What about disabled gamers?

I had a fascinating conversation with someone the other day about disabled gamers. Many disabled people play games of all sorts and there’s a very lively disability community in the world of video games in particular, for a variety of reasons: They’re fun; they can create community; they offer a chance to do things in imaginary spaces; for those who have limiting impairments that make it tough to get around they make it possible to join in a shared experience; and they give people a world in which they can play around with culture and identity. I’m not personally a gamer, because I have terrible hand-eye coordination and I’m not particularly good at solving the kinds of puzzles and situations that present themselves in games, but I still appreciate gaming.

I find video games visually compelling, with absolutely stunning aesthetics, especially in recent years, when developers have sunk tremendous resources into making beautiful games. I like watching people play even if I don’t like playing myself, and I love hearing about the compelling, complicated storylines that run through games; I love first person shooters and puzzle games and so much more. Just because I can’t play them doesn’t mean I don’t have a fondness for them and all they represent.

Gaming is one area in which adaptive tech is really progressing. Lots of people are developing controls for people with various physical impairments so they can get in on the action, while tools like descriptive soundtracks and subtitling are available for blind/low vision gamers as well as those with hearing impairments and Deaf gamers. Some of these resources are coming from developers themselves, representing a really great indicator that the tech industry is seriously thinking about its audience, and others are organically arising from disabled gamers who want to be able to play, and want to be able to share experiences with people who share their interests.

One thing, though, really interests me, and that’s avatars. Gaming has long had a really conflicted relationship with avatars, and it’s one I’ve followed with much interest as part of a greater and more complicated culture surrounding representations. In gaming as elsewhere, the standard, default body tends to be white, male, and built — and there are endless variations on that theme, allowing for seemingly endless customisation when you’re establishing a character. The handful of women that seem to crop up also tend to fall out along a familiar theme. They’re also white, with suspiciously large breasts and curvy hips, as well as clothes that look better designed for a day on the beach than for serious adventuring, though more power to those who enjoy stomping through abandoned, zombie-infested buildings in bikinis.

The lack of female avatars, and their relatively narrow representation, is a subject of frequent criticism, as well it should be. Responses like ‘women are difficult to render’ are ludicrous, especially given the loving attention to detail in every other aspect of games. If you can painstakingly develop the perfect depiction of lapping waves, wind rustling through trees, enemy forces creeping up behind you…you can design a variety of female body types and you can allow people to clothe them with something other than strategically-placed handkerchiefs.

You can also, on both counts, allow people to create avatars of a variety of racial backgrounds. Whiteness shouldn’t be the default, and there’s no reason to limit expression to white characters — people should be able to see themselves reflected in the people they play, and that means Asian characters, Black characters, Latino characters, and more. It is again not terribly difficult to make changes to the range of avatars available to create a gaming environment that’s more welcoming, whether individual gamers choose to take advantage of them or not.

But there’s something I don’t see discussed as much that I really would like to see brought to the fore: Disabled avatars. Disabled people play games. They might want to see themselves on the screen. Moreover, disability represents some really interesting potential when it comes to representations and playing around with game mechanics, and developers should view that as an interesting challenge rather than something to ignore. How does a hearing impaired character deal with an environment where she needs to be able to track auditory input like people approaching her from behind? How does someone with visual impairments function when he loses his glasses? How does someone who uses a cane navigate rough terrain? These are all really fascinating questions, and I would love to see them explored more.

Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves in their games. I’m not a gamer, so I can’t speak to the immediate experience of choosing and kitting out an avatar, but I can speak to the experience of being a pop culture consumer who often feels marginalised and ignored. The complete erasure of disability from many gaming environments feels very deliberate and calculated, yet another reminder that people would prefer that disabled people hide at home and not interact — and the decision to create worlds where disabled people don’t exist is telling evidence of disturbing social attitudes.

Diversity in gaming is important, and it needs to incorporate disabled people into the conversation, because disabled gamers are everywhere, and they deserve to have a say in their representations as well. Even for those without a direct stake in the conversation, it’s important: Because I want to see a culture in which my people are everywhere, rather than being shunted to back rooms and corridors.

Image: Dead Space, librianish, Flickr