Something that's seemed to dwell on my mind lately, returning from time to time, has been the subject of disability, disfigurement and disease in games, in particular the idea of losing a limb or some other seemingly integral part of one's body. From the TV shows that I watch, to the games that I play and read news stories about, to the disturbing fan fiction people post in community spaces, for some reason my mind keeps coming back to the subject.
It's not so much a morbid or gross fascination with the subject, rather that I keep being reminded by all these different sources of fiction just how important our sense of wholeness can be to being human, and indeed how integral to being human disability and it's relation to us as thinking, feeling but ultimately physical beings is.
I'm going to be a little broad here, I'm kind of focusing on losing a limb, but obviously disability covers a range of ailments, some short-term, some long-term, some physical, some mental. What ties them all together is a sense that they help shape who we are as people.
Understandably if your mental faculties deteriorate or you do lose a part of your body your capabilities do change, so you change as a person, and your entire life could hinge on that one moment ...or it might not. You could change completely or stay much the same dependent on how you react to the change to your life and indeed how the disability changes you - if not because of how it changes your outlook on life then perhaps because of the physical changes, how your needs change, the time out of work or school you take to adjust to a prosthetic and ofcourse any time you take out for physiotherapy.
Nothing about disability says it has to change you but that said there's a lot of potential for change there, considering how much about your life may change. People aren't defined by their disability, the disability is just a part of who they are, and there's so many other factors that contribute to who somebody is, from genetics, to life-style, to experiences, to their social interactions, etc. It all contributes. Yet despite this we never really seem to see disability, disfigurement, losing a limb, as aspects that can make their way into defining characters in games.
It strikes me as one of those areas where developers seem reluctant to tread, as if somehow having a lead who had at one point been disabled in some respect might put people off. Which seems silly really, we have had characters with various degrees of disability or long-term illness – Big Boss from the Metal Gear franchise only has one eye, the lead character in Far Cry 2 suffers from Malaria, Joker in Mass Effect has Vrolik Syndrome, Huey from Peace Walker is in a wheelchair (as is The End in MGS3 at one point), so it's not like developers aren't aware of disability or illness, it just never seems to figure into creating good leads.
Like with issues of gender, ethnicity and belief, it just seems like a no-go area in terms of what can define a character, which seems wrong to me. Too much of what defines our fictional leads seems to be a desire to create heroic fantasies and unbelievable ideals rather than creating well-filled out characters with both a fantastical, unrealistic, list of accomplishments to their name and perhaps character flaws and physical and mental scars from the struggles they've endured.
So we tend to get these attractive male leads, who are handsome bullet sponges, capable of killing hundreds of men without batting an eyelid (or without the gel in their hair losing any of its hold), yet are mostly just one or two dimensional at best. When really what we should be aiming for is characters much more defined by their profession and their role in the game world; and their mentality – and their look, should in part be defined by that.
Now obviously this depends a lot on the nature of game – I'm not arguing Mario's hips should give out anytime soon from all that jumping so he ends up in a wheelchair or that Princess Peach needs an eye gouged out to show how dangerous getting kidnapped all the time is - that's just... no, just no. Rather, that because so much of gaming revolves around high-risk situations and events – fighting in alien warzones, planetary conflicts, risky police work, trudging through post-apocalyptic wastelands, etc, that I think the characters from those 'worlds' should reflect the sorts of physical and mental hardships they would in reality encounter, even if at the end of the day it's only fiction. If only because it makes them more human characters.
Characters in general benefit from having depth of experience – good heroes (or heroines) aren't bullet-proof, or atleast don't seem bullet proof even if they mostly are; not only do we need those characters to show largely realistic emotional reactions (fear, hate, anger, relief, etc) to events but also largely realistic physical ones, else they just seem like robots. And I think the way we treat disability is a big part of that; acknowledging that not only are some people born with disability but others gain handicaps through the lives they lead or the occupational hazards they face.
