By Bobby K.
Miitopia for Nintendo Switch came out recently, and everyone’s having a great time, including myself! It’s a quirky game about casting whoever you want in the standard roles that come with a fantasy RPG. Your dog can be the princess, your neighbour can be a baby and your ex can be the Dark Lord. Body types are varied (if limited), and there’s a variety of skin tones available for the characters. One thing is missing to really make these characters ourselves. Our physical disabilities. Miitopia is not alone in lacking this, and it is hardly the worst example, but it does open the door to consider why people with physical disabilities cannot see in our virtual versions of ourselves what we can in our physical selves.
The inclusion of disabled people in video games should not require years of thinking, especially in a game which sells itself on being a life simulator. If the argument is about the way it would impact gameplay — that’s the whole point. Being a wheelchair user, I know that my houses cannot have stairs without a lift. I cannot use stairs. I would embrace the challenge that came with a disabled Sim of myself and create the accessible house of my dreams. Wide doors, clear spaces, lifts to every floor or a completely ground-level home, complete with paved garden! The limitation that can come from having physical disabilities would add elements of challenge to the game that would feel wonderfully authentic to those of us that live with them, and potentially educate those that don’t. I would welcome popular Simmers attempting to add a disabled Sim to their home, exploring the way their Sim’s physical disability stops them from interacting with the furniture and facilities in a way they may never have even noticed is inaccessible.
Perhaps then, the challenge is that adding disabilities to a life simulator game requires a lot of gameplay changes, maybe ones that are even too hard to do at the moment. Even if this was the case, not all physical disabilities completely impair our ability to do things that able-bodied people (and Sims) can. The Sims does not even include any prosthetic limb options, which could function exactly the same as regular limbs, and just be an aesthetic change. The same applies to any physical body deformities, such as scars, burns, and any other manner of atypical body features. Even Animal Crossing: New Horizons included the bare-bones yet greatly appreciated acknowledgement of wheelchair users, featuring a cute wheelchair your character can actually sit in. They fall short of actually being able to use it, but the appearance shows we were at least considered. The Sims 4 lacks any of our disability mobility aids such as wheelchairs or canes even as furniture. The Sims is a game about life, but it strangely has prioritised adding witches, mermaids and Star Wars aliens before it has added representation for the physically disabled people playing it at this very minute. With ongoing support there is still time to add it, but after 7 years, my hopes slowly fade away that I can see myself in my Sim.
Returning to the Mii side of things, the standard Mii Maker on the Switch (and the Wii/Wii U) is remarkably bare-bones when it comes to body customisation, with no wheelchairs, mobility aids or artificial limbs in sight. They all stand upright and all are completely able-bodied. However, there is an example of a company doing very well when it comes to representation of physically disabled people in their character customisation options, and that is the Xbox’s Avatar Editor. The editor here has options for casts on limbs, prosthetic limbs for arms and legs, as well as colour-customisable wheelchairs! Whilst this list is certainly far from perfect, lacking key mobility aids such as canes and walking frames, or even other visible disability elements such as hearing aids, it is still a start. It is a surprising start too, when the only other rival avatar system, Nintendo’s Miis came first, yet have seen the weakest development.
The representation that would come with including mobility aids would be huge, and in some instances, the implementation already seems so obvious. Imagine Stardew Valley with a wheelchair riding option – there’s already options to mount horses, it could play the same way. Imagine Animal Crossing with a cane or walking frame equippable in the same way as a net or party popper, using it to traverse your island. Disabled people, young and old, are already playing so many of these popular games. The representation landscape in gaming has been getting increasingly better, but those of us with physical disabilities remain unseen in the games where we are meant to create ourselves. Regardless of how clunky the implementation, regardless of how long it takes to develop, the joy that would come from seeing ourselves in these virtual worlds would make our gaming experience even better. I just want my Mii to look like, well, Mii.
Bobby has Spinal Muscular Atrophy. His favourite life sim game is Stardew Valley, and he dreams of a day he can speed around his farm in a wheelchair. You can find him on Twitter at @wheelybadtweets.