Chris: …disability diversity panel looking into video games and disabilities they may portray; they may not portray. That’s what we’re all going to discuss today which will be exciting. I’m Chris Goodyear, I’m the founder of Many Cats which is a games studio which is helping people with disabilities to get into games and make games. I’m going to pass it down the line for everyone to introduce themselves and a little bit about their background. So, take it away Katie.
Katie: I’m Katie Goode, creative director of a VR games studio based in Cornwall. I’m a disabled developer and have learning disabilities, but have still managed to be in the games industry for quite some time. I’m doing pretty well.
Lily: I’m Lily Boulle. I’ve previously worked at Square Enix and Habbo, launching some fun games like Final Fantasy XV. I now do marketing consultancy and I run my own business online.
SK: I am Sightless Kombat, I’m an accessibility consultant. I am a gamer with absolutely no sight whatsoever. And amongst other things I am a YouTuber/streamer but I also head up the Transcribing Games project, which we may end up discussing eventually.
Sara: Hi, I’m Sara Khan. I’m co-founder of Game Assist. Co-founder makes it sound more established and more fancy than it is … but basically it’s kind of a start-up where me and my friend here, who will introduce himself in a moment, talk about issues of accessibility and representation in games. And I’m disabled in the sense that I suffer from various mental health issues and I’m very interested in, like, the intersectionality there … being a queer, disabled woman of colour myself.
Errol: And last, but potentially least. I’m Errol Kerr, I’m the other half of Game Assist. I’m autistic, I have a couple of mental health difficulties and have EDS, which means my joints and all my connective tissue is rubbish … which means I have a lot of pain when doing normal things. Everything from walking to playing video games. I definitely head up the more physical and, like, learning and cognitive disability side of Game Assist. So yeah, that’s me.
Chris: Great. As you can see, we’ve got a great cross-section of people from different backgrounds and with different disabilities, mental health issues. So, this will be an exciting talk. I’m going to just kick it off with quite a hard question first that is about examples of good representation that they’ve found in video games.
Chris: Who would like to start? (Laughing).
SK: Where is it … where is it?
Sara: I mean, I can definitely start on a positive note (laughing). So, because I just came from the developer session with the developers of Life is Strange … great example of representations of mental health in particular. I saw a checkpoint video that posited once that Chloe Price has borderline personality disorder. And that really clicked into place for me. I have BPD … and ever since I started playing Life is Strange 1, I just saw myself in this character in a way that I never had before … and didn’t fully understand why. So, when I heard the theory that she had BPD I was like … oh (laughing). Oh crap, that’s me. And then of course the game is a great example of anxiety as a game mechanic. Like, a lot of people kind of think that Max Caulfield is just an ‘awkward teen’ and I mean, yeah, she is. But I definitely see, like, a representation of generalised or social anxiety in her. And the rewind mechanic is what all of us wish we could do (laughing). So … and the game just does a really good job of being, like, no matter how much you overthink a situation, even if you have the power to rewind, you just have to live with the consequences of your actions. I don’t feel as equipped to talk about whether or not the representation of physical disability is as good in that game. I think it’s kind of problematic. But we’ll leave that for later (laughing). And I could go on for ages about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but maybe I should let someone else.
Errol: I’ll handle Hellblade later, if you guys want to …
Chris: Have you got anything to add, Lily?
Chris: No (laughing).
SK: I think the only … I wouldn’t even call it a good example … I’d call it a reasonable example that I can think of is probably Kenshi from Mortal Kombat. Because he’s essentially the only blind character who has kind of a … how can I put it? He’s not necessarily hemmed in by his blindness. It’s just a thing that he is. You know, he’s a blind guy with a sword. It’s like, okay that’s cool. But the sword kind of seems to be the thing that does most of the work. Because it’s like oh, the sword’s telepathic and it’s got, like, his ancestors in or something? Yeah …I mean it’s Mortal Kombat, what do you expect? But it’s (laughing) … you know, when you’ve got dudes throwing fireballs around and being like, I’m from Hell but I’m a ghost dude who, yeah. I don’t know. But that’s Mortal Kombat. But you know, with Kenshi it’s a matter of he just happens to be blind, he just happens to have lost his sight and got this sword that helped him. So, it’s a kind of problematic representation but it’s probably the most positive one that I’m aware of really, I’d say.