I realise there's probably an element of fear in why we don't see more disability in games, developers get harangued over pretty much everything, and when you're making a AAA game you're looking for safe margins and as little risk-taking as possible so you stick to the stories that have been done before for the most part, because it's safe and easy. It's easier to just stick to the attractive white male lead because you know the majority of your audience (seems) ok with that.
I certainly don't mean to single games out as the only kind of fiction that comes up short in terms of diversity of cast characteristics; I think popular TV, movies and even books suffer from the same reluctance to take a chance on having different kinds of leads, I just think in particular in regards to disability and literal physical hardship considering the type of material games tend to cover it makes more sense that disability would be an important topic.
Let's be honest: a lot of games are very violent - we have games where you dismember, games where you smash and crush, games where you can dig a guy's head and spinal column out of his back and take it as a trophy, and a lot of modern games focus on fighting wars of one kind or another. Modern videogames are terribly, terribly violent, and I say this as somebody who likes that excessive side of gaming, I grew up playing Doom and Mortal Kombat from a very young age, and I'd be sad to see that aspect of gaming die out. It's not really about saying those types of games are bad so much as that I don't see why the extreme types of fantasy violence we see onscreen don't inevitably lead to discussion about what happens when you do these horrible things to real people's bodies, even if we're only doing them to fictional people's bodies.
Perhaps it's because of the environment games (and gamers) have grown up in, where games have been berated by almost everybody in society at some point as 'evil', and because of that we've sort of closed ranks and not asked too much in terms of challenging topics in games in order to avoid criticism, and aware of this developers have tended to towards 'safer' character types rather than pushing for characters that challenge our views and encourage more debate over the sorts of experiences we play.
And that's not to say that the point of games is ever to cause debate necessarily, games are entertainment at the end of the day and don't really need to do anything other than entertain us, but all the same we do want challenging games even if games don't have to be challenging. Look at the success of games like Deus Ex or Bioshock, sure part of what made them successful was how they stood out from the crowd in terms of look and gameplay, compared to everything else released at the time, but I'm also sure a big part of their success was that they brought up interesting new ideas and challenged the established notion of what a game does.
Going back to the thing about experiences and the kinds of worlds videogame characters find themselves in, if popular mainstream games centred mostly around political intrigue and say detective stories, then I think my point would probably be pretty mute - sure there'd still be an argument for including disability because obviously disabled people are part of real life, but you couldn't really argue for what I'm arguing for, which is more akin to realistic depiction of environmental hazards, and the hazards of the occupations that developers choose for their characters. If you spend your days in a futuristic representation of trench warfare it's believable to presume you might pick up some sort of foot rot, could potentially lose a limb, hand or other extremity, or possibly have suffered from some disease at some point; likewise if you've spent your life being a detective in almost-lawless districts of a city it's believable you might have mental or physical scars from that. And that sort of thing is primarily what I'm arguing for.
I think there's also an argument for showing the results of violence aswell, while I don't think games necessarily have to show us worlds that are realistic I think if they do depict real-world type situations then I do think it's atleast a courtesy to depict those situations realistically – like with the war thing again, obviously people will die but how many lose a limb, or suffer brain damage, or gain some other long-term injury? What's the real cost in people? When do we ever see these sorts of things in war-games?
It wouldn't necessarily have to involve adding whole sections to a game either, just that if the situation arises a nod in the direction of realism would be nice – say if you're playing a war-game you overhear a character complaining of dysentery or some other ailment, or if your character passes through a hospital they witness individuals being fitted for prosthetics – that sort of thing.
I'm not just talking about the main characters but those in the background aswell, even if the supernumeraries are just that, atleast pretend like the game considers them people, people who suffer, people who endure hardship and people who struggle, and are in part defined by all of that.
Personally I think a lot of games would be a lot more engaging if they spent more time creating worlds that are believable in-part because the people within them seem like real people with real worries – from the god-like central cast right down to the disposable stooges who inevitably get cut down when the guns start firing.