Arts & Culture

dubble gaming: disabled gamers talk gaming in 2020 (part 2)

Audio: Read by the author.

When I looked to interview disabled gamers who were keen about accessibility issues in the gaming industry and willing to share their experiences of gaming in 2020, I was very fortunate to have been approached by Kelly Marine and Geoffrey Bunting. Before our Zoom call, I had no idea that their conversation would not only educate me more about gaming as a disabled person, but also considerably alter my perspective on the current state of the gaming world.

So far in Part One, Kelly and Geoffrey have covered the myriad of accessibility issues they’ve faced with 2020’s newest consoles and controllers – particularly the PlayStation 5 DualSense. As I worked through my scrawled list of questions, I came to realise that next-gen hardware isn’t as cutting edge as the gaming industry leads us to believe. In fact, it’s often pretty inaccessible.

In the second part of this interview, I investigate what Kelly and Geoffrey think about new games in 2020. I want to discover our interviewees’ best titles for visibility and representation of disabled people, as well as which game was their most accessible. Moreover, I want to know if the gaming industry’s attitude to incorporating disabled narratives and accessibility features in their newest games is anything like their approach with their hardware. 

As before, I’ll continue to share the results of our polls on Instagram, and compare our readers’ responses with those of our interviewees. They’ve recommended some brilliant games that both represent disability and feature excellent accessibility options, and have also shared their hopes for accessibility, visibility, and representation in gaming for 2021. 

Of the 2020 games you’ve played this year, have you encountered any that handle disability, chronic illness, or mental health issues in their narrative?

‘Not from a narrative standpoint,’ Geoffrey replies, having thought about the question for a while. He straightens in his chair. ‘In the last couple of years, I’ve seen that depression features in a lot of games now – especially indie games. I haven’t personally played any of those this year, though. So, no. I suppose I deal with disability enough in my real life. I don’t really want to do that when I play games as well; it’s not necessarily something I search out for.’

I nod, but I’m slightly surprised. I understand Geoffrey’s perspective; it can be intense to confront narratives in media that share similarities with one’s own experience. However, I’d assumed that most disabled gamers actively look to play games with disabled narratives, perhaps to witness and play as characters like ourselves, or to support the visibility and representation of disabled people in the gaming industry. I haven’t considered the flip-side; that there are disabled gamers – like Geoffrey – who value video games more as a means of escapism than for experiencing disabled narratives. 

Intrigued, I turn to Kelly. ‘How about you?’

She tilts her head to one side in thought. ‘Well,’ she begins, ‘nothing from this year comes to mind, unless… there’s a small thing. It’s sort of incidental and involves something that happens to a character at the very end of The Last of Us Part II, so I don’t necessarily want to go into it. They’re physically debilitated in some way and it doesn’t have a lot of narrative consequences, but it has one.’

Released in June 2020, The Last of Us Part II was one of the most prosperous titles of last year. Not only was it an instant classic, but also a success story for the representation of women, people of colour, and LGBTQIA+ people. It’s also recognised as one of the most accessible games ever, thanks to its extensive accessibility options menu. As soon as Kelly brings up its dramatic ending, I lean in closer to the screen, delighted. It’s a thought-provoking representation of disability that I hadn’t appreciated until now.

‘I would say, without going into too many spoilers,’ Kelly continues, ‘that throughout the game a character performs an action related to somebody they care about deeply, and as a result of what happens to them, they can no longer perform that action. There is a minor gameplay element associated with it. You try to perform the action and the character can’t do it. They get sad about it and reflect on the choices they made that led them to their new physical state that prevents them from doing that action. I have to say, that was fairly effective for me. I have a long history of suddenly becoming unable to perform certain actions the way that I used to.’

The ending of The Last of Us Part II reinforces the moral of its story, portrays the psychological and emotional state of the character, and, most importantly, represents and evokes the feelings that come with adjusting to a new disability. Even though the disabled narrative is brief, it holds as much emphasis as other forms of representation throughout the game, if not more.

It’s also a particularly successful representation of physical disability in comparison to the attempts of many other games, past and present. Kelly remembers the 2017 title Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, where its playable protagonist, BJ Blazkowicz, defeats a squad of Nazis while using a wheelchair in its early scenes. ‘He’s still being a badass, going a thousand miles per hour and dual-wielding machine guns, killing everybody,’ she explains, ‘but I remember thinking, “How is he getting his chair over that small bump?” I enjoy the power fantasy but also the game is ridiculous. At one point, he gets his head removed and then is given a cybernetic body.’