Katie: I think along with … in a similar strain of … I mean there’s positive slash strong role models … where there seems to be a lot of augmentation.
Chris: Yeah, with prosthetics and that.
Katie: I feel like, so you know, you have got characters such as (inaudible 0:06:11) and he’s lost his arm or something and it’s like, yeah …
Errol: Yeah, they’re kind of counteractive.
Lily: … Deus Ex.
Katie: Yeah and Deus Ex. But at the same time, like, it’s that augmentation … I don’t know because I haven’t got a physical disability. But is that problematic, like, in itself? Because …
Errol: I’m going to have the prosthetics rant later. I’m sorry, this is going to happen.
Errol: A couple of positives … or I guess like, half-decent representation is going to come from certain BioWare games. Yes, I’m going to praise Bioware. I know that they’re currently in the hotseat right now. But Joker from Mass Effect is one of the few characters where I’ve sat there … and obviously he’s, like, a fantastic pilot … but walking around and just existing is incredibly painful for him. You have that moment as Shepard where you’re conversing with Joker, and he actually does mention, you know, the struggles that everyone else pushed on me to get me to this point. The amount I had to fight … not only my own body, but everyone else saying I can’t do this. And now look at me; I am one of the best Alliance pilots in the galaxy. Deal with it. And also, if we’re going on Anthem, one of the first characters you interact with is Haluk, who … he walks down using a cane, has a quick chat with you and then hops in a Javelin and goes and beats the ever-living life out of some bad guys. And it was that moment where it’s like … as much as Anthem has its difficulties I stood there and I was like, that could have been me jumping into that ginormous battlesuit and kicking some ass. And I just quite appreciated that. As much as Anthem is not a game I’ve played since, like … it came out and I played it for, like, three days.
SK: Did it break your console though? That’s the question. Did it actually cause issues with your hardware – is that why you didn’t play it?
Errol: And that.
Chris: Yeah, obviously you’ve all sort of touched on the point of yeah, we can see some disabilities in games but then it becomes quickly problematic. So, my sort of question would be is it better to have something rather than nothing? Or is it better to have a disability and sort of leave it alone rather than cure it and sort of get past it through robotics etc, make it superhuman?
Katie: I think we’ve got to make mistakes. People have to have the space to make mistakes. So personally, I think it’s better to have it in some form but I don’t think it’s that difficult to find and consult with people with disabilities.
SK: No I agree, yeah.
Katie: We make up almost 20% of the British population and it’s just not acceptable to say we couldn’t find anyone. And I think a lot of the examples that we’ve talked about – where it’s been bad – it’s where someone’s had a nice idea and they kind of follow through that’s where they’ve fallen down. I think when we talk about, you know, potentially not so great examples – that’s the kind of theme. That like, the intention is there but maybe, actually the follow-through hasn’t (laughing) quite made it.
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
SK: Well I think there’s a really good example of that in two cases with … particularly relating to being a person without sight, in the sense that you’ve got games like Perception and Beyond Eyes. Now both of those games are problematic in the sense that though they have blind protagonists, they both utilise visuals – yes – to convey a complete lack of visuals. Which, if you think about it, makes absolutely no sense. And the worst part is even if the developers tried to put accessibility stuff in, it for whatever reason didn’t make it into the final product, if it was there at all. So, the two games that I can actually think of off the top of my head, where there are blind protagonists, I can’t even play. Which is frustrating, to say the least. And an interesting talking point, you know, if nothing else (laughing).
Sara: I think that the question of positive versus negative representation is kind of interesting in itself when it comes to disability … because I think that the representation that we see is at two, like, completely different extremes. Either it’s the ‘inspirational’ disabled character who overcame their disability and is this superhero … yeah all of that rubbish. And then on the completely other end of the spectrum, there’s the disabled character who is so kind of, like, incapacitated and unable to kind of live … that in fact, that’s it. They don’t want to live because life is so horrible and there’s no way that they could kind of go on.
