Dis+Ability and Customizable Characters in Video Games

I started this post sometime way back in early September after spending one glorious weekend sitting down to play Skyrim with my nine year-old nephew. I don’t get to see my nephew all that often and he doesn’t get to play video game all that often, so it was no surprise when we plunked ourselves down in front of the television, controller in his hand, TV remote in mine (gotta pretend I’m doing something useful. Volume control is a very legitimate occupation), and played all the main quests that Skyrim has to offer.

Now, for those of you who have been around kids aged 2 to about 10, you know that occasionally some really profound words can emerge from their mouths. You know it can happen but you never really expect it, which makes the instances all the more astounding.

So when, as my nephew began setting up his character, the words, “Why can my character have green skin but not one arm? Two seems one too many,” came out of his mouth, I had to just stop. Because there was this nine year-old kid asking me why it was impossible for a customizable character to have one arm when that same character could be a green-skinned lizard.

Talk about a punch to the solar plexus.

Almost a month later, and I’m still gagging.

Because one thing I have yet to see: a customizable character that has a disability.

What a physique! The ultimate character, right?

Because I like Skyrim, like role-playing games. In fact, if I had to choose my favorite video game genres, RPGs would definitely be in the top five. The appeal of RPGs isn’t hard to conceive of: the allure that comes with designing your own persona is irrefutable and undeniable. The premise of the RPG is selling you, the player, the belief that you can be who you want to be—and only become more improved, more exceptional.

The act of “leveling-up” reinforces this idea of moving from “lack” to “have”. It’s a system that implicitly tells RPG gamers that 1) they can, through hard work and hacking away at beings weaker than themselves, pull themselves from destitution (aka “lack of ability”—whether it be certain special combo moves, particular spells) and become a high ranking member of society (who has the ability to do everything).

Let’s get Super Saiyan up in here. Am I right?

Arguably, leveling-up mimics the stages of growth that we experience as children into our adult years. But even the language and way we see growth is couched in language that purposefully excludes narratives of disability. (As much as language allows for multiples, it also serves society and society endlessly searches for ways to erase “undesirables” from our consciousness. Go check out an OED from back in the 60s and see how many words are no longer in use, and how many more have been changed and twisted over the years.) We don’t consider the children who are on the autistic spectrum; don’t consider that fact that many adults live with amputated limbs; don’t look at the teens who are blind, deaf or mute; don’t consider the accidents that happen that throw people off the “ideal” path. We don’t consider aging.

But, in RPGs you have almost complete control over your destiny. The only thing you don’t control is that, in the end, your destiny is always to become better—stronger, faster, more powerful. It means that the whole premise of RPGs—and many games for that matter— seem to follow a narrative of ableism, where customizable characters begin in a world where they “can’t” and others “can” and somehow miraculously, through hard work, become able to “can.” There is no wasting away of the virtual you—just the wasting away of interest as you inevitably grow tired of a particular life and decide to remake yourself into yet another version of the perfect you.

We live in a society where being “able” is the only way to experience life. Disability is something to be fixed and if it can’t be fixed, something to be escaped. We’re supposed to want to be “whole-bodied”, “sound of mind”. Present in all the ways that matter, right?

Wrong. While there’s nothing wrong with trying to constantly better oneself, it’s inherently wrong to imagine that there is only one way to be whole. This failure on the part of society to imagine a way of living not determined by ability seeps into our figures of speech, into our daily navigation of the world, into the media we produce.

That’s it. Plain and simple.

Physical, intellectual, sensory, on the autistic spectrum—no matter the disability, I have yet to see a video game developers crafting games with disability, rather than ability, as a mold for customizable characters.

For a lot of people, the primary (or at least initial) mode they approach games as a type of media is through the lens of “entertainment”. Fantasy envelops the conception, creation, distribution, and en-action of games, no matter their form. So, if video games are premised on this idea of escapism and fantasy, then why can’t we just have main characters who can do everything? Why can’t we be allowed to have customizable characters who can be everything we want to be?

The answer is this: because if the representation of real people, with real differences, impinges upon someone’s ability to enjoy the gaming experience, then that person should take a second look at the world.

Representation is not a right; but neither is the erasure of people.

Giving players the choice to create a character that is disable does not prevent developers from also giving players the choice to not customize their character with a disability.

What it does do is force game developers to imagine the world of their game in a way they’re not used to. It means creating multiplicities, rather than singularities or metanarratives of experience when it comes to the game.

But, I understand. Asking game developers to give players the chance to create disabled characters is a tall order. After all, RPG developers are already so busy creating an open-world environment, and seventeen different species of alien, and hundreds of non-playable characters. Maybe one day they’ll be able to consider disability, not just ability. Maybe once they’ve figure out that ambiguously brown characters don’t satisfy the “token minority requirement”, and that they can actually develop female characters that aren’t sexual objects.

Until then, we should just be happy that video games are the escapist fantasy that they are and be happy that we can do  everything and anything we want. Because that’s what games are. Right?



*The author’s experience with disability and talking about dis/ability is limited. As such, if the language used is in any way offensive, please leave a comment below.

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