitable" conclusion. It's not just a matter of Chloe sparing herself the pain of suffocation, she wants to remove herself as a burden in her parents' lives. Forcing the player to either spare or kill Chloe, framing her as the "better person" for ending her own life, and knowing that Max will rewind time regardless of her decision... it's all just an exercise in inspiration porn.  

 

Perhaps this section of LiS wouldn't read quite so badly if it wasn't the trajectory that nearly all disabled characters follow. Just look at the now infamous Me Before You, in which the quadriplegic protagonist also chooses to end his own life and in doing so rewards his girlfriend/caretaker with a ridiculous sum of money. The message of these stories is horrifically clear: if you're disabled you should just kill yourself. You're a drain on society and everyone around you will actively benefit from your death. 

 

 

 

As I considered LiS and subjected myself to watching MBY, I began paying more attention to just how disturbingly ableist our media remains, particularly video games. It's not just a matter of disabled characters being few and far between. When they are included they're rarely, if ever, a main character; or they're presented as the thing to fear in horror games; or their disability is reworked into a fantasy-driven asset that in no way reflects reality---like bionic arms that give characters superhuman strength. 

 

 

 

Now there are some disabled characters that get decent amounts of screen time (Lester Crest in Grand Theft Auto V) and some are painted in a largely positive light (Joker in Mass Effect), but they remain outliers in primarily able-bodied worlds. Even the games where you supposedly have control over designing your character work under the assumption that disabled people don't exist. I might be able to give my dad in Dream Daddy a variety of skin tones (which is a great step forward!) but I can't give him a wheelchair, crutches, hearing aids, or a missing limb. 

 

This lack of nuanced representation is hardly surprising when one considers that the gaming industry as a whole is ableist. The Pop Culture Detective makes a good case for how hyper-focused on combat our games have become, which implies that anyone not capable of running, fighting, or otherwise being physically active cannot be a part of those scenarios-----these games don't involve people "like you" and perhaps you shouldn't be playing them at all. We live in a hyper-masculine culture that punishes people for not being good enough at competitive games, primarily through insulting their supposed intelligence and physical capabilities. Many games like World of Warcraft are focusing more and more on cooperative play and I can't tell you the number of times that someone has been labeled a r***** in my group because they missed a shot in PvP. 

 

 

This is the same culture that claims you're only a "true" gamer if you play everything on the hardest level, despite the fact that many gamers don't have the reflexes to beat fast-paced encounters and issues like brain fog interfere with anything that requires strategy or quick thinking. Where are the games that accommodate people who can't hold an X-Box controller without extreme pain? The people who can't easily focus on drawn-out confrontations? Or who can't play a first-person shooter because of PTSD? Or who, like one of my professors, would love to play Portal except that the tilting nature of the game makes her sick. 

 

We don't just need to add more disabled characters to games----though that's obviously a necessity-----but also reconsider how games as a whole are constructed and who we're excluding when we design them. Pokemon Go remains today's biggest offender. Niantic can pat themselves on the back as much as they want for getting people out of the house and walking around... but what about those who can't leave their beds? Or who can't walk for long periods of time? Pokemon Go is great until you realize just how many people it says can't be the one to catch 'em all. 

 

 

 

Video/computer games are one of our greatest inventions and they're one of the disabled community's greatest resources, so how about we start accommodating them? We need more disabled characters. We also need more options in terms of game difficulty, the ability to change the game's mechanics (text size, eliminating sound, etc.), and we need more games that use disability as a creative starting point. Navigating Joker in his wheelchair in Mass Effect 2 or Pulse, the game that puts you in the shoes of a blind girl navigating by sound, are just small examples of how including disability can lead to new, innovative forms of gameplay. It's time to stop excluding such a large portion of the population, and it's certainly time to stop writing horrendously offensive storylines like what we find in Life is Strange

 

Games are an exploration in what it means to be human. Now, let's consider all of humanity, not just those who fit into one, highly restrictive definition. 

 

 

 

 

Image Credit

 

#1: Personal screenshot

#2: Personal screenshot

#3: Personal photo

#4: https://scoobysnax91.jimdo.com/unit-32/

#5: https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/70v8sa/dont_be_that_guy/

#6: https://kotaku.com/pokemon-go-is-depressing-for-fans-with-physical-disabil-1783603654

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