SK: There’s also the offshoot of that where there’s disabled enemies as well. So like, the Berserker in Gears of War. When you fight those, they are – if you don’t know what Berserkers are – they are basically massive and they’re blind. And if you move and they hear you, you are basically screwed. Yeah, not pleasant (laughing). But the point being, you know, there’s enemies and things where they use that as … like, kind of the main mechanic of it. Which is frustrating but it’s an interesting idea. I like where that idea’s going, but the fact that it’s, you know, it’s not represented anywhere else as a strength maybe in say, the Gears universe for example. Even if technology kind of works with it as well. So, what we’re saying is half the battle is representation but the other half is making the games playable as well so … it’s interesting to work with both sides of that.
Errol: Disability as reinforcing a villain is something I’ve definitely complained about before. With, for example, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus – both villains are facially disfigured. It seems it’s not enough they’re literal Nazis …
Errol: Like, in a game that has you running around shooting Nazis in the face, you have to pick those two faces that are quite noticeably facially disfigured as your two most prominent antagonists? And I’m stood there like, can it not just …
SK: That seems flawed, yeah.
Errol: It is, most definitely. And I suppose also jumping onto … (whispering) (inaudible 0:12:51) person sat right next to me … Deus Ex with Harrow. Where obviously as – spoilers – as one of the developers/creators of augmentations, the entire reason he ends up being a secondary villain, a secondary antagonist, is he is disabled/chronically ill and is unable to augment himself due to his genetics. And so, he’s angry and is sad about that … and therefore all augmented people have to have, like, he debugs them etc. And it’s like disability as a reason for villainy as well is one of those things that I’ve always been quite upset about.
Katie: You’ve touched a bit on it there as like, the story behind people. Like, the amount of characters that have lost some appendage because they were fighting to defend their wife and their wife died or their kid died, and then they just lost a limb. Or they’ve been to war … like, it’s almost just used as a cliché. Just so cliché, just an easy excuse of … just imagine if you lost a limb because someone chopped it off, you’d be angry about that wouldn’t you?
Sara: Yeah and none of this is to say that being disabled isn’t hard, that you’re not angry about it, that you’re not sad about it sometimes … and that you can’t be, like, an incredible person who has incredible skills while being disabled. But none of these depictions are even a little bit nuanced (laughing). Like, we’re either superheroes or complete supervillains and it’s a bit like (laughing) we just want characters who are human. We just want people who are actually like us.
Lily: And their disability is not the entirety of their storyline (laughing). Can we not just have a character where, you know, that’s a side note? We all have rich and full lives beyond being disabled, you know, and so do all other people with disabilities. So, it’s just lazy writing and I think it’s kind of got to come to an end.
Katie: I feel like TV is actually doing a better job. Which is actually quite interesting because normally TV and film are, like, behind games. But in this case, you’re getting disabled presenters on BBC Click and they’re just part of the line-up. They’re completely normal people; it turns out we’re completely normal. You’ve also got … what was his name … Ryan in Doctor Who.
SK: Well that, and there’s the … I can’t remember her name now … Hannah, in the Doctor Who episode as well. They had a totally blind actress play her as well, and they do sort of briefly mention it, they use it. I mean sometimes the writing, in my view, is a little flat and one-dimensional. But overall it was a decent portrayal. So, it’s not just sort of other disabilities … they are actually representing, they’re starting to represent a complete lack of sight. But there’s also the debate of whether … getting disabled people to play disabled characters and all of that.
Chris: Well, I’ll just use that to sort of segue into the second part of the panel; discussing these other bad examples of what we see in that. And I always raise the point of games like, say, Spiderman or Grand Theft Auto. Think of the busy city streets and pedestrians, just background characters, and how many of them you actually spot are disabled? How many of them are using a walking aid or something like that, and they’re just non-existent, you know? They scream that they’re getting better at the diversity and that, but yeah … that’s one part of it done but the rest of it still to go (laughing).
Katie: Well, like, part of that is because … so, as games developers, we … well okay, I should say as people paying for the development of games … assigning basically a budget for animation. Like, if we get one female walk done and one male walk done, and you can put them across the entirety of the game – that’s efficient. If you suddenly have to create a new rig because someone isn’t necessarily bipedal, like they’re in a wheelchair, or have someone who walks differently … that is extra cost and to be honest, nobody really thinks about it. And in cases like GTA actually … I mean, it also brings on extra problems when you get horrible people, like suddenly hunting out the trans people in GTA and making their explicit case of actually killing those people. It does add to –
Chris: Yeah. Well, that’s the argument then – why should we bubble wrap ourselves? You know, we’re just like everybody else so we’re going to have to be treated like everybody else (laughing).
