Video Games and Disability Representation

An image of Junkrat from Overwatch

Video Games and Disability Representation

The world of video games has long been a sanctuary for escapism and adventure. However, this digital realm often falls short when it comes to mirroring the diversity of its audience. Specifically, disability representation in video games has been a subject of advocacy and debate for years, yet it remains an area that needs more attention. This article aims to provide a comprehensive look at the current state of disability and video games, the lack of disability representation, and the incremental changes that are shaping the industry for the better.

The Current State of Disability in Video Games

Video games have evolved dramatically over the years, boasting cutting-edge graphics, intricate storytelling, and unparalleled interactivity. Yet, when it comes to the representation of disability, the industry seems to be lagging. A majority of video games still lack characters with disabilities, and when they do appear, they are often relegated to harmful stereotypes or token roles. At AbleGamers, we have been pushing for more inclusive gaming experiences as we work tirelessly to ensure that both players and characters with disabilities are not left on the sidelines but are instead a vital part of the gaming community.

The Problematic Tropes

The portrayal of disabled characters in video games often falls into reductive stereotypes, a trend that can perpetuate harmful societal narratives. The few disabled characters that do exist in video games are often portrayed as either objects of pity or as villains. This not only perpetuates harmful stereotypes but also deprives players of the chance to see nuanced, realistic characters who are defined by more than just their disabilities.

  • Objects of Pity:
    • Disabled characters are often depicted as helpless or in constant need of aid. This portrayal reinforces a narrative of dependency and can contribute to a patronizing attitude towards individuals with disabilities in real life. Moreover, such portrayals may overlook the agency, resilience, and independence that individuals with disabilities often demonstrate.
  • Villainous Figures:
    • It’s not uncommon to encounter disabled characters cast as villains, their physical or mental conditions depicted as intertwined with malevolent traits. This association can perpetuate a baseless narrative of fear or distrust toward individuals with disabilities, further marginalizing this group.
  • Lack of Complexity:
    • By confining disabled characters to rigid, stereotypical roles, games often miss the opportunity to explore the complexity and diversity inherent in the experiences of individuals with disabilities. This lack of complexity robs players of the chance to engage with more nuanced portrayals and to challenge their own perceptions.
  • Overcoming Disability Narrative:
    • Another common trope is the narrative of overcoming disability, where the character’s worth or heroism is solely defined by their ability to overcome their disability. This narrative can be harmful as it suggests that the only way for individuals with disabilities to be valued is by negating or transcending their disabilities.
  • Misrepresentation of Disability:
    • Misrepresentation or oversimplification of disabilities is also a common issue. Disabilities are often depicted inaccurately or in a way that lacks depth, contributing to misinformation and a lack of understanding.
  • Tokenism:
    • Sometimes, disabled characters are included merely to tick a box of diversity without any substantial engagement with the character’s experiences or challenges related to their disability.

The portrayal of disabled characters in video games reflects broader societal attitudes and misconceptions about disability. Addressing these problematic tropes and advocating for more nuanced, realistic representation can contribute to a more inclusive gaming culture and a more informed society. Through better representation, video games can challenge stereotypes, foster empathy, and provide a platform for dialogue about the diverse experiences of individuals with disabilities. However, while greater strides clearly remain necessary, some games have taken the lead and offered more nuanced portrayals of individuals with disabilities, just as some developers have worked to improve inclusion in the gaming community as well. Let’s take a look at some of the most promising examples.

Disabled Video Game Characters: More Than Just Tropes

Numerous video game characters with disabilities have been portrayed in a nuanced and respectful manner. Some notable examples include:

