One thing you often hear me say is how perfectly suited to teaching video games are. While films and books can give great insight into the lives of others (and indeed be life changing), there’s something about the interactivity of a game that takes that one step further. There’s a difference between watching a person’s struggle and experiencing a simulation of them. There’s a browser game that claims to do just that, but the experience is far more insulting than enlightening. You Are Disabled by Cory Martin was produced in just 12 hours, but it’s clear that wasn’t long enough. Whether this game was truly meant to raise awareness about disability is debatable–it feels more like it was a garbled idea he took and ran with in the hopes that it would make for a unique 2D platformer.
Each level in You Are Disabled has a different disabled character trying to navigate the same map that is present throughout the game. There are currently four disabilities present: “Nearly Blind”, “Illiterate”, “Spastic”, and “Crippled”.
With perhaps the exception of “nearly blind” (which still feels weird to me I’ll admit), I’m not entirely sure how he thought these labels could be seen in any way as positive. “Spastic”? “Crippled”? What the hell, bro? The former president of our local PBS station who I’ve been acquainted with from a young age, was diagnosed a few years ago with Parkinson’s, and that’s exactly how my grandmother told me. Not, “I’m afraid [name] is spastic now.” My great aunt was diagnosed with ALS while I was in high school and as the years went by she soon found herself wheelchair bound. But it never even occurred to any of us to call her “crippled”. Even when she was at the point of needing round the clock care, it still was never a word that came to mind. She was my aunt, and she was suffering from ALS. The term “cripple” implies an inherent weakness, and she was not weak. She was determined, and strong, and she held on to who she was for as long as she could. Her throat and face muscles were the first to be affected, and before long speech became impossible. Being an Italian woman who was accustomed to quite a lot of chatting, this hit her hard. But it didn’t stop her. She carried around a little notepad or whiteboard everywhere she went and continued talking with us with the same enthusiasm as ever.
I found out about this game via Twitter when Short from Ability Powered brought up how offensive and awful it was. I was shocked that anyone could claim to make a game in favor of raising awareness and at the same time label their characters in such a way. What exactly is the message he’s trying to send?
So I decided to play the game to see how it felt, and things only went downhill from there.
The game started me with the “spastic” level. As this character you are not always in control of your actions. Sometimes the character will jump or move without you telling it to. Given that the game is a platformer and offers many obstacles in the way of jumps, this is understandably difficult. Some people have complained that the game is too impossible to predict and therefore bad game design, but this was one of the few things I thought he did right–to an extent. Yes he showed how hard it is to perform actions when you aren’t entirely in control of yourself, but in such a weird over the top way that it didn’t really serve the purpose. It would have been much more impressive and would have driven the point home more clearly if the game had required you to go about “simple” daily routines–the sorts of things people with diseases such as Parkinson’s have to go through and adapt to everyday. Jumping from tiny platform to tiny platform to avoid lava is not something people generally do in life, and while I get that it was meant to be “symbolic” and all that, it just didn’t work. Again, I understand that this game was made in only 12 hours, but that was his first mistake. Should a game of this scope really have so little time spent on it? Shouldn’t you try your hardest to make it as meaningful and emotional as possible?
I didn’t complete this level. I’m pretty abysmal at platformers at the best of times, and adding the random movement didn’t help me any.
When I restarted I got the “nearly blind” character who was equally as poorly implemented. For this character you are surrounded by a little circle of perfectly clear vision. Everything else on the screen is completely black. The level expects you to navigate the jumps and lava without having any indication of what lies ahead.
Remember Beyond eyes, the Indiegogo game I wrote about a few months back? For those not familiar it’s about a blind girl who leaves her garden for the first time in years. The game is an entirely blank screen until she discovers her surroundings by using her remaining senses. She paints an image in her mind’s eye of what lies around her by touching things, hearing things, and smelling things. Just because her sight is gone doesn’t mean that she can no longer function. It doesn’t mean that she’s a broken and useless human being. It means that her life has changed significantly, and to move forward she must learn to adapt to her new circumstances. Is it easy? No. Does it frighten her? Yes. But she does it anyway.
The difference between these two games’ approach to blindness is striking. In You Are Disabled the impaired vision becomes the only important part of the character. He has no other senses, no other abilities to use. The lack of sight defines him and makes doing that particular level completely impossible. How’s that for an uplifting and motivational outlook on life? While Beyond eyes encourages us to keep fighting for what we want, and to find new ways to experience our life no matter what hardships we may confront, You Are Disabled tells us to lay down and die when something terrible happens, because there’s no way to move on from such a devastating change.
