You are in a war. It doesn’t matter who with in particular–a hostile army, a drug cartel, aliens, orcs, top secret international spies… -you can chose your fantasy. The back story has been set. The tension has been built and now your base of operations is under attack. You wake up and hear a commotion outside. You know that your life, the lives of those you love, hang in the balance. Action has to be taken! You quickly transfer into your wheelchair. Do you grab a gun? Do you hop in a sci-fi inspired mech suit? A bow maybe? No, you rush to the only weapon a developer will give you… a computer.
You are a sidekick. There’s a hero with actual weapons right down the hall and you have to do what during this massive attack? Look at the computer and feed him information. Is it because you can’t shoot a gun? No, actually you’re a better marksman than Mr. Hero. Is it because you can’t maneuver around well? No, you have been using a wheelchair your whole life which means moving it around is second nature and takes no more thought than Mr. Hero needs to sprint down the hall. Maybe they are afraid you wouldn’t be able to take cover? Let’s be honest here, you Mcguiver past barriers every day, you bet your sweet cheeks if someone is shooting at you, you will find a way to take cover! This really isn’t about you though. It isn’t about your abilities, weaknesses, strengths or anything logical. It’s about the rest of the world and their thoughts on disabilities.
I started gaming at age 6 and have played video games my whole life. Most of my life I have played as an abled body white male. Occasionally, I get to play as a girl which makes me enjoy the game more because I can identify more with being a female. I have never really connected with a main character because there are none like me. I have connected with a lot of sidekicks though. Sly Cooper had Bentley, Grand Theft Auto had Lester, and Mass Effect had Joker but they’re always someone you see, not play. Why? I blame developers, the disabled community, and the average person’s view on disabilities.
Developers are part of the problem. I know disabled characters are still taboo. I know that as a main hero a disabled protagonist would take more development than slapping a new skin on that 3d model you have been using for every game you make. There’s going to be different mechanics that work better than the user going prone to avoid detection. You are sitting on a gold mine, developers. Make a game where the main character is a wheelchair user. Let them have gun mounts on their chair (they really make those you know.) Let them swing across chasms and have to use objects they find to life hack their way to victory! Doing things differently doesn’t make it “the wrong way”, embrace it. Can’t model a wheelchair? Ok, give the hero a mech suit or a golem. Look at Guild Wars 2 character Taimi. With a good back story you can present a disability anyway you want. Video games are a fantasy world so if my disabled protagonist rides on the shoulders of a golem it’s no more of a stretch than her jumping on a unicorn. Make it happen.
I hate to say it but I blame the disabled community for the lack of disabled protagonists just as much as I blame developers. When I started blogging I met some pretty amazing disabled gamers. I also started meeting activists. I joined in on a twitter chat once about disabilities in media. The question asked if there should be more disabled characters in media and why. I answered yes because it gives people someone to relate to and feels more inclusive. I was immediately getting replies like “as long as they do it the right way” and a wall of criticism about how Hollywood in particular doesn’t get things right. An example I have heard multiple times is how Daredevil doesn’t use his cane correctly. Should we have no Daredevil at all because people are offended by the way he uses a cane when he’s not fighting ninjas? We can’t set the stage for developers to be afraid to implement disabled protagonist because they might offend people. Let developers try and if they fail, we correct them.
Another problem that is keeping disabled characters in the sidekick zone is attitudes and misconceptions about disabilities. Tell me dear gamer, if you bought a new game and every enemy was disabled would you mow them down in a rain of bullets without thinking anything about it? Or would some small part of you think “this is messed up” or feel guilty? All too often people see a person with disabilities as someone innocent and needing help or protection. These opinions do not foster heroes, they foster a mentality that keeps disabled characters as sidekicks to never be on the front lines, but safely behind the scenes and protected by the hero. A disabled character can shoot, they can cast spells, and they can take care of themselves. Everyone needs to understand this. The other argument I see is “video games are a way to disconnect, a disabled person wouldn’t want to play disabled characters because it’s too close to real life. “ To that I say, “Do plumbers not play Mario? Do chefs not play Cooking Mama?” That’s just silly. Inclusion and relatable characters are important for everyone.
So, developers get in there and put in the effort of making a disabled protagonist. Make many! Disabled community, help me in encouraging developers to try to include us without setting up a hostile environment where they are afraid to even try. Guide the industry into making better and better characters. It’s ok if they mess up details here and there, we are playing the long game here! Gamers as a whole think about how you see people with disabilities. Somewhere right now there are people shooting guns, racing cars, being heroes while disabled. It’s time to realize disabled characters can do the same thing. I am tired of being a sidekick! I want a hero with a disability that defends herself and the people she cares about. I want big guns not a computer! Most of all I want that 6 year old girl with a disability who just started her journey through video games to have characters she relates to. Characters who empower her to be a hero and never see herself as always a sidekick.