DiGRA Brisbane 2016: No Heroes
Hello. My name is Dakoda Barker. I am a DCA student at the University of the Sunshine Coast, unsurprisingly located on the Sunshine Coast. This is my first time even attending an academic conference and I have a paralysing fear of speaking in front of groups of people like this, so forgive me if we have a deer-in-headlights moment.
What I will be attempting to talk to you about today is an off-shoot from my research into chronic health conditions. As a 23-year-old who owns a walking stick not as a fashion accessory but because he sometimes needs it, chronic health conditions are an area of research that I quite literally fell into.
As an issue of representation, I would argue that chronic health conditions are at least equally as important as the diverse representation of gender, race, sexuality, etc in media. In spite of this, I feel like what little discussion there is about chronic health conditions only extends as far as depression and anxiety. Speaking as someone who has both in spades, these are both still a big deal, but they aren't the extent of my little pile of defects or the extent of conditions affecting people—including those who play games—around the world.
So, quick explanation for those who might not be familiar with the term "chronic health condition". It's a nebulous term that encapsulates a broad range of illnesses, injuries, and imperfections. The working definition I have been using for my research comes from Anderson and Horvath: "conditions that last a year or more and require ongoing medical attention and/or limit activities of daily living." This is no less broad a definition, but what I like most about it is that it clearly indicates that chronic health conditions aren't necessarily completely debilitating. As someone who primarily suffers from non-severe and invisible conditions, it's kind of nice to work with a definition that says, "hey, you're allowed to feel like it's tough".
But enough about me. Let's talk about videogames. Fallout 4 is a videogame. It is not the fourth instalment in the Fallout series, but not everything is as sensibly named as my university. Fallout 4 is a roleplaying game set in Boston, Massachusetts, USA in an alternate history-future after a nuclear apocalypse. Boston does not look as nice in 2287 as it did when I visited a few years ago.
Shortly after its release last year, a friend of mine expressed his dissatisfaction with Fallout 4 to me. His main gripe was that the game did not allow him to be enough of a jerk to people in conversation. Fallout 4 is a game in which you can spend over one hundred real-time hours ignoring the fact that your digital son has been kidnapped in favour of looting and killing, but being unable to verbally insult or abuse someone was what killed his sense of immersion and characterisation.
This anecdote might seem strange and unrelated but it offers a nice insight into a core element of this game type. Fallout 4 is supposedly an expansive, open world adventure where the player can be whomever they want and do whatever they want. Through this intent, Fallout 4 epitomises the power fantasy, where almost nothing in the world occurs without the player's involvement and they achieve inhuman levels of ability and influence.
Part of the way in which Fallout 4 attempts to achieve its promise of complete power and freedom is through the use of a character creator. The protagonist in Fallout 4 is customised by the player and can act as a stand in for the player, or anybody else of their choosing. This slide shows a collection of recreations of celebrities and fictional characters made in the Fallout 4 character creator. It isn't the most detailed character creation tool—that honour currently belongs to Black Desert Online, as far as I am aware—but it still has quite impressive depth.
Before I continue discussing the character creator in Fallout 4, I'd like to sidestep a moment to explain some of the perks of character creators in general. Videogames, as cultural artefacts, play a role in both identity formation and the dismantling of stigma and stereotypes. Exposure to diverse and positive representations facilitates positive outcomes; but the opposite also holds true. And what videogames offer—in general, but particularly in the case of games with player-created protagonists—is an opportunity for players to experiment with facets of their identity in a safe environment.
Through sympathy, empathy, and projection, players subconsciously test out their quirks and traits, morality, and behaviour in a place without real repercussions. These effects have been thoroughly researched by people smarter than I am, so I won't go into too much detail here. But, this concept is one of the key points in disproving the myth that violent videogames make people violent—how can games make people more empathetic but not violent? These concepts explain why. Games allow people, like my friend from earlier, to be terrible people in a fictional world, free from judgement and repercussions where they can arrive at their own boundaries and limits of morality and identity. Sometimes it can be cathartic to just be ruthless while acknowledging that you would never perform the same despicable acts against meat-people as you would against pixel-people.
With the help of the Fallout 4 character creation tool, Nigel Thornberry can become Fallout 4's protagonist, and traipse around the absolutely smashing Commonwealth wasteland, if the player so chooses. There aren't many ways in which a player can further express Nigel's Thornberriness other than physical appearance—mods notwithstanding—but the general principle is clear: you can play Fallout 4 as Nigel Thornberry.
Again, that's smashing. But what if you don't want to play as Nigel Thornberry? What if, say, you wanted to play as yourself? Playing as a recreation of yourself is where the projection part of the identity formation side of things has the most power. Well, playing as yourself, too, is possible: assuming that your physical appearance conforms to normative values. If you are not able-bodied, then you are not the hero that the Commonwealth wants, despite being the hero it needs.