In the alternate history of the Wolfenstein series, where Nazi Germany is victorious in the Second World War, BJ must fight back against their fascist regime to save America – doing so with superhuman vitality and cybernetic enhancements. The series is well-known for its sci-fi narrative and is also celebrated for how it handles socio-political issues with respect and charm. However, when it comes to its disabled narratives there’s a problem; Wolfenstein often resorts to superpowers and sci-fi tech when attempting to achieve the visibility and representation of (physically) disabled people.

‘I’m of two minds about it,’ Kelly admits. ‘I like the power fantasy of exo-suits that could make me able to do what I did before and do it stronger. I’m disabled all the time. I don’t necessarily want a game that accurately portrays how difficult it is to get a wheelchair up a small bump. But also, it would be nice if the character who was disabled had to deal with the ramifications of their physical disability for most of the narrative until they got this magic super suit.’

Geoffrey agrees. ‘So many narratives that involve disabled characters suggest that disabled people only have value when they can get over what’s wrong with them. We don’t really see stories where someone gets disabled and then also lives a life; it’s always about them becoming disabled and then having something happen to them which means that they can live again. I think there is room in gaming to have realistic disabled characters where their value isn’t defined by how they can become normalised, but the industry hasn’t yet cottoned on to the fact that disabled people don’t need to be put in massive metal suits.’

In 2019, a Currys PC World study showed that 47% of characters with physical disabilities were ‘fixed’ in games, as Geoffrey describes. Ian Hamilton, one of the study’s analysts, explains; ‘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.’

Kelly and Geoffrey are soon discussing their experiences with disabled narratives in a variety of games from the past, including titles from the Alone in the Dark, Call of Duty, and Metro 2033 franchises. The sheer number of recent games that feature questionable – if not outrageous – attempts at disabled narratives is staggering and, as Hamilton implies, bizarrely old-fashioned.

‘I do think we have to be a little bit honest here about where gaming is now,’ says Geoffrey solemnly. ‘We’re talking about how disabled people are represented, but games still struggle with representing white women. We’re not far along in the development of a more progressive gaming industry. We look at games like The Last of Us Part II and go, “Look, the main character is a woman!” and we’re sitting here asking, “Well, what about disabled people?” when – and this is true for probably every single progressive debate – we’re just not there yet. We should be. We should be very much there, but we’re not far along enough.’

‘Well, baby steps, right?’ Kelly asks hopefully.

‘I think we want more than baby steps, but that‘s the most we can hope for, especially when the gaming industry is so white and male,’ says Geoffrey. ‘I know I say that as a white dude, but…’

It’s true: there is a distinct lack of diversity in the gaming industry. Recently in the UK, results from UKIE’s first-ever UK Games Industry Census found that the industry is still overwhelmingly young, white, and male. In the last decade gaming developers have evidently taken steps towards diversity and inclusion in games, but there is clearly much more progress to be made towards diversity and inclusion in the industry. If more disabled people were represented in the industry, video games might be more likely to feature successful disabled narratives.

However, Kelly believes there’s a larger issue behind poor visibility and representation of disabled people in games. ‘It’s the gamer culture,’ she says, arguing how often fans pressure Triple-A studios to pursue traditional styles of functionality, design, and language in their games. ‘There’s the loud nerds that will send you death threats, and I should know as I’ve had more than my share. 2014 is forever. Anything that’s not what they’re expecting, that doesn’t cater to them specifically, that’s inherently political – you have to argue for its right to exist.’

In our Instagram poll, none of our respondents had played a game released in 2020 that featured a disabled narrative. However, one user recommended Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017) for its outstanding representation of psychosis, and another recommended Stardew Valley (2016) for its portrayal of both physical disability and mental illness.

Of the 2020 games you’ve played this year, what has been the most accessible?

‘I guess for you it would be The Last of Us Part II, Kelly?’ I add with a grin.

