“S**z If You Want To”: Watch Dogs 2, Ableism, and Cultural Ignorance

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Content warnings: multiple uses of a variety of ableist slurs and descriptions of ableist bullying.

Watch Dogs was a cool game that feel victim to its own overbearing hype, so when Ubisoft released the first trailer for Watch Dogs 2 and showed off it more light-hearted, teen-focused style, I was immediately excited to see where the series could go.

Except the trailer had one huge problem: the song. The trailer was backed by N.E.R.D’s song “Spaz”, which immediately put me, as a disabled person outside of America, on the defensive. It’s a word that keeps popping up in the media, often by creators with little to no understanding of the word’s international connotations.

Outside of North America, “spaz” is a slur often aimed at people with disabilities, particularly those with conditions that cause either cognitive or motor impairments. It comes from “spastic”, a term that historically has been used to describe people with Cerebral Palsy. A lot of its history as a slur comes from the appearance of Joey Deacon, a man with Cerebral Palsy, on the children’s show Blue Peter.

His appearance and mannerisms were quickly used by children as a way to insult each other, and eventually “spastic” gave birth to further words like “spaz”, “spack”, “spazzer” and “spacka”. From anecdotal evidence of those I’ve discussed it with, the word’s also grown into a slur in other European countries, and potentially in Australia too. The UK’s leading disability charity, Scope, was renamed from “The Spastics Society”, and using “spastic” in a medical context has all but vanished now.

(I hate this video, by the way.)

However, this progression of a medical term to offensive slur didn’t really happen in the States. The term was initially linked to disability, much like elsewhere, however, it’s since become more of a phrase to mean clumsy or erratic. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t much better than tweens using “gay” to mean “bad”, even if it isn’t technically considered a slur in its context.

“But Joe, Watch Dogs 2 is developed in Canada by a French publisher for a game set in America! It isn’t a slur there! What’s the problem?” The problem is the game is being marketed worldwide, including to countries where it is considered offensive. The trailer was released globally online, and pieces of media released internationally should consider how the words it uses are accepted in different cultures. The line “spaz if you want to” being repeated constantly doesn’t actually add anything to the trailer, and any other song could’ve been used, and nobody would’ve cared. The song adds nothing to the trailer in the States that no other song could’ve done, and it causes more issues internationally.

I have a disability which affects my motor skills and muscle tone (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). I have very poor proprioception, and because of that, I did badly in PE (Gym class) in school. I didn’t have the stamina or the coordination to do what the other children were doing, and so because children are probably demons from the ninth circle of hell born to torment all those who are even the slightest bit different, that of course ended up in a lot of bullying.

I was called everything from “spaz” to “spack” to “Forrest Gump”, both in PE and outside of it. One time, in particular, we had to do long-distance running, and I remember the entire class decided to run alongside me mock-singing “Is This the Way to Amarillo”. Ableist bullying, like any other bullying, hurts. It being condoned or tolerated by teachers because they thought it might “push me harder” hurt (quite literally too, thanks to my condition). While I’ve gotten over it as I’ve grown up, seeing people uncritically use, or even worse defend, the use of those words that were used against me, feels wrong.

Ubisoft globally releasing a trailer – a commercial product trying to drum up interested purchasers – that uses language that disparages probably a large proportion of its consumer base, is, quite plainly, ignorant. Words have different meanings in different countries, sure, but when a French company releases a globally available trailer, there has to be some consideration that the content of the trailer isn’t needlessly, unjustifiably offensive.

Watch Dogs 2 looks great already, Ubisoft. We didn’t need to “spaz if we want to” as well…

The Disabled Gaming Resource

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Being a fan of videogames while being disabled can be difficult. When we’re not flat-out ignored, the resources we need to enjoy our hobby are often scarce and difficult to find.

To help rectify that, here is a collection of resources, tools, and communities, both for those with disabilities and those who want to make things easier for us.

I hope this list of resources helps. If there is anything I have missed, please tweet @JoeParlock or email parlock (at) outlook (dot) com, and I will try and add it to the list.

Please note: While I am not able to personally verify every resource on this list, I have been sure to exclude defunct or too-small organisations.

I also do not claim to necessarily share the personal politics, opinions or beliefs of anyone on this list. We all just work toward the same common goal: making lives easier for disabled gamers.