SK: It raises all sorts of questions.
Errol: I did want to comment on as you mentioned GTA, they’re having to set up an entire new rig. But then certain games have those elements in, only use it as a one-off or something thing. Errol goes on his The Token Disabled Level Rant.
Errol: So, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. You spend that first mission as a … Blazkowicz is using a wheelchair. You can only use one firearm because you have … it’s actually pretty decent when it comes to actually the mechanics of it. Like, I stress-tested it by trying to go up every single set of stairs I could.
SK: (Laughing). Why not? Yeah, I mean …
Errol: And you can’t. They’ve really … like, I’m impressed. I was like – oh, no. Okay – no – alright. But it’s a one-off and then all of a sudden, you’re in a superpower battlesuit. The search – that first moment where you have that – you look up, you look down, it shows you the camera movement – and then it gives you the option to move. And then because the camera hasn’t moved, all you’ve seen is the back of a character’s head. And then you turn and you’re a wheelchair user. In that first moment I was like, oh that’s … I did not expect that. Nice reveal … and then you’re in a superpower battlesuit for the rest of the game. And it’s like –
SK: It seems like a running theme here, doesn’t it?
Errol: Hmm, I wonder.
SK: I wonder what that is (laughing).
Errol: But it’s that kind of … in for example Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, where you wake up after your long period in a coma and you have a relatively basic prosthetic, like, claw limb. It’s pretty accurate for the time it’s set in. And you basically have to crawl your way halfway through a good section of the game … and obviously you regain the movement in your limbs, but you’ve still got a claw limb. Within, like, what? 30 minutes, once you get out, you’ve got a superpowered rocket-powered bloody prosthetic gauntlet. You become, like … a part of you is now a superpowered battlesuit able to do whatever it wants. Whether it’s distract people or turn it into a, I don’t know. And it’s that idea that even though a character is disabled, they don’t stay that way.
SK: Yeah, I mean it’s kind of the idea that you’d want a character that stays disabled for a whole game kind of thing. Is that what you’re …
Errol: Oh no, definitely.
SK: In the sense of … I don’t know how Perception or Beyond Eyes play out in terms of what happens through the rest of the game. But you know, if those characters … if the accessibility was there for me to be able to play it, like with all these other games that I’ve not played … you know, Mass Effect, Deus Ex … but that’s a whole other discussion in terms of accessibility. But were I able to play these games, then I’d be able to comment on that. The fact that if I could play a game where a character stays disabled for the entire time and I could relate to that – that would be really interesting to have as a talking point.
Sara: Yeah and I know that Errol mentioned earlier that we’ve been saving the prosthetics rant, so here we go (laughing). So, I don’t have a prosthetic limb myself, but my brother does. And I helped him kind of through his post-op and see a lot of that kind of … what it is like every day to kind of live as a person who needs a prosthetic limb. First off, you don’t always have it on (laughing). I know that games have, like, an obsession with prosthetics and they always seem to be set in some future where we have prosthetics that are kind of built into the rest of your body. Which, like, isn’t a place that we are at the moment … so in contemporary settings it’s just not realistic. Which means that every day you have to put your prosthetic on when you need it, take it off when you don’t need it. And a lot of the time … I’m not sure about arms, but my brother’s is a leg and if he walks on that for too long … because it’s something that he pops on, it chafes his skin and it hurts. So that’s why he takes it off, sometimes it’s … yeah. I mean, NHS prosthetics aren’t great (laughing). And yeah, sometimes it’s literally he’s more mobile when he’s on his crutches. So, these kind of everyday little things like living as a disabled person managing your pain, you know, taking your meds, taking your prosthetic on and off … these are the kinds of things that we just never see in the media. And it doesn’t take a lot of effort to put these details in, but it makes a world of difference.
SK: I think that just comes back to consultancy again, doesn’t it really? If you consult with a person that’s got the particular disability that you want to work with in terms of a character … or you know, even just in details generally … then you’ll get those extra small … not quite quality of life things but things that will make that much of a difference if you’re looking at the representation of a particular type of disability or character, or whatever it turns out to be.
