There’s been a lot of disability-related goodness going on at Ubisoft lately. After taking action against an ableist slur in MindQuiz last year, the publisher announced this past September that all its games developed in-house will be subtitled. Also, Ubisoft is partnering with organization Handicap International for a campaign called Ability Together. This campaign raises awareness of the problems disabled people face, particularly those in developing countries. And it includes Handigo The Game, a series of free minigames starring characters with different impairments: one is blind, one uses a wheelchair and one has learning difficulties.
Now, I’m not a fan of how disability simulations are normally done—the “sit in a wheelchair/wear a blindfold for a day!” type-stuff that thrusts non-disabled people into situations they don’t have any coping skills for, or even help with. (Actual disabled people, including those who become disabled later in life, usually have both). Such exercises breed fear and pity, not understanding.
And yet, doing similar things in a video game intrigues me. My spatial impairment is, for me, a fun game design problem: could you make a level where, say, each thing looked totally different depending on which angle the player views it from, or where objects materialize out of nowhere and change the whole appearance of the place? I think a video game about disability interests me because games are themselves simulations. As disability rights advocate Valerie Brew-Parrish points out in The Wrong Message: “Simulations are phony. To ‘simulate’ means to assume the mere appearance of– without the reality.” Video games are “the mere appearance of…reality.” We can do all kinds of things in games that we don’t have the skills to do in real life; they are a safe space to explore various places, ideas, and lives. Books, television and films help us do the same thing, but at a distance. We watch other people do the work, and maybe imagine ourselves in their place. But our game avatars are us, yet not-us. I see Mega Man on the screen, I know he isn’t me, but when he slides into a pit of spikes I think, “I died.”
This liminal identity-space that games occupy makes them especially suited to do what real-life disability simulations can’t quite accomplish: they encourage us to solve problems. Some problems disabled people run into can be solved with ingenuity (using a wheelchair to get around, for instance), while others are, frankly, analogous to bad level design (e.g. Why is there a huge flight of stairs here, but no ramps?). I wish more people understood all the ways that the disability experience is about bumping into bad level design: how society decides what kinds of skills are important for life and which are not, how people can be disabled in some environments and not others, how some things are inaccessible just because nobody thought of us in the first place. Video game worlds, being entirely man-made, are uniquely able to highlight disability problems that are environmental or societal, rather than intrinsic to the disabled person.
Does Handigo The Game do everything I hope a virtual disability simulation would do? Of course not—for one thing, it represents blindness as darkness that lights up as the player navigates. But it’s an interesting first step, one that shows disability as a natural part of human experience. I hope the game is a harbinger of things to come.
(Cross-posted to my GameCritics.com blog).