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…