Kelly laughs. ‘From a holistic perspective, it has to be! I think it’s the best example, not just because it has so many accessibility options but because there are options. If you want to, you can make it an incredibly complicated, hardcore game. You can play it in a state of permadeath. But you also don’t have to!’

‘I got a lot of mileage out of the feature that lets your character turn invisible to enemies when they’re prone,’ she explains. ‘I’ll try to do it the way I can, to get the excitement of the action and to try to win, but I don’t want to be replaying over and over again so if I get overwhelmed, I lie on the ground. Well-rendered, realistic characters walk right over me and say “Oh, where is she?!” but it’s fine!’ she chuckles. ‘It’s ridiculous, but it doesn’t break the immersion because I still get the feeling that I need to hide.’

Kelly illustrates how many of the options in the game are slider bars, instead of being on/off switches. This is particularly useful for features like auto-aim support. She’s thrilled to see the extent, variety, and type of options in the game. ‘You should have the option to play through the game if you buy it. There should be hurdles that are because of a physical and mental challenge, but you shouldn’t be stuck. You should be able to see all that you paid for: the full experience.’

‘My struggle is going to be different from yours because I’ve got a hand tremor and you don’t,’ says Kelly, ‘and I think designing for more players isn’t just to help disabled people; it opens the game up to a broader audience.’

The game also uses neutral language in its accessibility options menu, which Kelly believes to be immensely important; language around difficulty settings has often chastised disabled gamers in the past. ‘I think the main take away from The Last of Us Part II is that menu: how plain it is, how matter-of-fact it is about what each option does, the lack of judgement, and the neutral language and presentation around it,’ Kelly claims. ‘That’s the big one.’

I ask Geoffrey for his most accessible game of last year. ‘Probably Animal Crossing: New Horizons,’ he says. ‘I think it’s such a simple game. A major part of my issue is in sound and in tracking movement. There was nothing in that game that gave me problems. It’s real time, so you’ve got all day if you want. It didn’t seem like it had a huge amount of accessibility options, but it’s accessible almost from a foundational aspect.’

When Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released in March 2020 – a few months into the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – it became record-breaking in its success, selling thirty-one million copies world-wide. Though hardly revolutionary in its options and functionality, the game poses very few issues in terms of accessibility and makes an excellent choice for disabled gamers who enjoy fun life-simulation games.

‘The one I had most trouble with was the exact opposite,’ Geoffrey laughs. He details that Star Wars: Squadrons (October 2020) is locked in the first-person perspective; the game can only be played through the eyes of a pilot inside the cockpit of one of many starfighters in the Star Wars universe. ‘It was like sitting in an office chair and spinning around over and over and over again! I couldn’t play it! I looked and there weren’t really any options to improve it, either.’

‘If there was a scale, on one end there would be Squadrons – actual hell for me – and at the other end would be Animal Crossing,’ Geoffrey summarises. ‘I played nine games that were released this year, which isn’t a lot. Looking at them – apart from Animal Crossing – I don’t think any of them really had options that helped me out. I always have to get used to the game; it’s never that the game gets used to me.’

I consider what Kelly and Geoffrey have shared about their best – and worst – games for accessibility in 2020 and am reminded why the implementation of a varied and comprehensive accessibility options menu is a crucial step forward in contemporary game design and development. In comparison to the majority of 2020’s titles, The Last of Us Part II is likely the best instance of a game where a player can adjust its options to an extent that it ‘gets used to’ them. Unfortunately, most other games fall into the trend of forcing the player to ‘get used to’ it.

When we asked our readers for their most accessible games of 2020, one respondent recommended Paper Mario: The Origami King (July 2020), a game that prioritises progression of the narrative over ability level through assisting the player with tips and power-ups to help them overcome tricky obstacles. Another reader suggested The Long Dark (updated in December 2020), a chilling survival game with a host of accessibility options and features. 

What would be your one hope for accessibility, visibility, and representation in gaming for 2021?

‘For me, this one’s easy,’ Kelly says confidently. She clears her throat. ‘I think it has become easier to convince developers of the value of accessibility and representation; what’s harder is getting people in the louder gamer culture to step outside themselves and not be so defensive when we try to implement change.’

