Super Prostheses and Disabled Representation in Games


#1

Preface: I am able-bodied, and want to know if my vibe around this subject is generally shared by those with physical disabilities or not

In a recent episode of the podcast, Austin mentioned how exciting it is that Sekiro leans hard into the protagonist’s prosthetic arm. He discussed how it was a positive move for representation and was an uncommon move to incorporate a physical disability mechanically to empower the character. I had two reactions to this. First, I was surprised, because the “better robot arm” is, to me, a very prominent trope. Just this month, Nero from DMCV has a badass series of prosthetic arms. Venom Snake from MGSV has the same deal. The brand new character in Apex Legends, Octane, has better robot legs. This trope abounds in video games, comics, and movies, which I think stems from the tendency to dramatically remove an arm as a way to non-lethally raise the stakes.

My second reaction is the one I’d really like to talk about, though: this doesn’t actually feel like very good representation of disability to me. Now, as mentioned in my preface, I am coming at this from the perspective of an able-bodied person, and I’d really like to be corrected if I’m seeing this the wrong way. When a limb is removed just to be replaced, consequence free, with a superior mechanical/magical prosthetic, it doesn’t seem to address any of the challenges of a physical disability. Ultimately, for these characters, the disability has no impact. I would think that characters who actually overcome their disability in the way real people are able to (since superpowered grappling hook robo arms aren’t real) are what representation should really look like. I’m thinking here of Baiken from Guilty Gear, Oro from Street Fighter, and Bentley from Sly Cooper. Each of these characters has lost/lost use of a limb(s) and has to deal with the impact that has on their lives without some magic replacement.

Of course, I also understand how the sort of over-the-top power fantasies of DMC and MGS could be empowering as representative of disability as strength. To me though, it feels like it skips over the disability itself.

Am I off base here? It’s a thought I’ve been having for a while, and Austin’s comment pushed me to say something about it (since he, as far as I know, also has full use of all of his limbs, but felt comfortable commenting).

Thanks!


#2

Playing Thimbleweed Park last night, there was a sequence as an insult clown where I was supposed to mock members of the audience. I skipped over mocking a person in a wheelchair, and consequently missed earning a trophy.


#3

Disability representation is really hard to do in media, I think. There’s no perfect way to do it, nor is it going to satisfy everyone… For example, my brother has severe autism. He’s a few years younger than me, I’m 30, but he basically has the mentality of a small child. He basically speaks like a toddler, stemming all the time, and only uses fractured sentences to communicate. It’s something we’ve lived with and struggled with, but he’s part of the family. But, we see autistic people represented in the media all the time as ‘socially awkward super geniuses.’ On one hand, there are autistic people who probably lean more on that hyper focused socially awkward scale, and that representation is good for them. On the other hand, I think it kind of undersells the reality of these people’s lives. My brother can get angry and sometimes violent when something triggers his OCD, or he will get locked into a very specific thing and growl SUPER LOUD, drawing the eyes of everyone. It’s not SEXY NERDY COOL like we see in NCIS or Watch_Dogs 2. And how would you portray the autism my brother has? It’s a hard line to walk… Because how do you portray that without coming off wholly over-the-top insensitive?

I think of Barbara Gordon a lot when it comes to this. Barbara Gordon is Batgirl in the Batman comics. She is famously shot in the back by the Joker and paralyzed. Now, this WHOLE sequence is problematic for a number of reasons, but that created the character of Oracle. Oracle basically became a whole new character, being the woman in the ear piece to Batman, helping him on his missions, hacking into places he couldn’t get, etc. It wasn’t perfect, but she was disability representation. People have mentioned things like, “Why doesn’t Cyborg or another character give her robotic legs or something?” That could work, but then it just kind of… erases her disability. But then there’s how she became disabled, which rendered a strong woman character much weaker because of a man’s actions. And then there’s the New 52, that brought her BACK to her original self. That erased all the disability representation with Oracle. Which is the correct way to represent her?

I think my point is that disability representation is hard to do, and messy. I feel like there’s some kind of alienation no matter how we approach it. That doesn’t imply I think we should stop or anything, it’s just that this stuff doesn’t really have an answer. At least not yet.


#4

I guess one of the questions this raises for me is: how many of these portrayals of weaponized/augmented prosthetics actually frame it as a disability or are intended as representation? That demonstrate a willingness to show their experiences outside of using it as a means for power fantasy? I’m left thinking that a lot of where this trope comes from is less from a place of conveying the experiences of disabled folks and offering a means of empowerment, and more an (often) able-bodied, transhumanist power fantasy. Which while that is a power fantasy I’m sure has been meaningful to people who use prosthetics in their lives (and as a trans person it certainly has its appeal) I would not personally be so quick to celebrate it as The Representation.

