It’s 1997. I have yet to know the joys of playing in the snow. Growing up in the south I’ve only experienced sweltering summers and soggy winters so far. I am young and sitting in a classroom, probably the only kid in school foolish enough to boast about how he fakes sick so he can stay home to watch Power Rangers. I am doodling superheroes in my notebook.
“Javy,” my teacher says.
I look up. Everyone’s staring.
“Your mind is wandering. Come up here.”
I head to the front of the room. She gives me the look, the one that tells me I will now pay the price for not devoting every ounce of attention to her lesson.
I open my mouth.
“No, write it,” she says, handing me a marker.
I uncap the marker and turn to write on the board. My heart is pounding. I hear my peers chuckling behind me. I take a full minute to write the word out, though I know how to spell it immediately. I turn. I hand her back the marker as forcefully as I can.
“Good, but there’s no ‘D’ here,” she says.
She taps a crudely drawn “C” with the marker but I know better than to argue. She’ll think I’m lying or she’ll take me aside after class and tell me that I should practice my handwriting until it looks just as nice as everyone else’s.
It’s 1997. I am young and there isn’t name for what I have. My hands haven’t started shaking yet.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
It’s 2015. Things have changed.
I’m not as young anymore. It’s snowing outside; our backyard is covered in the stuff and I get pissed when I have to walk the dog through it. I’m a teacher now. I know what it is to be accidentally cruel when trying to teach someone a lesson. I know what it means to fear that your authority will be undermined and to wonder why it’s such a big deal if it is.
They have a name for my condition now: dysgraphia. A dysgraphic is someone who has trouble writing text, comprehending text, or both. In my case, I have nerve damage that causes my hands to shake, especially when I’m holding a pen. Over the years the shaking has gotten worse, and there’s practically no way to keep my hands still unless I’m laying them flat on a surface. Sometimes I drop objects I’m holding and don’t realize I’ve let go until they’ve hit the floor.
I often think about how much worse the shaking will get years from now while I wait for the morning kettle to finish brewing. “Shakyhands,” my girlfriend calls them, one word. Not cruelly. It’s just a way to say this is Not A Big Deal. Give it a name. Make it seem like less of a problem so you don’t worry about it, don’t overthink it. What else can you do?
Well, sometimes there’s videogames. They help.
It’s 2015. I’m sipping my morning coffee and playing a game about killing Nazis in as many gruesome ways as you can imagine. But I’m not shooting them right now. I’m watching a cutscene. A man, BJ Blazkowicz, and a woman, Caroline Becker, are having a conversation as she starts a helicopter. They’re talking about how she was paralyzed from the waist down in a gunfight.
“Worst pain of my life,” she says. “Felt like my insides were running out my back.”
He tells her he’s sorry about her losing the ability to walk.
“Don’t be,” she tells him. “I learned how to fly.”
The helicopter takes flight, zooming in and out of tunnels and then soaring through the sky. I smile, happy to see a well-written disabled woman as a major character in an AAA game, but inevitably the melancholy creeps in.
Where in the world were all the Caroline Beckers when I was a child, when I needed them? And why are there so few now?
They diagnosed me when I was 11, maybe 12. My parents told the school and the school told the teachers and the teachers stopped shaming me and started shaming other kids for making fun of me instead.
What I learned during this time was that the most I could hope for as a young person with a disability in America was to simply be forgotten. Otherwise I was an easy target to mock or an inconvenience for the people I respected. Teachers often sighed when they saw me bring in the accommodation form that let me use a laptop or a recorder in class. (Several years later, a paraplegic friend would tell me he was afraid that people looked at him and all they saw was the expense associated with building a wheelchair ramp.) I became a quiet, sullen kid, one looking to fade into the background and not draw attention to himself. It didn’t help that I was a tall, gangly boy. I became the weirdo who ran like Forrest Gump and couldn’t write in cursive.
In the afternoons, I found comfort and refuge in videogames. I had an odd ritual. I’d come home, load up a VHS tape (usually the Broderick Godzilla or Analyze This) on my small television for background noise while I played a computer game. Sometimes it was Half-Life: Uplink or Requiem: Avenging Angel. However, I spent most of my game time when I was 12 with Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Back then there weren’t really any disabled characters in games for me to relate to, at least not any I was exposed to, but there was Abe.