Errol: I suppose as well – if I quickly jump onto the disability superpower rant – which I’m going to start with prosthetics. Those … even for example Wolf in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which the accessibility discussion around that is not something we’re getting onto.
SK: The easy mode.
Errol: Yeah – the easy mode talk. Which we’re not here for right now.
SK: No (laughing).
Errol: His Shinobi prosthetic has, like, 80 bajillion different things in it. And it’s set in – obviously an alternate – but also, like, 16th century feudal Japan? And his arm is like … have you ever seen Treasure Planet where he’s got 80 different things in his prosthetic arm?
SK: Actually I think I have, yeah … yeah …
Errol: Well done – you did the blind joke. Nice, cool.
Errol: But that idea that, like, a prosthetic doesn’t just enable you to have regular functional control anymore. You’ve got about 80 different things all of a sudden. Adam Jensen is a fantastic example of going from regular human to now he’s got swords in his arms. Cool, right.
SK: Because that makes sense.
Errol: That fits, cool. But the idea that the compensation for becoming disabled or being disabled gives you these exceptional powers is something … I’ve always felt very uncomfortable about. And why I keep going back to Joker in Mass Effect – particularly in Mass Effect 2 where you get to play as him for that little moment – and that awkward walking. That awkward, uncomfortable, clearly in pain walking … that as I was playing it, I was like I do exactly the same thing when I’ve not got my walking cane. I’m that same wobbly, awkward, scared I’m going to trip person. And I appreciate that far more than giving me some form of, like, hyper-advanced mobility aid that all of a sudden gives me ridiculous superpowers.
SK: I mean, it’s the old Daredevil debate, isn’t it? When … given I’ve got no sight, people are just like, “Oh do your senses get heightened because you’ve got no sight?” And I’m like, well I don’t know. It’s just normal for me. I can just … my reactions might be better than yours, my hearing might be better than yours but that’s because I’ve sat playing video games for ages, probably. You know, it’s not necessarily because I just happen to have better hearing. I think there’s probably scientific stuff that says oh, if you lose one sense, the other ones increase in strength or whatever. But you know, regardless of that, there’s that whole thing of … it shouldn’t really be a discussion that needs to be had.
Errol: But that shouldn’t be something that games rely on as a mechanic.
Errol: Like, okay … whilst quickly quipping that I’ve never played an autistic character in a game, they’re always secondary characters … or they’re always there, rather than playable, which is very unfortunate. They’re always … it’s always that Hollywood autism. That socially incapable but somehow a tech whizz or somehow has some kind of like … as I said, compensator for it. That all of a sudden, they might be socially incapable or they might struggle a lot with certain elements, but they have something to balance that out. I wish I did, I’m not going to lie (laughing).
Katie: It’s almost as a justification for them being written in.
Katie: That’s what it feels like. That you can’t be a disabled character in a game unless you also have this thing that makes you useful.
Sara: Yeah. I think that that’s a great segue into my rant about Senua’s Sacrifice. So, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – incredible game. If you haven’t played it, please play it. In Hellblade you play as a character who has psychosis, and this is woven into the game mechanics. So you hear, like, whispered voices; the game design is done in such a way that you can’t tell the difference between your delusion or your hallucinations and reality … and it’s woven so seamlessly into the game. But at the same time, it doesn’t make Senua completely useless. She’s disabled, she struggles, you see her in pain, and to some extent you experience what it might be like to have psychosis … like, I don’t know because I don’t. But she’s still this person with incredible strength. If anything, having her psychosis as a game mechanic demonstrates that. You get a taste of what it is like to be her and to live with her disability every single day. How hard it is to just get from Point A to Point B. But that’s what makes her strong, and that’s what we love about her. She can do what everyone else does and she’s just a normal person, but you get this insight into how much strength that takes. She’s not, like, a superhero, she’s not a supervillain – she’s just a person. And living is a struggle … but it’s human if that makes any sense. So, that’s a great example and pretty much the only one I can think of that’s as well done as it is that relates to a mental health condition. You could easily, in my opinion, see something … well I suppose that I’m not the authority on this because I don’t have a physical disability. But I’d be interested to see how people think that certain disabilities could kind of be game mechanics or certain symptoms could be used as game mechanics in that kind of way. Because I think that actually kind of gives games – as a medium – potential that no other artistic medium has to get you to empathise with disabled people. There’s so much potential here that just isn’t being used. So, that’s kind of like a question for you guys.