Let's do a quick, hypothetical case study. A friend and former colleague of mine has a congenital condition which meant her left arm wasn't fully formed; she only has to the elbow, and that's it. It's hard for me to explain how seemingly little this condition appears to affect her life and how impressive she is to me in a way that doesn't feel patronising. Anyway: the character creator tool in Fallout 4 implies that she—despite still having the dexterity required to actually play the game—is not fit to be the protagonist. Here is a real human player, able to play the game, but unable to redeem the game's offer to become the protagonist in the same way that other players have been invited.
Common arguments against diverse representation in videogames rely on "it doesn't make sense" or "historical accuracy". The Witcher 3's lack of characters of colour was defended by passionate fans as being historically accurate, because despite evidence that people of colour did exist in Europe around these time periods, the prevailing sense of truth is that it was all white people, all the time. The tumblr that this image is taken from is worth checking out to see just how flawed the idea of a totally white Europe is.
But back to Fallout 4: the anti-chronic health conditions argument is that people with physically manifesting conditions wouldn't survive in a world like this. That survival of the fittest type of argument seems to reign here. The apocalypse is a cruel place, for sure. Survival is hard enough in ideal circumstances—sometimes it's touch and go for me in everyday life, too. But the idea that a character with, say, a missing arm couldn't survive in the world of Fallout 4 is pretty silly when you consider that such a character already exists. Proto-antagonist Conrad Kellogg has one arm completely covered in metal armour. After the player is forced to kill him, they can loot an item named the Cybernetic limb actuator. Its specific purpose is not clear, but I would argue based on his covered arm and the appearance of the Cybernetic limb actuator (which reminds me of those extension claw toys) that Kellogg's left arm has been replaced with a cybernetic one.
But Kellogg having a chronic health condition—albeit one that has seemingly been "cured"—is based on some conjecture and circumstantial evidence. So let's discount his existence as a counter-argument, not least of all because his inclusion in Fallout 4 also suggests that chronic health conditions can only be included in such an environment as traits of a villainous character, not of a heroic one.
Instead, let's get intertextual and look at a character from a little known film from last year called Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa is a woman living in a post-apocalyptic world who happens to only have one full arm. Coincidentally, it is also her left arm that is not wholly present.
Furiosa is awesome. She is capable, powerful, and determined—both with and without her prosthetic. Here is the face of Furiosa, recreated in Fallout 4's character creator, albeit with the help of a greasey forehead mod. Mad Max: Fury Road was an incredibly successful film, underpinned by the superb Furiosa, and nobody could ever say that such a woman with a chronic health condition could not endure in that kind of harsh environment. And yet, you can't actually be Furiosa in Fallout 4—players have used armour to give the suggestion of her prosthetic, but you can't actually embody the character.
So, why can't the player become a character similar to Furiosa (or anybody with a chronic health condition) in Fallout 4? On a practical level, chronic health conditions are difficult to implement, especially if they're being added in addition to able-bodied characters. Depending on the type of condition, an inclusion in a game such as Fallout 4 might require additional character models and animations. It might also need new mechanics in order to ensure that the chronic health condition has a tangible, meaningful impact on the player's experience in a way that doesn't diminish or erase the severity of the condition. And additional branches of voiced dialogue might also be needed to tie everything together.
But these challenges don't need to be read as negatives. Consider the praise that would follow the inclusion of such depth. Consider the praise that would follow innovative new mechanics inspired by chronic health conditions. Even just consider how much more interesting it would be to have visually distinct characters—putting aside any invisible effects or symptoms of these conditions.
And that might sound a bit strange: just including the physical manifestations of chronic health conditions and ignoring the rest doesn't exactly contribute to increasing awareness and breaking down stereotypes. No, but neither does an absence of chronic health conditions—being noticed at all is the first step to better representation.
I'm not saying that Fallout 4 has failed in its duty to represent chronic health conditions. Last time I spoke about chronic health conditions and was critical of a game—which I think did a good but imperfect job of representation, as an aside—I received some hate mail, so I want to clarify that this is not a case of Fallout 4 doing poorly but an opportunity for it to do better. Likewise, no individual game or studio has a responsibility to represent anything. But the industry as a collective has a moral obligation to represent people, or at least its players, and Fallout 4 stands as the most recent example in a growing list of open world RPGs that purport to offer the freedom to be whomever, and yet also deny a large portion of people the ability to see their identities fully represented.
I guess, in summary, my point is thus: isn't it time that chronic health conditions received a good old Aussie Fair Go of being included in videogames?