Disability and video game culture
By Sebastian Barsch & Joana Hansen
In May 2020, the announcement that a wheelchair-bound character would soon be included in the video game "Marvel's Avengers" went viral. In a way this is surprising because for various media there has been discussion for years about how to better represent social diversity. Even if these discussions have not led to people with disabilities being adequately represented in films, for example. What must be questioned, however, is which actors are chosen to portray people with disabilities. Sophia Stewart aptly writes: "The Oscars Love Movies About Disability, Not Disabled Actors".
Video games have a similar impact on society as movies. They are now produced at similar expense, the computer game industry is extremely financially strong, and it can be assumed that computer game aesthetics have an enormous influence on the perception of many people. At a first glance, however, it seems that computer games depending on the genre are a last stronghold of "ableism". Action games in particular emphasize the value of the "healthy" body. Deviations from the "norm" are often portrayed not simply as weakness. No, rather they can lead to limiting the success of the game. The perfect or even the perfected body is idealized as the maximum positive.
History seems to be particularly exciting for computer games. Not only scenarios around World War II dominate the computer game market. The Middle Ages, antiquity and numerous "hybrid forms" in which historical events are mixed with mythological narratives are popular game settings as well (see Angela Schwarz 2012 (in German language)). Increasingly, scholars are also investigating the extent to which history in computer games can be understood as part of a remembrance culture (Nolden 2019). History is always culturally embedded. From a historiographical perspective, therefore, it is not only the reconstruction of the past that is interesting. Rather, the way societies deal with the past is also a worthwhile object of research. In German-language discourse, the term "historical culture" has become established. This term refers to the way societies consciously (for example through holidays) or unconsciously (for example in aesthetic products) deal with the past (Rüsen 1994; Schönemann 2014). In computer games, both are combined: the conscious knowledge of the past that the developers refer to. Conscious aesthetic norms that shape the look and feel of the game are also taken into account. Beyond that, however, unconscious images about history also influence the games. It can therefore also be assumed that stereotypical ideas about "dis/ability" influence the conception of video games. So, let's take a closer look at some of the games.
Disabilities as algorithms in Crusader Kings II
As an example, take Crusader Kings II, a grand-strategy game by Paradox Interactive first published in 2012. As the name suggest, the game is set in the Middle Ages but was never limited to the time of the crusades. You can pick your starting point from a huge variety of regions, from the kingdom of Wessex to Nubia to Tibet at several points in time between 769 to 1337 A.D. Basically, the goal of the game is to keep going, to build a dynasty, since if your character dies, you’re continuing with the heir/heiress, usually a relative. But there are many other ambitions to pursuit, “grooming an heir” is just one. The interesting part is how randomized features come into play: choosing a “character focus” and a goal changes what kind of events happen throughout the game. Also, all kinds of features and characteristics are quantified, so is the player’s character’s “health” which will be influenced by the player’s choices.
For example, choosing a focus on “Family” increases your character’s fertility by 25% and comes with a health bonus. Choosing “War” as a focus raises the personal combat skill but gives you a higher chance to be challenged to a duel, which is always a risk, since losing the duel could also result in being heavily wounded or even losing a limb. There are various ways to become disabled, but there are also genetic traits that can affect the character or their offspring, like being “clubfooted”, a “dwarf”, a “hunchback” or “imbecile”, just to name a few. They all affect your health negatively throughout the game by decreasing your overall health score, your personal combat skill, your fertility, your attraction and even the opinion your vassals have of you as in how much they like you. Besides having an eye-patch, none of these disabilities are visible on the character, only the trait-icons tell you about the disabilities and what effects they have.
Icons in Crusader Kings II
In order to succeed players naturally look for the best stats possible by e.g., marrying a genius spouse or acquiring new skills or – getting rid of the potentially disadvantaged heir. Depending on the chosen region and time the dynasty does not always build on primogeniture and you can also try to change succession-law. Or you can ask for more or less cruel advice in the Paradox’s forums like one player did. In other forums, too, physicality and Ableism are usually discussed in a (negatively) judgmental way by players:
The simplification of history and the responsibilities of videogame developers
CK II is a hugely complex game and not every way of how health can be influenced could be considered here, however the representation of disabilities is questionable the least. As all other characteristics, disabilities are represented as numbers that effect the algorithms of the game. While the game tries to build some parts of the settings on seemingly historical conditions (for example the power structures in the region of your choice), other parts like being disabled are not reflected historically. Historical games, especially in the strategy game genre, are notorious for simplifying complex processes and realities to algorithms with specific functions in the gameplay. However, unlike in other games, where developers progressed to include more female characters, more People of colour, and more diverse gender identities and sexualities, how disabilities and disabled characters are depicted here doesn’t make them more visible per se, they become more of an obstacle in the game that players either try to “get rid of” or “balance out” with other stats.
Furthermore, this attitude towards disabilities and their visibility hasn’t changed with the release of its successor, Crusader Kings III, as Nicolas Huss has pointed out in his review (in German language). But as mentioned above, these images matter, as they proceed to stick in people’s heads and perpetuate narratives. Since disabled characters in media are often made less likeable or are villainized even anyway, game studios need to be reminded that these depictions perpetuate ableist attitudes, as it happened with one of the enemies in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla developed by Ubisoft. Video game producers have a responsibility, just like other actors in culture.
Sebastian Barsch is professor of history didactics at Kiel University. Joana Hansen is a doctoral candidate in medieval studies at Kiel University.
References of printed literature
- Nolden, Nico: Geschichte und Erinnerung in Computerspielen: Erinnerungskulturelle Wissenssysteme. Boston 2019.
- Rüsen, Jörn: Was ist Geschichtskultur? Überlegungen zu einer neuen Art, über Geschichte nachzudenken. In: Jörn Rüsen, Theo Grütter, Klaus Füßmann (Ed.): Historische Faszination. Geschichtskultur heute. Köln 1994, 3–26.
- Schönemann, Bernd: Geschichtsdidaktik, Geschichtskultur, Geschichtswissenschaft. In: Günther-Arndt, Hilke/ Zülsdorf-Kersting, Meik (Hrsg.): Geschichts-Didaktik. Berlin (6th ed.) 2014, 11–23.
Barsch, Sebastian/ Hansen, Joana (2022): Disability and video game culture. In: Public Disability History 7 (2022) 2.