Already available to download on iOS and Android, the Pegasus Dream Tour developed by JP Games is the first official Paralympic video game on the market. It has been built from the ground up with real Para-athletes, creating a wonderful and realistic disabled athlete experience for gamers around the world. To celebrate the release of the game and dive deeper into this monumental partnership, Can I Play That spoke with the founder of JP Games, Hajime Tabata, also known for his role as director of Final Fantasy XV. We also spoke with two leading Para-athletes in their field, wheelchair basketballer Patrick Anderson from Canada, and Para-athlete specializing in the javelin throw Holly Robinson from New Zealand.
The Olympics and video games have a long history. The first official Olympic-licenced video game came out in 1984, the Japan-exclusive Hyper Olympic ‘84. Since this point, the Olympics have regularly released licensed games, allowing players to put themselves in the shoes of a famous athlete winning gold medals for their home country. Many have jumped in on the Olympics fun, the Mario & Sonic series, as one example, combines two of the biggest icons in gaming history, putting them together in the host country of that year, the latest being Tokyo 2020. For disabled people, however, there was a glaring omission. The Paralympic Games, the biggest sporting event for disabled people in the world, got nothing – until now.
The first question that came to mind when discussing the game with Tabata was simply, how? How did this project come to happen? Tabata knew he wanted to be involved with the Olympics since the announcement of Tokyo 2020, but when meeting Xavier Gonzalez, former CEO of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), he was told about the plans to create an official Paralympics game. After his work on Final Fantasy XV as a developer, Tabata began to take part in the business side of game development, wanting to create a new gaming business that rises to the challenge of representing broader parts of the gaming community that were yet to be truly represented.
Naturally, he took to the idea of an official Paralympic video game. Yet, Gonzalez of the IPC had issues with the idea of a video game for the Paralympics. Tabata took this as a challenge to “open your eyes to the power of games.” He saw the “issue of visibility and public image” present around the Paralympics and tells us, “we thought that by utilizing games, we could contribute to solving these issues as well as further evolving the Paralympics.”
Games are an important medium for representation, and disabled people have lacked that representation for a long time. Tabata was becoming aware of this and says “I wanted to expand the possibilities of gaming by working with people outside the gaming sphere to create a gaming company that would build a future where games are a social contribution that can help solve problems and do real social good”. He followed up, “Recently the words “diversity” and “sustainability” have become well-known even in Japan, and I would like to play a role in that world community through games and evolving games as a conventional form of entertainment.”
One of the biggest steps in creating the Pegasus Dream Tour was to approach the Para-athletes themselves. Tabata says the team “started from zero when it came to Parasports.” They had support from the IPC, the Parasupport Center, and sports media in Japan that provided the most help in getting the project off the ground. This is where the Para-athletes came in, feeding advice directly into the project from early development.
Silver medal winner Holly Robinson had her chance to talk to the team in early 2020 over Zoom calls as much of the world was and continues to do today. “We went over the game, how it all worked and what my role would be,” she told us, calling the process “easy and exciting” due to her close work with Ken Kawashima from JP Games. Meanwhile, gold medal winner Patrick Anderson, took a trip to Tokyo to meet with the team directly. He recalled his experience with the game’s production and said “I met with the team from JP Games and we talked about my life and basketball career. We took a close look at my basketball chair and shared ideas. Over Zoom and email we talked about storylines and the script, it was fun.”
The Para-athletes are represented in-game as ‘Mines’, virtual avatars that occupy the beautiful and magical Pegasus City. The city is governed in-game by IPC President Andrew Parsons, and even features legendary Japanese character Doraemon as a deputy mayor. Anderson thought his avatar looked “wild”, owing to the game’s bright art style, whilst Robinson shared her excitement to see other athlete’s avatars she hadn’t seen yet.
Both Para-athletes shared how much of an honor it was to lend their likeness to a groundbreaking title. Robinson went further, discussing how even those around her are excited, “I work in a school and the kids are super excited about the game, which is what we want right? If I can help others in similar situations to myself to be involved in physical activity or sport that’s a big win and why I do what I do.”
With Para-athletes being the main characters of the Pegasus Dream Tour world, we asked Tabata what he wanted disabled players to take away from the game. To him, this is more than a game, it is a movement. His response to this question was a moving one. To quote it in full:
“I want gamers with disabilities to feel that games have the power to change the world. In the world of Pegasus, disability is just another part of one’s person, and when it is portrayed as a matter of course in the game, people without disabilities can understand that disabilities are normal and people with disabilities are very capable. I believe that as a result, the norm in the real world of the players will also change in this way. It would make me so happy if gamers with disabilities connected with this approach and voiced their excitement about the game. Pegasus has only just been distributed, and we hope to continue to enhance the content and create a larger movement leading up to the Paralympics. We hope that gamers with and without disabilities will join us in this Movement.”
Tabata’s outspoken support of disabled people and the way he and his team appreciates our community in centering them in their development process, advertising, and gameplay is a sight to behold for me as a disabled gamer. Disability representation may slowly be making steps into mainstream gaming, but what JP Games has done in the Pegasus Dream Tour is beyond a step – it is a jump.
To close out the interview, we asked all participants what they think the future of disabled representation in gaming looks like ahead of what has been achieved now. Anderson shares “For years, I’ve heard people within the wheelchair basketball community discuss how cool a video game could be as a sports game, I always thought it could live in this sweet spot between EA Hockey and NBA 2K, based on the similarities we have with both sports.”
To Robinson, the impact of the representation that the Pegasus Dream Tour has brought about is a step closer towards full representation, but also an opportunity for change in our real-world communities. “This game has the potential to challenge assumptions and opinions about disabled people which is needed. Who knows, we may get some future Paralympians because they played this game in the virtual world, and decided to try parasport in reality” she concludes.
To Tabata, he remains unsure, “To tell the truth, I’m still not sure exactly how Pegasus will affect the future of gaming. I think I will be able to answer this question better after the Paralympics are over and Pegasus has completed its major role in the real world. ”
Whilst none of us know what the future of disability representation holds in video games, one thing is a certainty: JP Games and the IPC have broken barriers for our community with the Pegasus Dream Tour. The game can be a great time for able-bodied players as well, with fun in-game events and enjoyable gameplay to suit most gamers. Yet, the real heart of the game, for me, is in the people who inspired it. Whilst our community can struggle to find our voices heard, the Pegasus Dream Tour uplifts them, centers them, and gives us a city of our own to thrive in the world of the Paralympics.