I’ve always been a gamer and I have not always looked different from my peers. A bit shorter than average perhaps, but generally someone who might very well grow up to be conventionally attractive. A run-in with cancer at age 10 crudely put a stop to that. To make an excessively long story short, the treatments had the positive effect of keeping me alive against the odds, but the negative effects still linger, most presenting themselves as the years pass. Most prominently so on my face which is less developed on one side, and on my neck with a noticeable but not extreme amount of scarring. I have what is called a facial difference.
Obviously, this affects me in real life. People stare, people make assumptions about my past, my physical and even my mental abilities. People don’t gravitate towards people who look different, which adds a barrier to social interactions already made more difficult by being autistic.
Unsurprisingly, games are and always have been a great escape from real life for me. As described by Bobby in his piece about inclusion and representation of physical disabilities in games, having a facial difference is something you don’t escape while gaming.
You are the villain or the sad backstory
Like any other media, games often perpetuate the harmful stereotype that facial differences, like other disabilities, are something to fear. A cleft lip, burns, deformations, or other scarring is to character design like what a rickety wheelchair is to level design. Often used to instill fear, disgust, or pity.
Chris Plante describes his disappointment in seeing his facial difference, a cleft lip, used in exaggerated ways for monsters and villains in Rage 2. This was especially disappointing as he discussed exactly this issue with the studio director, who seemed receptive to Chris’ concerns before the game’s release. This disappointment is not rare for those of us with a facial difference.
Another example is Eorforwine in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, whose facial burns were used as a reason for her violent actions. Instead of a carefully explored backstory, her bio simply read: “Horribly burned in a childhood accident, Eoforwine is terrified someone will see her disfigured face. She relieves her fury with bursts of violence.” There’s a lot wrong with this description, which makes it sound like shame and violence are inevitable results of having a facial difference. Ubisoft has since changed the description to a more nuanced version following a tweet from our very own Courtney.
It’s not all bad though, personally, I am a big fan of the presentation of ghouls in the Fallout universe. Especially as their experience hits a bit closer to home for me. While they are less accepted in what passes for society in the post-apocalypse, they are very well-developed and diverse characters just like any non-ghoul you encounter. When you interact with them you are expected to judge on their actions and personality. You’ll like and dislike some of them, and it will not be because of the way they look.
You can’t be yourself
Misinterpretations and clumsy attempts at character motivations are rarely if ever done with the intent to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Similarly, character creators are unlikely to be designed with the purpose of excluding people. We see this in ever-increasing options representing many aspects like gender presentations, skin tones, and hairstyles. We still have a way to go with options representing disability and facial differences.
Truly one of the most powerful things in games is that you can be yourself in incredible settings. We all like to be the (anti)hero sometimes, or just do silly things we can’t (or don’t dare to) do in real life. When we immerse ourselves in a game we often project ourselves on the protagonist, and one way games amplify this is by allowing us to customize their appearance.
No doubt you have tried making an accurate digital version of yourself in games that allow this through character creators. And unlikely as it may seem, even if I don’t always enjoy my real-life appearance I would still like the choice to be myself. I have yet to see a game where this is really possible for me.
Character creators can vary from a selection of preset faces to an extensive set of sliders that can change everything from the shape of your chin to the angle and thickness of your eyebrows. One thing they almost always have in common: symmetry. Every change you make applies to both sides, and no matter the number of options, that never comes close to my reality. Even the ultimate life simulator The Sims falls short in this department.
Again Fallout 4 comes closer, as it allows you to bring in a little asymmetry in the position of your nose, mouth, and chin. But even in that otherwise extensive character creator, it is limited to slight variations of angling the entire feature to the left or right.
The character creator in Black Desert Online shows a lot more promise. It has a toggle for symmetry which allows you to shape every aspect of your character independently for each side.
If we had asymmetrical customization in more games, and options to apply scars with as much creativity as tattoos and make-up, more gamers could finally play as themselves.
Awareness of facial differences
To be very honest, if I did not have my own experiences and exposure to the experience of others, I might not notice the impact of representation both good and bad. Ignorance in itself is not a defense, the impact outweighs the intent. This is why awareness is so important.
Awareness is a first step in considering the experiences of others, and how representation and inclusion affects them in positive and negative ways. It is a stepping stone to help align impact with intent before it becomes an issue. A willingness to fix these issues is great, but avoiding these mistakes altogether is even better, making gaming a more inclusive experience from the start.