Even in the cases where the intent is clearly not to ask any of these questions, I do think it’s something worth interrogating and worth involving more disabled perspectives in the process of creating these characters. There is a severe lack of disabled folks’ voices in all creative spaces (the trope in question is definitely not exclusive to games) and we could do a lot more to boost their voices and allow them to tell their own kinds of stories, including those about power fantasy. Unfortunately most conversations about disabled bodies in games ends at accessibility, which while important shouldn’t leave us viewing disability as a problem to be solved rather than people deserving of being included & represented.

(and this of course goes beyond physical disability, it’s very easy to find all the awfuls ways mental illness is talked about and represented in games)


#5

Super-prosthesis are generally not great representation in my eyes, largely because they almost always nearly-erase the disability in the first place. Like, in DMC5, nothing really implies that this arm is a real disability - it’s a lateral shift for Nero. Same with Sekiro’s previews - it’s got the glamour of enhancement, in that it compensates completely and (apparently) effortlessly. This being FROMsoft, I expect that there’s some trade off, but I suspect it’s supernatural, not the everyday compromises that a prosthetic actually offers (which would make a fascinating but maybe less than mainstream action game).
That being said, representation is complicated - I think in this action space, prosthetics were a good start - they are fundamentally power fantasies in many ways, and seeing a broader set of people and bodies in those is cool. It’s just so rarely actually about actual disability.


#6

I feel like this is a big thing that comes up with this trope and I was especially thinking about it when it comes to Octane. If you interrogate his story he lost his legs in a test of speed and then got prosthetic legs that made him even faster, I can’t imagine that in the whole context that’s something that most people with disabilities can relate to.

When it comes to representation overall it’s important to remember that it’s not a one size fits all thing. I’m also an able-bodied person but to borrow from the example of Octane, speaking as a hispanic person, I think it’s awesome to have a hispanic character in the game and I like that he incorporates Spanglish but I generally have conflicted feelings about hispanic characters with notable hispanic accents because that doesn’t represent me, much of my immediate family or many of my friends.

So while I wouldn’t be surprised if some people do see a positive reflection of themselves in characters with super-prosthesis, creators can do more to avoid the idea of transhumanism and more accurately display aspects of living with a disability even while incorporating fantastical elements.


#7

I’m also able-bodied, so huge grain of salt, but I’d also imagine that magical super prostheses are probably not super encouraging to people with disabilities because they (typically) don’t address the realities of that experience. Portrayals that go into the difficulties and expense in acquiring protheses, learning to use them, the things they do worse (and better) than organic limbs*, and portrayals that recognise that prostheses are built for function over form (prostheses for runners who don’t have organic legs don’t look like organic legs, prostheses made to replace hands typically do not look like hands because human hands are really complex and difficult to replicate), would probably be more well-received. But, equally, it’s shitty to make it all doom-and-gloom (especially if it’s written from an able-bodied standpoint, ideally it would obviously be written by or with heavy influence from people with lived experience to guide it) - people with disabilities should be allowed the same power fantasies as everyone else.

I’ve heard Fullmetal Alchemist praised for its representation of characters using prosthesis, because while they are magical prostheses that Edward shapeshifts using alchemy, it also addresses things like Edward being exceptionally lucky in being able to afford his prosthetic arm and leg (especially since he’s still growing and needs them replaced periodically), the physical strain they put on him, his phantom pain, and the downsides of having heavy, relatively-delicate metal limbs compared to flesh-and-bone ones. A sensitivity to the unique struggles of that experience, without it being just a pity piece, allowing characters with prostheses to be just as cool and valuable and interesting as everyone else.

*I hope this terminology is not offensive, and if it is I’ll obviously have to change it as soon as I’m informed.


#8

My ears also perked up upon hearing this aside about the Sekiro prosthetic. My mind did not, however, go to disability. Maybe this is because we are all prosthetic beings insofar as we rely on so many exterior, artifactual processes that run the gamut from language and electronic networks to chairs and sewage systems. How, then, might video games (and other media formats for that matter) represent disability if not through explicitly prosthetic means?

It might be helpful to shift the register from focusing on the body to what is called the social theory of disability. According to this framework, a person in a wheelchair is not inherently disabled because they lack the same capacity of leg usage as an able-bodied person. On the contrary, this “lack” is excluded from the theory because it positions the disabled as somehow less than the abled. Instead, a person who ambulates with a wheelchair is only disabled when confronted by society’s built environment (including discursive frameworks that categorize people) in a way that limits their capacity to act. For example: when confronted by a staircase with no readily available alternative like a ramp or elevator.