Lily: We kind of – my boyfriend and I kind of have a running joke. When we play games, I pick everything up. I’m a real packrat and I’m always carrying everything, but it’s helpful sometimes. And that’s the only time really that I feel like games kind of simulate what it’s like to be disabled, because you’re slowed down by how much you’re carrying.
Lily: So you can’t run, you know. You’re stuck, just slowly (laughing) …
SK: It’s like you’re over encumbered by things.
Errol: Oh God, I can’t fast travel. Where’s my horse? Where’s … oh no my horse is dead.
Katie: Yeah. In Fallout of course, you lose a limb. Like, you slow down when you lose a limb. Apparently, it just slows you down slightly. Just unpack and you’re fine.
Lily: Exactly, just shift some things. But that’s the only example that I’ve, you know, kind of come across. I did see a game – if anyone went to the V&A Video Games Expo, which was great, they had a game demo there. Which was basically an old lady who walks from here kind of to the end of a little garden … and it takes about 30 minutes.
SK: Oh wow (laughing).
Lily: And you’re literally just holding the controller down and she’s just going really slowly. But the developers wanted to kind of simulate what it’s like to be an old person. That’s another whole debate – along with disability – that you’re never going to see an ad for a young person using a walking stick. It’s always going to be someone really really old, or someone using a sock aid or things like that.
SK: Just like stereotyping in a sense, but yeah …
Lily: Yeah. It’s a whole different side of the debate, but yeah.
SK: I was going to say – there’s an interesting point as well about the idea of disability symptoms, for lack of a better turn of phrase, being used as game mechanics. There’s an interesting quandary as well that I’ve just figured out, that I’ve just figured that exists. In the sense of if you try and represent a complete lack of sight as a game mechanic – a) the only way you can really do that is by completely darkening the screen, and then b) what is everybody else going to think when their screen goes completely dark, and if they either can’t hear the game or have issues with that … it’s a question of how do you make that work in terms of accessibility? But you can – there are ways round it, you know, through the use of subtitles and everything just to make it clear to the player or the end user. But I think it’s an interesting debate of if you try and represent one thing … it’s like if I tried to play a game that worked with the idea of not being able to hear anything, I would probably struggle. But there would likely be a way to work round the issue with enough consultancy with different sets of people.
Errol: Well, that’s the thing. It’s like, I’ve consulted on a film recently where they’re trying to show certain elements of being autistic. And at one point they display sensory overload, which is obviously when your sensory experiences are too much and everything just either shuts down and goes haywire … it varies depending. And I watched this section, and I’ll be honest – I experienced this –
Errol: No, no – I experienced this section because it’s audio as well. And I said, “That was a fantastic depiction of sensory overload … but now I’ve got sensory overload”.
Errol: I couldn’t … I mean I sat through it and then was like, yeah autistic people couldn’t watch that or experience that … because it’s literally too much. You need to find that balance between …
SK: Realism and portrayal.
Errol: Yeah. Between being able to portray it, and then for people to experience it.
Sara: I think that kind of raises the question of who games are for. Like, I guess that what we’re kind of describing is … like in that example of a game simulating sensory overload … is that for autistic people? Or is that for people to empathise with autism? Again, just putting out a question. I’m really good at that – I’m not good at answering questions, just good at asking them.
SK: No I mean, I think the best way I can answer that would be need I say more than Microsoft Superbowl ad. You know, when everybody plays, we all win … I think is the best way to put it. Simply because, you know, as much as games might be for a certain demographic – whether it’s disability or not – you’ve got the Souls games which are for stupidly overly skilled people who keep running it for hours on end. But then if I want to jump in and play a Souls game, why shouldn’t I be able to? I should be able to go in, parry, counter, hit the guy off a ledge, whatever – with the best of everyone. Just because I can’t see, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to do that. So, it’s not a question of who games are for, it’s a question of how can we make games for the widest possible audience. I mean, increased accessibility equals increased sales; equals increased brand loyalty; equals good will from the community most of the time, if done well.
