Written by Antony Clements
From the players to the developers, through to the games themselves, gaming is supposed to be an all-inclusive industry. Sadly, this is not the case. There is one demographic that for whatever reason is insanely under-represented. The disabled. Specifically, the physically disabled. By that, I don’t mean someone who walks with a limp or uses a cane. Rather, I mean people who for whatever reason are in a wheelchair, or have limb deformities or amputations. Both are not very often represented. People in wheelchairs least of all.
I’m deliberately only focusing on the upper body here because other forms of deformity/amputation are better addressed by the mobility space which I will talk about later. The issue here is mostly from the player base. There are many games, I would even go as far as to say most games, requires two hands to play effectively. Sure, there are a few games around by prominent publishers that can be played with one hand, but for the best player experience, you really need two hands. For this reason, you’ll never see someone with an arm or hand deformity/amputation playing at an elite level. The only exception to this rule that I can think of is Hearthstone. Still, there are no players on the elite stage with arm or hand deformities/amputations. The question then becomes why is that the case. The only thing I can think of is a person’s inherent unconscious bias, either in how they view themselves or how others view them.
By mobility, I mean people who have a significant leg deformity, paraplegics, quadriplegics, people with leg amputations. The issue here is predominantly in the developer space and game representation, but also in the VR player space, which is where I currently work. People in wheelchairs like myself have almost zero representation in the developer space. I know of four developers in wheelchairs. Myself included. An acquaintance of mine, Jane*, works for Blizzard Entertainment, one of the most well-known development studios on Earth, at their Irvine campus. I asked her once how many people in wheelchairs work there. She didn’t answer. Blizzard prides itself not only on the games it makes but also with inclusiveness. For Jane to not answer means one of two things. She doesn’t know, or she is ashamed of the painfully low numbers. Blizzard Entertainment is a big company, granted, but people in wheelchairs stand out. We have the proverbial big red arrow that screams ‘here I am’. As big as the Irvine campus is, it is far more likely that the number is painfully low. Possibly even a big black zero. There are several reasons for this. Another acquaintance of mine, Lilly* who currently lives in the Netherlands sees the same problem. She started Train Jam in 2013, with the first event being held in 2014. At first, there were no people in wheelchairs, but to Lilly’s credit, she made a point of letting people know that it was a wheelchair friendly event, and one developer showed up. Whether that number has risen since Lilly moved to the Netherlands, I can’t say. But it’s still a painfully low number.
Within game representation, it’s just as bad. Of all the games I know of, only one game has one of the main characters in a wheelchair. Yes, it is that rare. Most studios, for whatever reason, will not even bother. Perhaps in their collective mind, we don’t make interesting or compelling characters. Dontnod Entertainment flipped that mentality on its head with their title Life Is Strange. In one of the episodes of the game, one of the main characters, Chloe, is a quadriplegic. I have to say, they nailed it. Modelling
and animating a quadriplegic character is straightforward, but when that character has dialogue, and she has a lot, it becomes a whole new ball game. You must have intimate knowledge of the mindset to get it right. And get it right they did.
As previously mentioned, the number of developers in wheelchairs is painfully low. This is not helped at all by the fact that while most developers acknowledge the problem, no one really wants to do anything about it. Everyone is focused on getting women into the development industry, which is great. But what people don’t realize is that there is a huge overlap with disabled persons in the industry. We have a lot of the same problems ranging from employment to lack of pay parity, only, in some areas, a disabled person has it worse. In the US, people in wheelchairs have a 95% unemployment across the board. If you want to go into a STEMM field like game development, your employment prospects are even bleaker. Australia is not much better in that regard. For those who are lucky to have employment, our pay packet is around 50 cents in the dollar. We literally make roughly 20% less than what the average woman does, and roughly half of what a male developer does, and that is a big problem because then you have people who are more than capable of being a developer asking themselves why should I even bother. People in wheelchairs are also often treated like we are mentally deficient and therefore of no value to a development studio. I’ve even had a developer actively try and exclude me from the developer space by refusing to even acknowledge there is a problem, then trying to have me ostracised from the developer community. It wouldn’t be an issue if she was a low-profile developer, with not a whole lot of pull within the industry, but she isn’t. For that reason, she gets away with ableism, while the lone developer in a wheelchair gets dragged through the mud. In the end, I had to apologize to her for her ableism so that I didn’t destroy my career prospects.
Then there is studio accessibility. If you’re a mid-size developer like Riot Games or a smaller developer like Flat Earth games, the initial cost of making the studio accessible is not worth the long-term gains of bringing in a developer in a wheelchair, even though it would allow for a greater diversity in the games they make.
Mobility within the VR space is also a big thing. If you are in a wheelchair, you can either move around the scene, or you can use the controllers. Doing both at the same time is not really an option. If you are an arm or hand amputee, you can only use one controller at a time. Currently, I am actively working to solve this problem by creating VR controllers for people with disabilities to diversify the player base. Fixing the other problems is a little more difficult. I guess that makes me one of the stupid ones for even trying.
*Names changed for privacy.
Antony Clements is an Australian game developer working in the VR space. He is bound to a wheelchair.