Ability, disability and assessment in games

I am working on a paper about the conceptual co-dependence of ability and disability (Siebers, Davis, Linton, Garland-Thompson) and how this relationship manifests differently in Dead Space, DE:HR, The Last of Us and The Walking Dead.

Aside – In my version of The Walking Dead the protagonist became more able once he’d chopped off his arm, but then he kept getting attacked by hands.

Update (3/3/2014) – the abstract has been accepted for Critical Evaluation of Game Studies, 28-29 April, 2014, University of Tampere, Finland.

Abstract – see under Comments, this post.

One Response to “Ability, disability and assessment in games”

  1. playhouse Says:

    Continued working on this today – needs more work.

    Games and education researchers have explored in-game pedagogy and the acquisition of skills, but there has been little critical exploration of the concept of ability itself. Likewise, there is very little game studies literature on representations of disability. This presentation will address these omissions, while drawing on the work of disability theorists (including Siebers, Linton and Davis) who have argued that the naturalized status of able bodies depends on the stigmatized marginalization of disabled bodies (just as discourses of racial difference rely on the construction of whiteness as neutral – as argued by bell hooks, Lola Young and Richard Dyer, among others). The relationship between ability and disability in games will be explored through close readings of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, The Last of Us and The Walking Dead. Each of these games includes representations of ability, corporeal damage and disability-as-threat.

    Deus Ex: Human Revolutions features an extensively impaired, radically augmented protagonist who encounters bigotry and exploitation while striving to ‘pass’ as an able employee. Arguably, the game depicts social experiences from the perspective of a disabled subject. The game positions the protagonist as simultaneously professional, yet deficient. He must be continually upgraded (without his consent) in order to succeed. In this game the relationship between ability and disability is relatively complex. The relationship is more opaque still in The Walking Dead and The Last of Us. Both of these games feature representations of disability and ability, yet the conceptual relationship between ability and disability is not obvious.

    To better understand the different relationships between ability and disability in these three games, it was helpful to first ask how ability is represented in each case. Focusing on assessment made this possible. While each of these games does feature assessment, it is made most explicit in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions. Arguably, the style of assessment on offer in each game (as explicit, or less so) reflects the construction of knowledge in that game-world.

    These points raise questions about pleasure, cultural salience and the social significance of ability. Games construct ability as measurable, and then measure it. If the allure of voluntary assessment lies in its capacity to reassure, then arguably there is a connection between this reassurance, and the power of positivist, clinical epistemologies in popular discourse. Furthermore, the issue of epistemology can be related to issues of game interpretation. For instance, it might be argued that the meaning of an item featured in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions would be determined by its role in the game-as-context. In which case, the meaning of each of the avatar’s augmentations would be determined by its strategic value and cost. While this point might be somewhat feasible in relation to Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, it makes no sense when applied to The Walking Dead or The Last of Us, because phenomena in these game worlds – including ability – are not presented to the player as quantified in the same way.

    Given this shift away from overt displays of quantification, how does assessment operate in The Last of Us? There are zombie-styled antagonists (images of disability), and there are representations of ability. For instance, the protagonist is very agile and there is a need to demonstrate accuracy in combat and manage resources. But these abilities are not represented in the same way as those in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, where actions generate experience points, and points translate to progress. This difference is the key to understanding the conceptual relationship between ability and disability in The Last of Us and The Walking Dead. Each of these game-worlds features significant phenomena that do not have an explicit ludic application. The games share other similarities. Both feature a traumatized male protagonist who inadvertently becomes the adoptive father of a daughter. Each features zombie-fied foes that fulfil the role previously held by lepers in the Western imagination, which means that the intrusive presence of disability is linked to a widespread breakdown in social order, classification and institutions. In each of these games, the zombie apocalypse marks the destruction of one paradigm, and the birth of another. In other words, the zombie apocalypse allows a male subject (a father) to shift into an alternative assessment model built on less quantifiable criteria.

    These, then, are some of the issues that have arisen thus far when considering the representation of ability and disability in digital games. This inquiry is important because exploring the role and allure of assessment in games helps to make apparent the constructed, conditional nature of ability itself. This matters, because the “level of literacy about disability is so low as to be nonexistent, and the ideology of ability is so much a part of every action, thought, judgement, and intention that its hold on us is difficult to root out.” (Siebers, 2009, p. 9).

    Note – this needs an edit. Some of the ‘arguably’s need to be ditched


    Davis, L. (1995) Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body. London: Verso
    Dyer, R (1998) ‘White’ in Screen vol 29 no 4 Autumn pp 44-65
    hooks, b (1992) Representations of whiteness in the black imagination’ in Black looks: Race and representation Boston: South End Press pp 165-178.
    Kim, E. and Jarman, M (2013) ‘Modernity’s Rescue Mission: Postcolonial Transactions of Disability and Sexuality’, in Different Bodies, edited by M.E. Mogk, McFarland and Co, pp 89 – 100
    Linton, S. (1998) Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: NY University Press
    Siebers, T. (2009) Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
    Young, L (1996) Fear of the Dark:’Race’, Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema. London: Routledge


    Deus Ex: Human Revolutions (2011) dev. Eidos Montreal, publ. Square Enix. PS3 version
    The Last of Us (2013) dev. Naughty Dog, publ. Sony Computer Entertainment. PS3 version
    The Walking Dead. Season One (2012) dev and publ. Telltale Games. PS3 version

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