A Look at Characters with Disabilities in Video Games

Recently there has been a lot of discussions about the need for diversity in video games. There has been a lot of attention given to the call for inclusion of more female characters, of more gay and lesbian characters, and more characters of racial minorities. Today I'm here to talk about another group that is often underrepresented or misrepresented in games: the disabled.

An estimated 15% of the world's population suffers from some form of disability yet we hardly see any disabled characters in games. As someone who has a disability myself I can understand why someone may not want to play as a character with a disability but why can't we have supporting characters and random NPCs with disabilities?

A simple Google search brings up lists celebrating the small number of disabled video game characters there are. Unfortunately a lot of these characters are reduced to stereotypes or their disability is the defining trait of their character.

A Look at Characters with Disabilities in Video Games

I noticed that a lot of the characters mentioned were amputees, yet almost all these characters, such as Nathan "Rad" Spencer from Bionic Commando, have had their missing limbs replaced with fancy mechanical ones. Spencer's defining trait is the fact that he has a bionic arm that has replaced one of his missing limbs. Despite the fact that Spencer was featured on almost any list of the "best disabled video game characters" I would argue that he is, in fact, not disabled at all. His bionic arm has all the functionality of a normal arm and more. He is practically super-human because of it.

Another character I would like to talk about is Rahm Kota from the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed games. Kota is a Jedi master who is blinded by the main character, Starkiller, early on in the first game and his connection to the Force is greatly weakened. Starkiller later seeks out the help of Kota to start a rebellion against the Empire and helps him to regain his confidence and his connection with the force.

A Look at Characters with Disabilities in Video Games

This character arc falls into what I like to call the Overcoming Approach. Kota is faced with the challenge of overcoming his disability and succeeds and becomes one of the early leaders of the Rebellion. However, this approach is done to death in all sorts of media so it takes away from the impact quite a lot and as I mentioned with Spencer, his disability becomes his defining trait.

So far we have seen that developers get characters with disabilities wrong by making the disability the defining trait of the character. Now let's look at what happens when developers get it right.

The first character I want to talk about is Lester Crest from last year's blockbuster Grand Theft Auto V. Lester is the mastermind behind many of the heists pulled off by the game's three protagonists Micheal, Franklin, and Trevor. He also suffers from an unnamed condition that limits his motor functions. He uses a wheelchair but most of the time he gets around with the use of a cane.

A Look at Characters with Disabilities in Video Games

In a franchise known for its overt stereotypes, Rockstar surprisingly did not take the easy way out and focus on Lester's disability. Instead, they took what I like to call the "Who Cares?" Approach. Lester's disability is rarely, if ever, brought up at all throughout the course of the game. Why is that? Because it has absolutely no relevance to the plot of the game. What I like about this approach is that it shows that there is diversity in the world but the disability is not overplayed. Lester is just a guy who happens to have a disability but it doesn't really have an effect on who he is as a character.

The last character I want to talk about today is Jeff "Joker" Moreau from the Mass Effect series. Joker is easily one of my favorite video game characters and it's not because he has a disability. Joke is a hilarious, deep, well written character featuring great voice acting from Seth Green.

Joker is the pilot of the Normandy, Commander Shepard's ship. He suffers from Vrolik Syndrome, also known as Brittle Bone Disease. This means that his bones are extremely prone to fractures and he has difficulty walking. The funny thing is, I didn't even know this until halfway through my first playthrough of the game. It is possible to not even learn this information if you don't take the time to talk to your crew.

A Look at Characters with Disabilities in Video Games

Joker's disability is not his defining trait. He is instead defined by his exceptional piloting skills, his grace under pressure, his witty humor, and his dedication to his fellow crew members and the Normandy. This is what makes Joker such an incredible character. Sure, Joker has a disability, but it doesn't matter; he doesn't need to be fully able bodied to be good at his job and he doesn't let it interfere with his everyday life. Joker is the perfect example of how to create a disabled character the right way. I applaud BioWare for the fantastic job they did with his character design.

That's all I have for you guys today. Thanks for reading everyone! By the way, I just wanted to mention that I have a ConTAYct Page now so if you need to get in contact with me head over there.