‘There are people inside the industry advocating for these issues, so I don’t have to hope for that,’ she clarifies. ‘I hope that the wider gamer culture stops seeing it as a cheat that I want options and features that are a necessity for me to get the same experience that they’re getting with a game. It’s relative, because what is difficult for you is flat out impossible for me. It’s not special treatment, and we’re not as small as a minority as people would think. You could become one of us for any reason, at any time. The human body can break down like you wouldn’t believe.’

‘The more difficulty options there are, the better. And there’s no reason not to tweak stuff,’ she continues. ‘If you release a game in 2021 that has no difficulty options at all, that to me is as archaic as remaking Pac-Man. We already have the tools, there’s a million ways you can help players out, we’ve already done it. The people who are hardcore can play games on the hardest difficulty and brag about that, but having so much push back against the idea of options that enable me to play? I hope I see less of that going forward.’

‘I don’t know what it is, this need to be better than other people; being the first, the best, beating a whole hardcore challenge,’ Kelly huffs. ‘Here’s a real challenge: I challenge you to have some empathy for people who are not exactly like you!’ 

‘Yeah!’ I agree. In the past, hostile attitudes towards diversity and inclusion among other gamers often deterred me from getting involved in the gaming community. If gamer culture could become more progressive and empathetic, it likely would encourage the gaming industry to help better gaming not only for disabled people, but other minority groups. With this in mind, I’m intrigued to hear the hope of my second interviewee. ‘What about you, Geoffrey?’

‘I tend to veer towards major reform rather than careful changes to the status quo,’ he replies thoughtfully. ‘I suppose my hope would be a greater presence of disabled people within the industry, whether that’s in development or the media. I think improvements in accessibility and representation will come from people who understand that perspective of gaming being in the sphere of gaming, where they can influence how games are developed.’

‘There are many ways you can make games easier without having an “Easy Mode”,’ he says. ‘There could be an option for greater tells and signs that show up to warn you of what’s about to happen. It’s like the new Demon’s Souls; I’m struggling so much because I just can’t see anything. If the weapons were highlighted as you were about to attack, combat would be a lot easier for me. That’s a little bit of telling that I think a lot of non-disabled people also work on.’

‘But companies aren’t going to think of stuff like this if people who experience it and come from a disabled perspective aren’t within their actual set up,’ Geoffrey claims. ‘So that’s my hope: that more disabled people can be represented in the industry.’ 

Where Geoffrey hopes that improved diversity and inclusion in the gaming industry would better accessibility, visibility, and representation in gaming, Kelly hopes that gamer culture showing more respect for disabled gamers would influence the industry to improve itself and thus gaming for disabled people. I find it interesting how Kelly and Geoffrey mostly agreed with each other when discussing the highs and lows of gaming in 2020, but slightly disagree when it comes to a strategy of improving gaming for disabled people in 2021.

Our poll found that the majority of our readers want to see progress in the representation of disabled people in games, whether through characters or themes in the narrative. One reader especially wanted to see fewer titles that fetishised blind people, as well as more games that have varied and comprehensive accessibility options.

Days after the interview, I’m still conflicted over Kelly and Geoffrey’s hopes for 2021. I pace around the house, I sip at a cup of coffee, I get lost in thought about it. Eventually, I stop and realise that I’d like both of their hopes to come true. I hope for a more progressive gaming industry and gamer culture in 2021. Moreover, I think this is integral for bettered accessibility, visibility, and representation in gaming over the years to come.

Unfortunately, as long as the gaming industry and gamer culture is dominated by young, white, non-disabled men and projects toxic attitudes towards not only disabled people but other minority groups, gaming will continue to promote prejudice and discrimination. In 2020, there has undoubtedly been successes for the disabled gamer community – such as The Last of Us Part II – but there have also been some big failures, especially the PS5 DualSense.

To be cynical: the more people who are able to play or are represented in a game, the more people who might buy it. There is no reason for companies not to pledge to a high standard of accessibility, visibility, and representation when conceptualising and producing their products, just as there is no reason for gamer culture not to be more accepting of and respectful towards disabled gamers. As we go further into 2021 and the future, I – like Kelly and Geoffrey – hope to see change.

About Author

Jordan (he/him) is an experienced writer and photographer with a passion for narrative-driven video games. His work predominantly surrounds themes of environment, violence, and masculinity. Since he was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia while at university, he has become committed to raising the visibility of disabilities and chronic illnesses in both fiction and the media.