This offers an extremely flexible and variable understanding of disability. For one, it acknowledges concrete differences between people without assuming an archetypal human being. This means recognizing the equality of different persons in a way that is not blind to the inequalities that result from our social world. It focuses on what @JennySighs points out as crucial for representing disability: “the realities of the experience.” In the field of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, for instance, pregnancy can be recognized as a disability when it renders the person vulnerable to sexist workplace policies and social behaviors. To me, it is intuitively outrageous to consider pregnancy a disability; yet, it begins to make sense in the context of social interactions and institutions that impose obstacles to occupational fulfillment and well-being (something like a coddling tone of voice could feature here).

Are there games that attempt to portray disability through a social lens? For me it’s easier to think about social contexts that surround games (the “git gud” mentality; “true gamer” speak; how difficulty settings are labeled). Maybe fumblecore games (like Octodad, Minotaur in a China Shop, and Bennett Foddy’s games) accomplish this by confronting one habituated way to play games with an alien, uncomfortable one. Accessibility options and controllers of course exemplify the social theory of disability in the context of video games. Maybe Celeste’s granular difficulty settings say something indirectly about disability as well.


#9

Hey, I actually fully think you’re on point here, and spent like two hours late last night trying to dig into this in my Sekiro piece but couldn’t quite figure out how to articulate it without knowing how the game handles it in the end. I’m not (for instance) sure if they’ll begin to make it feel more like a real, material device with all of the breakdowns, maintenance requirements, etc. that are necessary. There’s also always the chance that it will take the route that so many pieces of media do where the disability is somehow “cured,” and that is represented as an unquestionable and natural Good.

Ironically, it was the second podcast we recorded yesterday (on The Dragon Prince - Season 2 and gen:lock) where we end up getting into a deeper convo on disability rep, the experts and disabled folks I’ve spoken to about how to do that well, etc. I hope you’ll give that ep a listen tomorrow to hear some broader thoughts on the topic, and I’ll do my best to take the time to more thoughtfully articulate my own perspectives on this in the future!


#10

With representation like this does it land better if it’s something more like Geordi’s VISOR on Star Trek?

It def still falls into the super prosthetic category on account of it letting him see all manner of wavelengths of light and things like that but it really doesn’t make his life better.

He can’t see the world around him in the way his peers do and he needs routine medical procedures for it and it from time to time gives him a bit of physical discomfort.


#11

On autism representation: not to de-emphasize the need for better representation of people with severe autism, but I kinda feel the need to touch on this:

Maybe there are autistic people who like seeing themselves represented like that, but speaking as someone who is meant to be represented by those sorts of characters: I’ve never been comfortable with it at all. Aside from those characters not reflecting what autism is like at all, with those characters their autism is what makes them useful.

Also characters like that are especially frustrating to me since as a kid people would frequently assume (and for a while got me to believe) that my autism made me better at concentrating on work. I don’t know where that belief comes from, but autism usually being portrayed like that in media probably helped popularize it at least.


#12

Could not agree more here. I’ve had very similar experiences (with also caveat here that like. I don’t actually have an autism diagnosis but have identified a lot of symptoms in myself and have brought up possibility with both friends and psychiatrists and the general consensus is “yeah that seems likely” but anyway this aside is getting long and I don’t want to get into difficult discussion about self diagnosis of mental disorders) and I basically feel characters like that don’t express “these are the experiences and difficulties of autistic people, and even so-called “high functioning” autistic people experience the world in fundamentally different ways to neurotypical people”, they express “see autism is Good, Actually, and you can tell because this autistic person is Smart, not Dumb!”
And that’s not even getting into how many characters have the exact characterization of a “high functioning” autistic person but aren’t explicitly (or often even purposefully) written as autistic. The thing I was going to say next is “For every [explicitly autistic character] there are a dozen [heavily autistic coded character]s”, but then I did a quick search to see if there were good prominent examples I was forgetting and like three different lists were 80% “while not explicitly…” and “never say the word ‘autism’, but…” and that’s frankly just as telling.


#13

This is a really good point that I feel underpins a lot of the additional difficulty in parsing disability representation in games because, unlike most forms of media, games actually have environments. In films we understand characters exist within environments, but we tend to understand environment as setting or narrative elements. The environments and settings exist the way they do because they communicate something to the audience.

In games it’s not the same story because in addition to setting and narrative informing environments, environments are designed hand in hand with character verbs as a space to be traversed and, usually, explored, discovered or mastered. Environments are designed with play in mind. This makes it very difficult to parse a disabled character’s experience of existing in a game environment-setting-world since there’s always the background knowledge that the environment is designed specifically to be occupied by and interacted with that character.

I think with that sort of constraint it’s necessary to ground disabled (and otherwise marginalised) characters in day to day life to show through other aspects how a character experiences the world - or to have multiple playable perspectives to showcase that there is no single universal experience (which I feel can often be suggested by a single blank slate viewpoint character or customisable character in a primarily linear game) and that different characters have different types of interactions and experiences and relate to the world around them in different ways.