I have a problem with Rogue Legacy. The game itself is a lot of fun, but the way it represents real conditions and disabilities bothers me.

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I have EDS. It stands for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a condition that affects the connective tissue in my body.

Rogue Legacy represents EDS as being nothing but flexible. It means your character can turn around while attacking, which is an incredibly helpful trait to have in-game. Flexible. This isn’t a realistic portrayal of EDS; no mention is made of the chronic, severe pain, or how many times I’ve dislocated fingers and toes, or the cardiovascular or digestive problems. The entire condition which has dictated many parts of my life has been reduced to nothing but flexible. Ballerinas, contortionists and gymnasts are flexible. EDS hurts.

It could be argued that the game isn’t trying to be realistic – it is a comedic, platforming roguelike and so doesn’t have to be. The problem with this argument is that this is the only time I have ever seen EDS mentioned in a videogame, and the third time I’ve ever seen it mentioned in any piece of media ever (the other two times being Coronation Street and House.) Rogue Legacy introduced a lot of conditions and disabilities to people who have never heard of them before in a simplified, stereotypical way.

This is a problem because a lack of understanding is being clouded by misinformation put forward through these portrayals. The image of EDS put forward by Rogue Legacy is that it is just being a bit bendy, that OCD is just keeping your house clean, that being colourblind means seeing in complete black and white.

When any piece of media introduces their audience to a disability or condition in a simplified way, it gives the audience their own formed ideas of the condition. This makes it more difficult for people with disabilities to explain it in their own terms to accurately reflect the realities of their condition. The conversation changes from “What is EDS?” or “What is OCD?” to “Wow you’re bendy, right?” and “You’ve got OCD? I bet your house is really clean!”

Unfortunately, this is indicative of a bigger problem; representation of disability in games stinks and not just for EDS.

I spoke to Richard Harlow, a gamer who is blind, about his experiences of being blind being represented in games,  and a similar theme comes up to my problems with EDS in Rogue Legacy; a lack of understanding about the extent to which disability affects lives.

Richard pointed out to me that because video games are a primarily visual medium, it isn’t likely that any people with visual impairments would be hired or consulted. Blind people are not a demographic that are considered in the writing or development of games, and so care isn’t taken when representing blindness.

In most cases, they do not understand the extent of how blindness affects people.

Blind characters are fairly common in games, such as T.K. Baha from the Borderlands series. In Borderlands, T.K. is a blind character who regularly makes jokes about their blindness to the player character.

I discussed T.K.  with Richard, and he felt that the portrayal and the use of ‘blind jokes’ was damaging; making jokes about blind people makes them seen as lesser to the player, something worthy of mocking.

They are offensive because they are more making fun of the blind… If a shooter said what are you blind? Well, they are saying blind people are lesser.

I myself am a stand up comedian who is blind and all my jokes are more making fun of how people treat the blind or people with disabilities, but never about making fun of them.

Jokes made about disabled characters in games are often at the disabled person’s expense for a trait they have no control over. They are made to make the non-disabled player feel more comfortable with that character by ‘addressing the elephant in the room’.

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It is important to remember that even if the character (any character, not specifically T.K. Baha) is making the jokes about themselves, it is a good bet that the person who wrote those jokes is not disabled. Fictional characters do not have any opinions or jokes that are now bestowed upon them by the writer, and so jokes about a disability from someone who is statistically probably not disabled aren’t exactly great.

All of these problems raised dance around the core issue when the disabled are represented in games. Disabled characters aren’t usually made with a disabled audience in mind. They aren’t like the often strong male protagonist who is made to be identified with, they’re there to remind the player how bad it could be for them. This is often done, as it is in T.K. Baha’s case, through humour.

Disabled players are rarely even considered as a demographic, which leads to these damaging representations. Be they making a mockery of the struggles of those with the disability, reducing them down to nothing but a woe-is-me receiver of sympathy, or by spreading false information. We need more disabled people in the industry who can lend their voices to make real changes in these portrayals.

Work needs to be done on how we show disability; we not only need to actually be visible and understood correctly (I’m not just flexible), but also by portraying us as not simple jokes or explain away our conditions with humour just to make people feel more comfortable.

Of course, there are good examples. To the Moon showed an emotional and more importantly realistic image of autistic spectrum disorders, and many games such as Actual Sunlight, Papo & Yo, and Depression Quest have attempted to tackle mental health issues in respectful ways (to varying degrees of success.)

Video games as a medium are a powerful tool in changing people’s views on those with disability. Games in particular can be a powerful way for those with disabilities to show what life living with a condition is like. To do that, we should be applauding these efforts while also discussing when it goes wrong, as was the case with ol’ T.K. These problems are easy to fix, we just need to encourage the industry to do better.