I’m a disabled gamer, or know a disabled gamer, and need help:

SpecialEffect (UK) – http://www.specialeffect.org.uk/

AbleGamers – http://www.ablegamers.com/

CanAssist (Canada) – http://www.canassist.ca/EN/main/programs/technologies-and-devices/hobbies-and-leisure/gaming-controller.html

Accessable Games – http://www.accessablegames.com/

MERU – http://meru.org.uk/

The Controller Project – http://thecontrollerproject.com/

OneSwitch – http://www.oneswitch.org.uk/

I want reviews of games that take disabled accessibility into account:

Unstoppable Gamer – http://www.unstoppablegamer.com/category/accessible-game-reviews/

GameCritics.com – http://gamecritics.com/

I am a developer and want to make my game more accessible:

Includification – http://www.includification.com/

Brannon Zahand’s accessibility guide – http://www.brannonz.com/accessibility/disabilities.html

BBC’s Accessible Game Standards (more for web-based games) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/futuremedia/accessibility/games.shtml

IGDA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group – http://igda-gasig.org/about-game-accessibility/game-accessibility-top-ten/

Game Accessibility Guidelines – http://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/

Alan Zucconi’s Colour Blindness tutorial – http://www.alanzucconi.com/2015/12/16/color-blindness/

I am a disabled gamer and want to find other disabled people to play with:

/r/DisabledGamers – https://www.reddit.com/r/disabledgamers/

AbleGamers Steam Group – http://steamcommunity.com/groups/ablegamers

Disabled Gamers and Friends – http://steamcommunity.com/groups/GamingHeals

I want to read more about gaming with disabilities:

Antagonise the Horn’s disabled writing masterpost – http://antagonizethehorn.com/2015/01/28/disability-and-gaming-resource-list/

My own collection of writing – https://joeparlock.wordpress.com/tag/disability/

 

How Pokemon is a Great Metaphor for Chronic Pain

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I’ve done a lot of walking today. It was for a good cause, and I had a nice day, but nonetheless I did a lot of walking.

For most people, that’d just mean having a lazy evening sat chilling, but for me and my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, it means for the next couple of days I’ll be in quite a bit of pain. Random twinges in my calf muscles and both kneecaps feeling like they’re trying to secede from the rest of my body are just some of the fun things I’ve got in store.

This experience got me thinking about there not being very many games that really emulate the feeling I have right now. Plenty of games have stamina meters (including the frankly excellent Us which I wrote about for Indie Haven), but few manage to link the very act of moving to a real punishment in the same was as living with something like EDS.

And then it hit me: Pokemon is one of the best games about disability, and it isn’t even about disability.

Introduced in the first generation of Pokemon games, the Safari Zone is an area that was always incredibly exciting to me as a small child. There wasn’t the annoying battle system, I just got to stroll through a pretty zone and catch rad Pokemon like Kangaskhan and Scyther. But there was a caveat to the entire Safari Zone: every step I took, a timer would count down. Once it hit zero that was it. Fun’s over, no more Scythers for me.

The Safari Zone is a pretty decent parallel to explain what my day has been like. I enjoyed it, much like I did on my little Gameboy Safari trip, but it’s something I was also actively punished for doing. I had to sum up whether going a little bit further was worth it, or whether it’d just push me to the point I could do no more.

Having that threat of punishment, of not being able to do anything else if you take too many steps, also helps show the mind-set of people like me in day-to-day life. In the first generation of games, you are rewarded with a HM called “Surf” if you reach the centre of the zone. This lets you sail across the water and continue progressing through the game. Getting to the centre of the Safari Zone absolutely requires you to cut out any superfluous steps, as even with the most efficient route you get dangerously close to the limit.

Getting surf is about struggling against your own limited mobility, and it requires you to see the obstacles ahead of you in a very different way. Cutting corners, avoiding long grass, making sure you don’t get turned around and lost. That streamlining of movement mirrors things I have to tackle in everyday life. Can I really get to that shop, or are my legs already too bad? Will going out for fun now make it more difficult for me to do the things I absolutely need to do later on? I’m sure anybody familiar with chronic fatigue or pain would have asked themselves very similar questions.

It’s just interesting that I have been playing Pokemon for as long as I can remember, and yet it’s taken me now being sat in pain after shopping to realise just why my favourite bit of them really is my favourite.

Good job, Safari Zone. You may not have meant to be a good analogy for chronic pain, but god damn it you are.

What it’s like gaming with chronic pain, and why I fear the future

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I wrote for Polygon again! This time, about chronic pain and how that impacts my gaming.