  • Joshua Graham from Fallout: New Vegas:
    • Surviving a brutal betrayal that left him severely burned, Joshua Graham emerges as a resilient warrior and a capable leader in the Mojave Wasteland. His bandaged burns are a visual testament to his past, yet they do not solely define him. Instead, his character is nuanced and portrays a narrative of resilience, adaptability, and a relentless pursuit for justice. 
  • Benny from Gears of War:
    • A soldier with a prosthetic leg, Benny showcases resilience against the Locust Horde. Resilience is a frequently overlooked virtue common among individuals with disabilities, and one that emphasizes independence and agency over victimhood and limitation.
  • Alicia from Valkyria Chronicles:
    • A soldier facing PTSD due to war horrors, Alicia is portrayed as a complex and capable character, highlighting mental health challenges and the ways that such challenges affect — but do not define — an individual’s identity and potential.
  • Max Hass from Wolfenstein:
    • Born with a profound injury to the brain, much of the damaged tissue was removed, leaving Max with a portion of his head missing​. He is demonstrated throughout the series to excel in various fields and activities, from chess to baking and even literary analysis, demonstrating the incredible capacity common among those with disabilities — yet often overlooked in other video game characterizations and by society on a larger scale. 
  • Junkrat from Overwatch:
    • After losing his right leg in an explosive accident, Junkrat, equipped with a prosthetic leg, is portrayed as a wildly inventive and fearless demolitionist. His character demonstrates that, while a disability may change the manner in which an individual navigates the world, it does not diminish their ability to contribute in a meaningful and impactful way. Through Junkrat, players see a character whose disability is acknowledged but does not define his identity, emphasizing a narrative of capability and resilience.

These are just a few examples of video game characters that offer strong, nuanced portrayals of individuals with disabilities. Some additional examples include Diogenes from Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy, Dunban from Xenoblade Chronicles, Baiken from Guilty Gear, Kai Brehn from ReCore, Billie Lurk from Dishonored, Joker from Mass Effect, Sir Hammerlock from Borderlands 2, Rin Tezuka from Katawa Shoujo, Emi Ibarazaki from Katawa Shoujo, and Fury from Darksiders III.

These characters contribute to disability representation in video games by portraying a variety of physical and psychological disabilities. They are not only strong and capable but also have depth and complexity. They challenge traditional narratives and offer a more authentic portrayal of individuals with disabilities. Through these characters, players can engage with diverse experiences and challenges, fostering a broader understanding and empathy toward individuals with disabilities. 

The Importance of Disability Representation in Media

Disability representation in media is not a niche concern but a societal necessity. As video games become an increasingly influential medium for storytelling, it’s crucial that they reflect the diversity of the world we live in. More creators and developers are recognizing the importance of including diverse characters, not as tokens but as integral parts of the story. Learn more about the positive effects of video games and how they can be a force for change.

Accessibility Features: A Step in the Right Direction

The discussion around disability in video games extends beyond the characters to the players themselves. Accessibility features like customizable controls, subtitles, and colorblind modes are becoming more prevalent. These features make it easier for players with disabilities to engage with games, breaking down barriers that were once insurmountable. How has accessibility in video games increased? While these are significant strides towards inclusivity, the journey is far from over.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month and Video Games

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a period dedicated to celebrating the contributions of workers with disabilities and advocating for inclusive work environments. This observance has implications for the video game industry as well. As the sector continues to expand, so do opportunities for employment. Companies are increasingly recognizing the value of a diverse workforce, which includes individuals with disabilities. One of the most significant initiatives for disability employment awareness is AbleGamers’ Player Panels.

AbleGamers’ Player Panel Program aims to involve players with disabilities in the game development process to enhance accessibility and representation. They advise gaming companies on various facets like development, accessibility, and representation of disabilities in games.

The Player Panel program not only empowers individuals with disabilities by compensating them for their hard work, but also creates a marketable avenue for them to find jobs in the gaming industry. Many Player Panel members have transitioned to full-time roles within major gaming companies, contributing to the industry from within.

Through these efforts, the AbleGamers’ Player Panel Program is actively contributing to reshaping the gaming industry to be more inclusive and accessible, representing a significant stride towards better disability representation in media.

While the representation of disability in video games is far from perfect, there are signs of progress. As we observe National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it’s an opportune time to celebrate the strides made in video games and to continue advocating for a more inclusive future for all.

At AbleGamers, our mission is to create opportunities that enable play in order to combat social isolation, foster inclusive communities, and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. We know that video games can be the perfect gateway to community participation, lifelong friendships, and unforgettable shared experiences. That’s why it’s crucial to ensure these experiences are developed with accessibility as a priority and inclusion as the goal.

We are working every day to make sure people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else for positive experiences through play. With our nearly two decades as pioneers in inclusive play, thousands of hours working with people with disabilities, and leading developers and engineers, we create opportunities for players to find inclusive places to play and connect with family and friends. Learn more about what we do here, or help continue our crucial work by making a monetary donation or purchasing something from our shop!