Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Doll Like Me: Disabilities in Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the nature of disability in video games.

After seeing this emotional video of a young girl receiving an American Girl doll with a prosthetic leg, I can see that character representations in games and toys do matter.  "A doll like me," the girl says, overcome with tears of joy.  It's only natural that a girl with a prosthetic leg would want a doll with a prosthetic leg.  Those with disabilities want their favorite toys to reflect their own lives.

Though this particular doll was modified pro bono by a different company, American Girl is no stranger to petitions to include the disabled.  In 2012, American Girl released a line of accessories such as wheelchairs, seeing eye dogs, walking canes, and crutches.

When I've had occasion to play with children online in games with character creation tools, I've found that they like to make characters that look like them.  They adjust skin tone as much as eye and hair color.  They want female characters to be in the game world as much as male characters.  I have never seen disabled characters as an option.  Granted, it might not fit in with the narrative fiction, but most games have fantasy elements (I'm counting even power fantasies), so why not an avatar in a wheelchair?

I know that there have been games made especially for the blind or for those with learning disabilities.  There have been games that try to make us feel like a schizophrenic or a depressed person.  A lot of developers are recognizing the need for accessibility options, whether it's a different color scheme for the colorblind or a way to customize keys.  These options concern disabled players, but what about disabled characters in games?

Among disabled game characters, there's been amputees who gained a high tech appendage or characters who viewed their disabilities as something to overcome.  I think I would prefer it if the stories didn't focus too much on their disabilities.  Perhaps the disability is even an advantage, much like in the movies Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Those characters do have a back story about their disabilities, but they don't dwell on it.  Although their disabilities are obvious, they have accepted the way they are and the way life is for them.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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