Chris: That’s a great segue into sort of the last point of then what advice could we give to people to improve their representation of disabilities in games or, you know, making that more accessible?
SK: Hire all of us.
Katie: Just going outside …
Katie: Like … so when you’re coming up with a game, you know, you’re stuck inside an office, you’re surrounded by your peers, who are probably more likely to be identical to you … most likely white males, etc … and then you’re jamming ideas together. But some of the best ideas we’ve had is when we’ve sort of just gone outside, gone for a walk, go into town, you have a look at what people are actually doing in the real world and what’s actually happening there. And I feel like it’s only really then that you start getting different voices to come in and help. You start experiencing different ways of viewing things, and so a different interesting new game concept might come from that.
Lily: Yeah. I think the whole kind of discussion of representation – I think people know that it matters. I think I was … I didn’t use a walking stick until a couple of years ago. I have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and sometimes I use a wheelchair, sometimes I use a walking stick. I didn’t understand – you know, I like to think I’m quite well educated – I did not understand the gravity of representation until I started looking for peoples’ walking sticks in TV shows. I started looking and kind of thinking, oh how are they going to carry all that? You know, they’ve only got one hand. Because that’s just my normal now. I think it’s people being okay talking about disability and understanding the gravity of it. You need to see people like you everywhere, and that includes video games. Just because it’s for fun doesn’t mean it’s any less important.
Errol: I feel like another one is – and I mean this is quite a broad one but I’ll explain it – take a step back from what you’re making and just have a think about the situation you’re creating. With, if you’ve got a disabled person in that situation … I’ll go back to Mass Effect with the Overlord DLC in Mass Effect 2, where the project overlord is an autistic person, they Clockwork Oranged up into a machine. And admittedly, that was the first time I saw someone like myself in a video game … which was a little bit upsetting, I’m not going to lie. But when you’re talking with the scientist responsible, which is the fellow’s brother … you talk as if he’s not there. And he’s right there, strung up in the machine. He’s right there. He can hear – the entire point is he’s been able to hear and see everything, and you’re talking about him as if he’s not, like, hung up in the machine right next to you. And as I played that, I was like, I’m glad they … Shepard tries to humanise him. Like, “This is your brother, this is your brother”. But he’s there … little things like when I watched that, I saw myself as an object. I saw myself as something being discussed … rather than someone as part of that discussion.
SK: You were alienated from the story. You were kind of outside of it even though you were a big part of it, kind of thing.
Sara: And that just kind of brings me into do your research, and just actually like, talk to disabled people. It’s literally that simple. To go back to Hellblade – I don’t know if you’re sensing a theme here –
Sara: But Ninja Theory did such an incredible job of – they hired a psychiatrist and professor from Cambridge University who specialised in psychosis. And they held focus groups where they had conversations with people who actually suffer from psychosis. Focus groups is a really good point because sometimes people think that like … oh I’m going to write a video game about psychosis. I talked to this one person who suffers from the condition so I’m good to go. As it turns out, a lot of people who suffer from the same disability do not have the same experience of life (laughing).
SK: Yeah, no. Exactly, yeah.
Lily: We’ve both got the same disability. So, we both experience it very differently I’m sure.
Errol: Absolutely. I’m … like, I’m pretty much glued to this. Those of you who know me do know that basically I will not go anywhere without that, and it is, like, wobbly but … at this point in time, I am not a wheelchair user in the slightest. I’m going to get there at some point, but even as I’ve said with playing games, I experience EDS quite badly in my hands. Which means that, like … high motor function can be quite difficult … which is really sad because I used to play piano. So I’m like, that’s out the window now. But having different experiences – I was chatting with a group where I was like, “What would your perfect autistic character be?” And someone said, “Two of them” …
Errol: And I’m like, oh. Yeah. Just two different people – that makes complete sense because then you don’t have the token in the room. You don’t have, “This is our token disabled character. He uses a walking stick and is really really sad, and sometimes knows how to hack a computer”. Or something, you know? Have a little bit more depth to your characters than, “This is our disabled person here”.
SK: Don’t have a singular one. Even if you’ve got two – have those two maybe play off each other as well, you never know.
Lily: We need, like, a Rorschach test for disabled (laughing) in video games.
