Disabled Protagonists: Where Are You?

The lack of disabled video game characters is troubling, this needs to change.

The lack of disabled video game characters is troubling, this needs to change.
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I would like to start this article by asking a very simple question: How many disabled video game characters can you name? I posed this same question on my podcast, and the results were not amazing. Our answers being Lester from GTA: V and Oracle from the Arkham series. A listener also later suggested Bentley from the Sly Cooper series. So despite all the video game characters in the world, we could only come up with three answers? (Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments)

Interestingly enough those three characters share a couple of telling similarities. Firstly they are all wheelchair bound, and second they all act as support characters to the main protagonist (s). The first similarity is somewhat understandable, say ‘disability/disabled’ and most people, able-bodied or not will likely be thinking of wheelchairs. What is more interesting is the second point, they are all support characters. So not only do disabled video game characters seem few and far between, they never take center stage.

We must consider the more practical reasons. Nowadays AAA studios use techniques like motion capture and facial tracking; however, this technology has probably never been applied to a disabled person/character. Simply put, no-one has much experience in this specific field. Secondly, disability remains a topic that we must all continue to be respectful of, thus developers would take great care in deciding what direction to take their games. You would want the character’s disability to have an impact in the game but not be what defines the character outright. You have to be realistic, as a wheelchair user myself I have come to terms with the fact that we probably won’t see a big AAA action-adventure game featuring a disabled protagonist. This is simply because you couldn’t have a disabled character performing a Nathan Drake-esque leap from a building.

However, this is where I think indie developers can save the day. Their games will often go to areas that AAA studios would not touch with a barge pole for fear of controversy. Furthermore indie games often center on just a few basic mechanics. An idea that came to me was a horror game with a deaf or blind protagonist meaning the player must rely on solely audio or visual cues to spot enemies. An idea such as that doesn’t scream ‘Look, look disabled video game character’ it just says interesting gameplay mechanic. Now some of you might be saying, ‘Surely that’s quite disrespectful, you are fundamentally ignoring the characters disability and equating it to a gameplay mechanic. As people can feel rather strongly on these topics, I will merely give you my perspective and leave you free to form your own opinion. Both in real life and this hypothetical video game I don’t like having too much attention drawn to the fact someone has a disability. Why? By pointing it out it only serves to illustrate the differences between people and takes people further away from acceptance on par with able-bodied people.

If that felt a bit too deep, allow me to clarify by linking it back to games and gaming culture. Despite the fact it is 2016, any games company draws immense attention if they include a female protagonist. Horizon: Zero Dawn at E3 2015/6 comes to mind. But the articles that you will see in response do not often discuss the merits of that protagonist; they focus on the fact she is a woman. Thus to link back to disability, instead of focusing on the character being in a wheelchair or whatever their condition is, just think what that will mean for the game itself. Like it or not the way the games industry and culture responds to female protagonists suggests it probably is not ready for a disabled one.

This might come across as somewhat pessimistic. So I want to end by pointing out one of the best portrayals of a disabled character that I have seen in a video game for years. Life is Strange is an outstanding game that deals with a plethora of major issues in a very mature fashion. One of these being disability. At one point in the game a character ends up in a wheelchair (I won’t say who so as not to ruin it). I was struck by the dialogue with this character and how it seemed to so accurately capture the larger struggles of living with a disability, such as how other people perceive you. I will not be the first or last people to say this, but play Life is Strange it is incredible.

I will finish up to giving any game developers, big or small some important advice when approaching disability in gaming. An able-bodied person trying to think like a disabled person never works, if you want to know about any aspect of their life, just ask a disabled person.    

About the author

Nick Jenkins

Amateur games writer and host of the Gamers Without Borders podcast