Abe, a Mudokon slave working in a hellish meat processing factory, is physically weak. He is hated and mocked, even by his fellow slaves. When he finds out that the owner of the plant plans to grind Mudokons down and turn them into a meat treat to boost the plant’s profits, he escapes. However, a spiritual vision convinces him to turn back and save his people from destruction. He uses his wit and mind control powers to overcome the brutality of his enemies and save his people.
As a social outcast, I identified with Abe. I projected. I saw my physique reflected in his scrawny body. I felt the insults and abuse he received from others just for existing because they were my wounds as well. That character made me feel less alone in a world set on pushing disabled people to the margins and keeping them there so it didn’t have to concern itself with them. Though Abe himself wasn’t technically disabled, the character made me feel as though I could do worthwhile things in spite of whatever disabilities I had or whatever people might think of me. For a short time, a videogame made me feel shiny and whole and like I could do anything I wanted.
It was pleasant and all too rare.
Indie developer Nina White recently started a Twitter hashtag called #disabledgameprotags that invited discussion about the portrayal of people with disabilities, both mental and physical, in videogames. It’s an interesting discussion worth taking a look at it if you have even a sliver of interest in disability or games. My biggest takeaway though, sadly, was the small number of examples, especially from big-budgeted titles, of games with disabled protagonists. Even now you usually have disabled characters serving as support for the main character (Bently from Sly Cooper) but rarely do you have them taking charge. The few times that that there are disabled protagonists their disabilities are often immediately replaced with high tech augmentations that transform them into badass soldiers, making their disabilities easily curable conditions. I don’t find this offensive, just disappointing and unsurprising.
Games that have incorporated fleshed-out disabled characters in meaningful ways often elevate themselves beyond the rote, all too familiar mechanics that nearly all of them lean on. Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great first-person shooter that becomes more than that thanks to a straightforward, painful story that treats its world like there are actually people from all walks of life in it, people like Caroline and Max, who refuse to be defined by their disabilities, and instead define themselves by fighting for freedom and to protect those they love. It is to the benefit of games’ stories to feature diverse casts of characters. It gives such stories more life and relatability to a wider audience. I would also be remiss if I didn’t admit that part of my desire to see more disabled characters in games is unabashedly selfish.
I often wonder how much my outlook on my disability would have changed if there were more positively portrayed disabled characters in games (and other forms of media too). Would I have just kept smiling and nodding whenever someone who didn’t know me told me my writing looked like “chicken shit”? Would I still make jokes about my disability in order to defuse awkward situations? Would I still get nervous, as I always do, when I have to sign a document or write on a board in a classroom? Would I still be afraid that people stare at my hands and wonder what the hell is wrong with me? If I had had numerous role models influencing not just me, but the rest of the culture I inhabit as well, telling us that disabled people were strong and intelligent and valuable, would I be as anxious and ashamed of a condition I have absolutely no control over?
Representation is important. Media—whether it’s fiction or music or videogames—reflects our culture and tells us about who we are and what we can be as individuals. When you have an entire industry pumping out action games centered around muscular, self-righteous men doing vile things for the “right reasons,” you are effectively saying that this is what that culture values; it is a culture that chooses to tell that same kind of story, one that celebrates a toxic, death-obsessed, mostly white masculinity over stories about black people, about women, about disabled folks and other marginalized communities.
The interactivity of games should by their nature encourage stories of empathy and cultural expression—and sometimes they do! Papo & Yo, Gone Home, Never Alone and Year Walk are four wonderful, empathetic games that effectively tell stories about vastly different cultures. However those kinds of games are rare, and you never see one in that vein trying to communicate what it’s like to be a disabled person as its primary goal.
Imagine a first-person game where you spend a day trying to get around in a wheelchair. Or a game where you try to hide your disability and strive to be whatever this messed up world tells you is “normal.” Perhaps even a conversation-based game where you interact with people who don’t know how to approach discussing your disability.
Maybe those sorts of games would be garbage by most standards. Maybe they would make you feel rotten about stuff you’ve said in the heat of the moment or people you’ve hurt or things you’ve taken for granted. Is that bad that I want games like that anyway? Does it make me selfish, or an insufferable prat? I just want you to know what it’s like to be me in a way that words alone can never communicate, and I want to know what it’s like to be other people in that same way. Games, just as they can be a fantastic means for entertainment, can also be powerful tools of empathy.
Shooting alien invaders is fun, sure, as is leading armies to overthrow empires or saving the galaxy with your trusty crew. But it’s 2015 and I’m getting older and it’s snowing outside and I all I want to do is make and play games about you and I.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.