 

If you want to find out more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, please visit http://www.ehlers-danlos.org/

If you want to find out more about visual impairments and how they affect people, please visit http://www.rnib.org.uk/

If you want to find out more about Autistic Spectrum Disorders, please visit http://www.autism.org.uk/

And if you want to find out more about mental health issues, please visit http://www.mind.org.uk/

 

 

  • Aeder

    I think this is one of those things you can’t really change. As you said, statistically speaking, there are not many disabled people, and to make a difference in big productions you need a lot of people of a particular kind added if you want them to be sensitive when it comes to this.

    The big publishing studios might be able to hire a person with a disability to assist with writing, but the most likely outcome of any complains about their portrayal of disabled people will be that any future big title or indie title will simply avoid writing characters with disabilities.

    I’m not saying the current situation is ideal, but it’s not exactly capable of improving too much.

    • These things improve along with society. Media including games has a greater pull on society than any single actor or any other vector for change. It can be a wonderful positive feedback loop. Luckily society has been improving since the dark ages, so something must be working.

      • Aeder

        Picking the dark ages as a way of measuring improvement is funny. The dark ages were called like that because they were the result of a loss of enlightenment.

        That’s like saying “the amount of daily deaths worldwide has gone down dramatically since 1943!”.

        Things have improved since then because there was a lot of room to improve.But now? Things are reaching a complexity so big, that thinking of every possible short-coming is hard and expensive.

        Especially if adding it doesn’t really help the cost-benefit equation. And ultimately, companies big and small want to earn as much money as possible with their product.

        • You misunderstood what I wrote, no problem. If you think of human progress as a graph, then it pretty much just keeps going up except for rare macro events like the dark ages. We are lucky both that it does keep going up (it could trend down) and that there aren’t more dark ages. There are speed bumps now and then, but for the most part the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, almost as if it is a feature.

          The other side of what I said in my reply is that it isn’t companies or individual actors who micro manage society that affects change. People can be role models for certain, however it’s society itself that changes. No single person is responsible for change, politicians are always testing the winds. Granted it looks like it’s always been technology that opens the doors to a better tomorrow, but people have always happily marched straight through those doors and that’s why We have it so much better than our ancestors did.

          In short: the video game companies can do whatever they are going to do. It doesn’t matter. They don’t change, we change, and this article/website is part of that change and reflects that change. It’s just too bad it doesn’t seem to have a healthy readership, or at least not one that makes comments (where is the website staff? get down here in your own comments; especially if you want to see more comments:)

    • Ian

      Not true, statistically speaking disability is extremely common.

  • I don’t understand why there can’t be or haven’t been laws that require publishers to make their formats accessible, like ramps and elevators.

    If they were made to do that (the platforms themselves should facilitate everything that isn’t like captioning) then perhaps while they are at it they’d add the kind of common sense accessibility features that everyone could use that have been lacking forever and the absence of which make video game consoles and PC publishers alike (I want to say SEEM here but that would be incorrect) profoundly unprofessional.

    On my PS3 I use O for the Xcross OS but in Netflix I use X, if Sony can’t make the confirmation buttons the same in the OS as it is in the applications, then what hope is there for anyone? There is/was a wonderful documentary I think on PBS featuring a blind person playing Pokemon by sound even though that never crossed Nintendo’s mind.

  • Mieke ‘Wingy’ Vervloet

    I’m glad to read this article. I suffer from EDS myself and I have to say it is ‘much’ more than just being flexible. Many of us suffer from bad chronic pains. And not just that, often the flexibility is more than that, it are joints popping out of place in random.
    I have special silversplints to keep my fingers in place, I have a cane and a wheelchair at the ready for a bad moments. My shoulders, collarbones, hips, ankles, toes, also pop out of place;
    It would be a shame if this game would give too much of the wrong impression, it does now already at moments cause of those snake people in circusses for example! (they most likely all suffer from EDS).

    Not to mention that it can affect organs too, due to the disease being on the connective tissue. Due to EDS I developed several other diseases and I have serious issues like with my stomach / bowels, and so forth.

    Thanks for this lovely article 🙂

  • Isaac Katz

    I have H-EDS and a lot of pain and problems from it. Upon playing Rogue Legacy tonight for the first time in a year or so, hoping to see my super power listed, it was not. Neither was Marfan, which used to be in there, too. Rarely diagnosed and rare diseases with no cure continue to stay rare and uncured when faced with awareness problems. Granted, the game DID mis-represent EDS, but the game is a parody in itself. I would’ve liked to see EDS in popular media tonight. Sterilizing the game took the fun out of it for me. That is my personal opinion.

  • Very interesting article.

    Someone below said “Statistically speaking, there are not many disabled people”. Not correct, I’m afraid. According to the World Health Organisation, 1 billion people worldwide are disabled. This means one out of seven people live with some kind of disability. There is no excuse not to be sensitive about this issue.

    I’m writing on behalf of a disability charity. We’ve made a small game (spoiler: it’s rigged!) to show what it really could be like to born disabled, and living in poverty in the developing world. It’s called THE GAME OF LIFE. I’m hoping you don’t mind if I post it here: http://www.addinternational.org/gameoflife

    It would be great to hear a gamer’s thought about it. Thank you,
    Virginia (on behalf of ADD International)