Study reveals that disabled characters are rarely represented in video games and that prejudices still exist
A new study by Currys PC World investigating diversity in the gaming industry has found that, while the representation of disabilities has improved in games since the nineties, there is still “a long way to go to accurately represent the diverse communities playing them”.
Using a bespoke scoring system, Currys PC World analysed games that have made a mark at E3 and The Game Awards over the last two decades.
Games were awarded points for disabled characters or references, as well as female characters in prominent positions; for exploring LGBTQ+ plot points or themes; and for mixed race characters prominently placed in the story.
The study found that on the rare occasions that disabilities are represented in games, they are more likely to be physical ailments than mental. Physical disabilities include amputees, burn victims, victims of ballistic trauma, wheelchair-bound characters and more. For developers, these are the disabilities they’re most likely to tackle.
It also revealed that mental health has only been tackled in the last few years due to increased awareness of mental health conditions. More nuanced issues, like anxiety and depression, are far less prevalent in games than physical disabilities, the study showed.
Additionally, Currys PC World found that characters with a physical disability are often “fixed” in video games.
Accessibility Expert Ian Hamilton commented: “This notion that people with disabilities are broken and need to be fixed – a concept known as the medical model of disability – was rejected and abandoned in the 1970s, yet still persists in media and in games, often through the trope of medical conditions being replaced by superhuman powers or superhuman prosthetics.
“Moreover, games are often guilty of furthering the myth that a disability is rare, with all the impact that has on broader prejudice and discrimination.”
An example of a video game with a character with a mental health condition is Deadly Premonition, which shows protagonist Francis York Morgan talking to an imaginary character, Zach. Currys PC World says that what starts off as a curious subplot turns into a fascinating exploration of mental health.
Two more notable video games with disabled characters are SS Normandy and Grand Theft Auto V. The Joker, ace pilot of Mass Effect’s SS Normandy, suffers from Vrolik syndrome (brittleness of the bones), while Lester, the sardonic sidekick in Grand Theft Auto V, has an unnamed wasting disease. Both men in these games are independent in spite of the challenges they face and are not defined by their disabilities.
Ian concluded: “Representation of characters with disabilities is still rare. It is often simply not on people’s radars. And when it is, fear of handling it badly can put people off.
“When it comes to accessibility [creating games that disabled players can enjoy], the situation has changed profoundly. It’s now a mainstream topic.”