Sara: Yeah and also, I think it’s important to remember when we talk about all these examples of like, tokenistic disabled characters – most of them are white, male, straight. The same old, really. And as it happens, your experience of your disability is different if you’re a woman; if you’re a person of colour; if you have disabilities that are comorbid; if you have physical and mental health difficulties. There are just so many different ways of being disabled. Like, no two people are the same, and the same is true of disabled folk.
Lily: I was just going to say the one last thing – or from me – is just about talking about it. I think people really don’t know how to talk about it. Every single day – if I’m out, I will have half a dozen people say, “Oh what happened?”
Lily: Every single day. And people who I meet are shocked – “People don’t ask you that?” Yes, all the time. Because it’s just people are uncomfortable, I think, talking about disability. Don’t be afraid to, you know, to make mistakes. I think it’s better to ask the question than, you know, make assumptions.
Chris: Yeah, definitely.
Errol: I mean, the funny looks I get on the Tube at the minute. Oh my God.
Errol: But no, like – I suppose I’ll finish off with something I saw as genuinely, like, oh that’s actually surprisingly positive. And it’s like, ridiculously subtle – Overwatch. Junkrat has a … right, so Overwatch has a bajillion prosthetics, everyone’s got superpowers and super robot arms and stuff. Junkrat has a prosthetic peg leg. It is ridiculously simplistic. And his character’s movement speed is much slower than a lot of his counterparts. And that was a tiny, itsy bitsy little … and obviously it fits in with his mechanics but …
SK: Quality of life really, isn’t it? Quality of life details.
Errol: Ah – you’ve thought of that little thing that kind of puts two and two together. Like, he has a simplistic prosthetic leg in a world where prosthetics have like, 80 different guns in them. And his movement speed is significantly slower. I was just like, that makes sense. This is not bad, as it were.
SK: In relation to what pretty much everybody else has said, the amount of times I’ve been at this event – this is actually my first EGX and my first EGX Rezzed as well – the amount of times I’ve gone up to developers or people in publishing or whatever, when I’ve gone to play a game and I’ve said two things – I’ve said, “Oh, how accessible is this?” And I’ve been like, “I’m a gamer without sight. Can I play this? How well can I do?” And they’ve said, “Oh my God. I hadn’t even considered that”. And I’m like, “Yep. That’s why I do my job”. That’s why I come around and come to studio visits, I go to E3, I network with people … and just say, “Look, I want to play your game. I really want to play your game, but I can’t because … I don’t know. I can’t see where I’m meant to be going, I can’t see the aiming reticule. These guys above me are sniping me from about 200 feet away and I can’t hit anything”. You know, just all sorts of interesting stuff. But the fact of the matter is, as I’ve said before, representation is only half of the battle. Get the games to be playable first … and I mean, if you can figure out how to write in disabled characters really well, as well as doing that, then brilliant. But once the games are really, you know, playable by as many people as possible, then figure out consultancy around representation and things as well. Because I think once you can get … once I get a game where I can play through as a person with absolutely no sight and who can do all the same things as anybody else can do, then that’s going to be absolutely fantastic. And then, you know, I pay the same price for it, all of that. I can play with my peers, everything. It’s going to be a very interesting time for – you know, this year and the next several years – as accessibility just becomes a bigger and bigger talking point in the video game industry.
Chris: I think it’s so exciting – especially with the accessibility point – because as developers I think it challenges us a lot more. It makes our job more interesting to think about the range of people rather than just the typical, you know, market that we’ll think about. You know, the straight white male or whatever. So yeah (laughing) I think I’ll just sort of close. You know, I hope you’ve got a lot out of this discussion today and obviously the key point is literally just to come talk to us. Talk to as many people as you can – that’s the whole point about diversity. You broaden your horizons by meeting loads of different people. And these guys are around for the rest of the day, so grab them – use their knowledge, network with them, grab their emails. Do whatever you can to sort of start that discussion if you’re making games or you’re just passionate about gaming.
Errol: I mean it’s going to take me five minutes to stand back up, so I’m right here guys.
Chris: Yeah, so again, thank you everybody for coming. Literally, we’ll be here for a few minutes so come talk to us if you want to. But yeah … follow us on Twitter if you want to (laughing).
Katie: Thank you.
Errol: Yeah, thank you.
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