I quit the “nearly blind” level and restarted once again. This time I was met with the “cripple” character. This character has no legs and must crawl across the floor. There was no way to jump near as I could tell, and also no way to climb. Instead, and perhaps the most shocking feature of the game, you are told that various people in this underground world will help you across the lava with their magic in return for “sexual servitude”.
Yes, you did just read that correctly. My jaw legit dropped when I saw it.
But let’s back up a bit. The whole premise of the game is that your disability is so strongly discriminated against by those who consider themselves to be “pure” and “normal”, that you are exiled to a strange and dangerous underworld to live out the rest of your existence. It’s quite apparent throughout the other levels that those living above ground don’t think too highly of you in the way of various signs posted throughout the map, but no level drives that point home more viciously than this one. Why these hooded magicians are in the underworld in the first place is beyond me, but that’s beside the point. As they teleport you from platform to platform, you have to sit through the garbage that they say. Some will talk about how eager they are to do you, while others comment on how useless you are and how much they utterly despise your very existence.
Pretty vicious, right? I understand that he was trying to show the prejudice and discrimination that disabled people face. I get that, I’m not denying its existence. But I also don’t feel like it’s quite this prevalent either (correct me if I’m wrong here). He focused so much on the hatred that disabled people face that I feel like he failed to focus on many of the other struggles they confront daily–like accessibility and feeling a sense of independence.
Which leads me to my next concern with this level–the dependence the character has on other people. Obviously it depends on the extent of one’s disability as to how much or little they will need other people to help them get through their day. But I found it rather insulting to insinuate that all people without the use of their legs must depend on others to survive. It’s the same defeatest attitude that plagues the “nearly blind” level, and it seems horribly ignorant. There are so many people who find ways to live their lives as they see fit, despite whatever disability they live with–look at the Paralympics! I understand that not everyone is able to all of the things they want to be to do, I understand that every single person’s situation is different, but to assume that all disabled people will never be able to take a least some aspect of life into their own hands is a sad and pathetic assumption to make. They deserve far more respect than that.
The final level I played was also the easiest and felt the most out of place. Previously we’ve seen entirely physical disabilities, but tacked on at the end was a mental one–and one that doesn’t necessarily exist. I’ve never heard of being illiterate as a disability–it may be the symptom of a learning disability, but I’ve never seen it referred to one on its own. It didn’t fit in with the game because it didn’t really affect the game in any way. As I said there were numerous signs throughout the map, but most of them were pretty useless. When you reach the end you have a choice to go up or down and there’s is a sign telling you which one leads out. But wouldn’t you just assume that up is out given that you’re underground? Does not being able to read really hinder you there?
I suppose each level could have a different ending, and perhaps by the end the signs are important to this level. But once I got a feel for it I didn’t bother finishing. Again, I’m terrible at platformers and I was already so frustrated with the game in general that I saw little point in continuing.
In the end do I think Martin set out to make a malicious game? No, not really. Do I think he was pretty ignorant and unsympathetic in failing to look at it from the perspective of people who actually have to live with a disability each and every day? Yes. Do I think that, after hearing how offensive it is, he should take it down? Yes (though I have no way of knowing whether or not people have approached him about it–the comments were mostly gameplay complaints).
I don’t usually cover browser games because most people aren’t going to search for a review for them. Why would you when you can just play the game and see for yourself? But this game missed the mark so badly that I felt compelled to write about it. This game, had it not been some 12 hour contest or something, and had it been given proper thought, could have been brilliant. It could have really shown the frustration and struggles that disabled people face. The subject matter here was simply too much for a game of this nature, and that’s its biggest failing.
I get frustrated pretty often by games that have the potential to be amazing, but instead completely miss the point. On the website the dev says, “I realize that many of you are getting frustrated with the game, but that’s the point. Many people who are disabled in real life do get frustrated. Life isn’t always fair, and I wanted to try and portray that in this little game.” Do you, though? Because frankly that’s not what it feels like. On the surface, sure, when you’re struggling to get through a level, but the game isn’t really sophisticated enough to do what he claims to have wanted it to do.
And that’s a shame. Because we need more games that teach, and we need more games that expose us to lives that are different than ours. This could have been one, but unfortunately it did worse than fail–it insulted those it “tried” to help.