EDS has throws obstacles between me and my enjoyment of games. The ever-shifting trends in game design, and the introduction of new hardware, constantly threaten to push me out of a hobby I love. I want to both shed some light on the problems I face, and also share resources of those aiming to improve mine and others’ gaming experience.

You can read the full article here.

Different Bodies and Deus Ex – Making Disability the Enemy

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Deus Ex is considered to be one of the quintessential works of the cyberpunk genre in games, as well as one of the most well-received games of all time. Telling a story of human augmentation, an increasing presence of technology in our lives, and the conspiracies of those in control of it, Deus Ex deals with a lot of topics.

While transhumanism is the big, obvious theme, the trailer for the recently announced fourth main game in the series Deus Ex: Mankind Divided got me thinking about the series in terms of disability, because what else do I seem to think about?

Mankind Divided is set after Deux Ex: Human Revolution, but before the first Deus Ex. The augmentations available to the public are still widely mechanical as opposed to nanomachines later on in the game’s canon. The trailer for Mankind Divided sets up a civil-war – or even an X-Men-like scenario – where tensions are rising between the augmented underclass and the non-augmented people in power.

People who have been augmented are often very visibly different from non-augmented people: differently coloured limbs, bulkier bodies, and scarring are often shown to be the results of replacing body parts with machines. In this way, parallels to how disability is seen in the media and in society can be drawn and need to be made before discussing the trailer more in-depth.

Augmented bodies aren’t seen as ‘whole’. Their physical ‘completeness’ has been compromised by this new technology – limbs and organs have been removed, and foreign external entities have invaded the body in ways that’s seen as being obscene and challenges what having a physical body means. Augmentation is often traumatic, as is the case of Adam Jensen’s augmentations in Human Revolution. Disability, or in this case transhumanism, is often used to challenge the audience’s certainty about their own body; this is the main crutch which body horror relies on for example.

This is a very common way that the media defines disability: this body is wrong, it’s broken, and it makes able-bodied people uncomfortable because it reaffirms the fragility of their physical self by making disability a terrible fate worse than death. ‘If it can happen to this person, what’s to stop it from happening to me?’

With my general unease about transhumanism and augmentation as themes explained, the trailer itself also raises some pretty big issues.

The trailer begins as a generic cinematic trailer: rain, fancy futuristic cityscapes. Adam Jensen is running around looking worried as usual. However, about 30 seconds in a voice is heard saying: “we are human beings.” Immediately after, people with augmented limbs (many of which resemble current real-world prosthetics) are being searched and beaten by security forces.

The scene is sympathetic to those being attacked, which is nice, but is then followed up by news reports labelling them as ‘terrorists’; painting the marginalised as a threat and making augmentation (and so by extension disability) “dangerous”. This directly links in to the idea that disability threatens and questions the physical status of able-bodied people, which isn’t so nice.

To make matters worse, it turns out there are a group of augmented individuals who are members of a terrorist group, and they carry out an attack. There is an explosion, and people die, so the images of augmentation are simply confirmed and validated.

We finally see who the owner of that voice was: a large, burly, scarred Russian man, with bulky augmented limbs and a missing eye. He’s the leader of this terrorist group. After Jensen fights and kills almost all of them, the Russian man invites Jensen to his cause by invoking the red scare trope, saying “this should be your fight as well… brother.” The use of ‘brother’, and the thick Russian accent, is plainly a ploy to use similarities to anti-communism to make the audience feel uncomfortable and code this man as the villain.

The leader of this terrorist group is a big ball of tropes, and is othered in as many ways as Eidos Montreal could fit: he’s a very large, physically imposing Russian man, whose physical ‘wholeness’ has been compromised by his bulky augmentations – his silhouette isn’t that of a non-augmented person’s. His face has been scared and encroached upon by augmentations, and his eye is missing; disability is used as a way to reinforce how this character is the ‘bad guy’ of the game just as much as the stereotypical Russian accent and call-backs to communism does.

That’s not the only evidence shown in the trailer there. There is one scene that stands out: the Russian man offers his large, unhuman augmented hand to the character who is shown to have caused the explosion, making him kiss it as a sign of subservience. Immediately after, this is paralleled by Adam Jensen’s more human-looking hand grasping a dead but organic hand.

The imagery here is pretty plain to see: the non-human hand is the threat to ‘normal’, ‘complete’ people, who are seen as the victims of these physically different enemies – physical difference is the driving force behind determining who is good and who is bad in this trailer; disability is a quick codifier for the morality of the characters. While we don’t know how Mankind Divided will play yet, Human Revolution also featured a lot of moral ambiguity, and so for this trailer to so readily decide for us who the antagonists are is bothersome.

