Spider-Man (2018) promo shot
Spider-Man (2018) promo shot
Spider-Man (2018, © Marvel)
Stories & Ideas

Sun 18 Jul 2021

Freedom of movement: what videogames do for players with disability

Representation Videogames
Finnlay Dall - 300px x 300px
Finnlay Dall


Playing God in videogames is fantastic. However, for some of us, just being able to do the things most people take for granted is a dream come true.

Soaring through the air, swinging from building to building and beating bad guys senseless; all euphoric experiences for sure, but without videogames could we ever experience any of it? Picking up a controller, we manipulate a character’s limbs and move through a world designed for us. After hours of playtime, light from the screen bleeds into the living room and the walls have disappeared. Suddenly, being Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, a man who leaps across the New York City skyline in a single afternoon, doesn’t seem impossible – and that’s without VR and motion controls closing the gap between player and controller. However, videogames do more than let us walk around in a hero’s skin. For disabled players like me, they allow us to access spaces and participate in activities, which due to physical limitations, are normally unavailable to us.

Superheroes are ideal protagonists for videogames. Who wouldn’t want to be a modern demigod with a giant city sandbox to traverse in? Game reviewers will even benchmark a Spider-Man or Batman game based on how much you “really feel like” the friendly neighbourhood spider or caped crusader. So, it makes sense why companies like Insomniac and Rocksteady are lauded for their games’ controls; the conduit between you and the character. Fluid movements and the immediacy of web slinging were essential for Spider-Man’s success on the PlayStation 4. Failing that, it would have shared the fate of Rocksteady’s first Batman game, Arkham Asylum, whose story captures the magic of the sleuthing ace detective and his kooky rouge’s gallery but was made frustrating by its “stiff” character movement.

Stiff controls are a common complaint in gaming. Sometimes due to the negligence of a programmer, a controller won’t do what we expect it to do. We press ‘O’ to dodge and there’s a half-second delay; the character just stands there, frozen to the spot. Spasticity in physically disabled people works in a similar manner. It's infuriating to want to lift your leg up to climb steps only to have a muscle stiffen or cramp. There’s often a physical delay to any action. That’s not to say disabled bodies like mine are broken. Just like stiff controls, the code controlling my body hasn’t been optimised for peak performance. Spider-Man (2018) and Sucker Punch Production’s Infamous: Second Son (2014) both have platinum trophies on my PS4 (essentially PlayStation’s version of 100% completion) mainly because both developers designed their characters to be painless to control. Playing those games, I enjoyed – for a brief moment – being a well-oiled machine. Of course, the sensation of shooting laser blasts out of my hands and slamming into the concrete with atomic force didn’t hurt either.

Screenshot from Batman Arkham Asylum (2011) - Batman kicking inmates

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2011)

But what about games grounded in reality? The Uncharted series (2007–16), a "realistic" game which follows Nathan Drake, a cocky Indiana Jones type, as he explores caves, sunken ships and Aztec temples inhabited with once human monkey monsters. Humour aside, Nathan’s escapades should be admired for their environmental details. After all, what use is an athletic explorer without a mountainous terrain to climb? In Chapter Eight of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016), Nathan and his brother Sam explore the burial site of Henry Avery to find clues of Libertalia, a lost city formed by an Illuminati-esque group of famous pirates. Once the player reaches the outer caves, they are met with obsidian stone cliff faces, rickety bridges and gravel slides. The developers at Naughty Dog included all the senses except smell for their 2016 endeavour: the crunch of gravel under Nathan’s boots, the slipperiness of a cliff surface, the green-tinted oceans, even the squawks of nearby seagulls. These elements work together to create the illusion of exploring a seaside cave system in Scotland, and I love it – although, those who have travelled around Europe during their gap year might annoyingly tell you that a simulation is no substitute for the real thing. Nevertheless, while a picture tells us a thousand words, videogames tell us thousands of words a second, and games like the Uncharted series allow players to traverse the world from their living rooms. Action-adventure games in particular allow the more sedentary of us to explore perilous environments without fear of injury or death. Even the most abled-bodied people struggle at indoor rock climbing, much less the Herculean task of scaling the cliff faces of Scotland.

Uncharted 4 - A Thief's End (2016) - screenshot - Drake swinging from a rope to a bridge.jpeg

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016)

The only injuries I’ve ever sustained from playing videogames were a stiff wrist or a burned thumb from executing ‘sick’ combos. Sports games, especially the more extreme kind, let disabled players become a skateboarder or snowboarder, without the high physical skill ceiling.

I’ve always wanted to skateboard. I would go to skate shops just to stare at the skateboard decks for hours. Their colourful and bombastic designs were so alluring that to me skating became the coolest thing ever. Alas, with weak core muscles and legs no more than cotton socks dangling out my shorts, I would just watch my brother from the balcony of the skatepark, thinking about that impossible dream. Then in 2009, I popped into my local Sanity and spotted a copy of the game series that would become my muse for the next twelve odd years: EA Black Box’s Skate (2007). You’re telling me I can skate and become the best there ever was? I just have to flick a joystick? Sign me up. Skate’s controls were simple: ‘A’ or ‘X’ to push, move with the left stick and flick with right. Despite this simplicity, the controls were so fluid and so natural, that no other skate game has come close. (Possibly because EA patented the use of the right stick for flip tricks and successors have had to use alternate controls. Come on EA, hurry up with Skate 4 already.) I was able to learn and become a part of skateboard culture through the adventures of Skate's videographer Giovanni Redda and his silent talent. It was because of Skate that I started watching skate videos, buying clothes, picked up scootering – the safer skateboarding – and it’s part of the reason I tried to improve myself physically; I wanted to do it for real.

Skate (2007) - screenshot - young man skating, rainbow skateboard

Skate (2007)

From superheroes to professional skaters, games can fill the void of not being able to do the real thing. However, it also gives disabled people the space, to trial, explore and learn about the world in complete safety. It drives young people to a point where, like me, it inspires them to find workarounds, to improve themselves and to find the courage necessary to give something new a try. In 2013, I tried to snowboard and in 2015 I gave skateboarding a go. Both were tough and you can’t rewind in real life, but like ‘Owning a Spot' in Skate, you just keep trying.

– Finnlay Dall

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