Ultimately, Mankind Divided could be a good game, but the way this trailer quickly uses metaphors of disability to define who is good and who is bad is something a lot of media does. Deus Ex has constantly done it: Jensen’s augmentations were the result of severe physical trauma, and a lot of Human Revolution shows Jensen struggling to accept it. Disability is seen as a bad thing, and as a result those who are disabled are often seen as bad as well.

So forgive me for not being entirely optimistic about this game.

Why I Cried at Fallout 3’s Quest About Disability

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At the risk of my oh-so-fragile masculinity, I’ve cried at a lot of pieces of fiction and I’m not ashamed to admit that.

I got to thinking about this after reading Laura Kate’s piece on Indie Haven about the second episode of Life is Strange and how that affected her. I really recommend you read that, but be warned it contains massive, major spoilers for Life is Strange: Episode 2. I also want to make clear that I don’t intend to compare my experiences to Laura’s in any way, nor do I consider the experience I want to talk about anywhere near as severe as Laura’s. It’s simply her article made me think of this, and I wanted to share those thoughts.

Anyway, one of the many things that has made me cry that, and I feel slightly embarrassed about, is Fallout 3. Specifically, the Oasis quest. If you have not played Fallout 3, it is set long after a nuclear apocalypse in the ruined wastelands surrounding Washington DC. Far to the north of this wasteland is a secret grove full of green trees, fresh water, and a cult of people worshipping what they think is a living tree called Harold.

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The problem is, Harold isn’t a living tree. He’s stuck inside of it. Harold was a victim of mutation hundreds of years previous and was left with a tree growing out of his head. He finally became rooted to the ground through this plant and has been stuck in Oasis ever since. Inside the wood, he is a living being who is tired and in pain, and the quest he gives you is to kill him and put an end to his suffering.

As I have mentioned before on Indie Haven, I have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It’s a connective tissue disorder that affects my mobility and also causes severe chronic pain. Naturally, I identified with Harold in this way, and respected his charming and affable personality during the dialogue with him. Harold is a genuinely nice and funny guy, he’s just in a bad place and needs help with that.

To kill Harold, you must travel underground and destroy his heart. Alternatively, you can set him on fire to achieve the same goal, but that will cause him a tremendous pain and reduce your in-game morality. Alternatively, I could keep him alive and even speed up his tree’s growth at the request of the cult.

This quest had presented me with an extreme and obviously very fantastical version of the situation I am in because of my disability. It expected me to carry out the most extreme measure possible, contrary to my own feelings on the matter. I would not want for myself and my condition what Harold wanted for himself. I could’ve paid attention to the cult at Oasis and not killed him, but why would I when not only did the cult want him to live for their own selfish reasons, but Harold had his own voice?

I understood the pain Harold would’ve been in, and begrudgingly set out to put an end to it. I killed the nicest character in the game.

I left the game feeling bummed out at the loss of a fantastic character in Harold, but overall satisfied with the interesting narrative the game had presented me. Then I read the Fallout Wiki’s page for the quest.

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It turned out that you could in fact talk Harold out of it. I could’ve convinced him to not want to die, but instead accept his disability. While this throws the right-to-die debate in the game in to slight disarray, that option allows me to truly get across my feelings within the game. I didn’t know I could do any of this when I’d played, and only found out after the fact.

I identified with Harold, but the quest previously took away all the agency I wanted in that identification: either I killed Harold as per his wishes, or I let him live as per the cult’s wishes. I was never aware I was able to encourage him to live because of my own feelings, for non-selfish reasons. The decision I made was the lesser of two evils. I simply didn’t know the option to talk him out of it was there. I missed that opportunity.

That heart-breaking realisation I could’ve done better by this character that I identified so strongly with is why I cried at Fallout 3. That desperation at wanting to try again for reasons external to the game is why it came to mind when reading Laura’s article. Naturally, I cannot and will not speak for Laura, but I wasn’t upset about what happened in the game. I was upset because I’d allowed what happened to happen, despite it hitting so close to home.

That’s the story about why I cried over a fictional tree-mutant’s death.

Disability in Gaming: The Problem of Representation

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A piece that I am particularly proud of, discussing how people with disabilities are represented in the media – particularly games. I interviewed a gamer who is blind, and also discussed my own disability. It was published on Indie Haven.

Click here to read this on Indie Haven!