Adan Jerreat-Poole is a PhD student at McMaster University working in Mad studies and digital media. The last game they played was Dream Daddy. The last book she read was The Stars Are Legion. The last time they slept through the night was around the time b4-4 was popular.
The first time I saw Poison Ivy, I fell in love with her. She was sexy, smart, powerful. I don’t know if wanted to fuck her or if I wanted to be her. She was crazy, and I loved that, because I was crazy, too. She was a woman trespassing on the Mad scientist boy’s club, genetically engineering offspring (who needs men for reproduction?) and putting pressure on our human-centric worldview with her passion for plant-life. She was incredible.
But I didn’t get to play Ivy. I had to play Batman. And Batman punished Ivy for being a Mad queer femme. He played the role of the legal system, and the legal system punishes people like her, like me. The logic of the game was patriarchal, sanist, ableist. The game made me hurt us.
Margaret Price: “In naming myself a crazy girl, neuroatypical, mentally disabled, psychosocially disabled…I am trying to reassign meaning” (20).
Mad studies follows in the tradition of Mad Pride anti-psychiatry movements that reclaim “Mad” as a rejection of the medical model of mental illness. Disability studies and disability pride movements are similarly reclaiming that difficult word “crip.” Eli Clare reminds us that “The ugly words – faggot, queer, nigger, retard, cripple, freak – come highly charged with emotional and social history. Which of us can use these words to name our pride?” (109). Mad, crip, disabled, person with a disability, mentally ill, crazy, neurodiverse. These words carry histories of harm, of shame and oppression, but also of pride. We grapple with these terms and their meanings.
Lisa Nakamura importantly critiqued identity tourism and digital blackface in her essay “Cyberrace,” arguing that white players appropriate racial identities with stereotyped avatar play. We also need to stop dressing up as crazy-crip-mad-disabled-deaf-blind to add “flavour” to our play. Disabled people are not costumes. PTSD is not a “character backstory.” Yet role-playing (RP) depression with exaggerated sobs and threats of suicide, backstories riddled with trauma to provide motivation for revenge arcs, and “asylum-chic” and Anna Rexia Hallowe’en costumes are still shockingly common. This kind of ableism and identity tourism is often built into the framework of role-playing games, including D&D campaigns that stereotype mental illness or racist and ableist racial essentialisms—like the -2 intelligence for Orcs, which reproduces the legacy of white supremacy that has and continues to use categories of mental difference to justify slavery and colonialism (Berghs 2014; Wynter 2003). LARP communities generally ban blackface and cultural appropriation (but not always), yet continue to give out XP for taking a “disadvantage” like a phobia and often have spells or effects that cause paranoia, depression, and speech/communication disabilities.
While disability dress-up remains an acceptable form of play in many RP communities, actual disability remains unwelcome in these spaces. Derek Newman-Stille discusses his experiences of ableism at fan conventions, from lack of access to elevators and places to sit down, to being physically pushed or knocked over by fans. Disability RP reaffirms that Mad and crip identities are only costumes for able-bodied players.
Play can be traumatic. We all know it; we’ve played the rape or near-rape scenes in Heavy Rain, Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, and Dragon Age: Origins, while thinking— there are so many rape scenes in video games. We don’t talk about it. We make a note not to recommend it (or to recommend it with a content notification) to our survivor friends, the smart, beautiful, angry, happy, sad, scared, fierce folx we all know. Games play with death, violence, incest, abuse. This doesn’t mean they deal with these topics accurately or respectfully.
Trauma is often window dressing for the character or story, or an apologist shield: See? It made you stronger. You’re welcome. Trauma gets shuttled away into a screenshot or a codex entry. Trauma gets effaced. Erased. Games and game culture taught me to shut up about my feelings.
Disability and Mad voices have been slow to enter the gaming dialogue. This is a common— although not universal— experience of disability. We can be slow. When we mobilize collectively, we don’t have more energy or the volume to make ourselves heard. Together, we are still interdependent, exhausted, and anxious as hell. And the voices we really need to hear will never make it to publication because the barriers to gaming and discussion have shut them out entirely. From fast deadlines to assumptions about what “good” writing looks like, to violence and harassment, unaffordability and inaccessibility, participation in games culture is incredibly difficult for many people with disabilities.
Can we slow down, instead of forcing Mad and crip players to catch up?
Disability sometimes enters the framework of feminist critique, although often inadvertently and unacknowledged, like when GamerGate uses disability slurs to attack female players, or when feminists use those same disability metaphors to criticize meninists (stupid, idiot, brain-damaged, blind, deaf, lame, crazy, insane). Can sane and able-bodied players ask how to be better allies?
Let’s stop calling GamerGate “crazy” or trying to diagnose them with mental illnesses. Misogyny and gendered violence is not madness; it’s horrendously common-place and ordinary. Mad and crip identities have nothing to do with hate.
The word “access” is used frequently in game studies: get women access to games; get games into the hands of women; stop ripping controllers out of our hands. Videogames are all about hands. Some games are about legs, too, and feet. Normate bodies. Not crip bodies. Normate movements. Not crip movements. What would accessible gaming look like? What about gaming spaces? Or spaces to talk about games and play?
Some of these questions are being explored by Game Accessibility, a website which tracks the accessible features of games (e.g. if it’s playable for people with colour blindness, or people in wheelchairs). This website also importantly includes the ways in which a game could still improve, highlighting its inaccessible features. Communicating access is an important part of making disabled players part of the culture. We need more of this—and we need to address the barriers to participation in community: game jams, game studies conferences, discussion boards. These spaces, too, need to consider access for all mindbodies.
Access doesn’t start and end with the player: we need more designers, artists, writers, and programmers with disabilities represented at all levels of the gaming industry. We need accurate and respectful portrayals of Mad and crip folx crafted by people with disabilities.
Some of this work is being done already at a local community level: in 2016, the Hand Eye Society in Toronto hosted Extraordinary Mind Games, a “free six-week videogame creation workshop for individuals who identify as Mad or who have lived experiences with mental health or addiction.” The games were presented at the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival. Dames Making Games also supports disability inclusivity and published Kara Stone’s Medication Meditation. Different Games Toronto in 2017 highlighted games like Al Donato’s Administer Naloxone. But until Mad and crip persons are involved in every aspect of the gaming industry, we absolutely do not have access.
While charities like AbleGamers and SpecialEffect provide customized gaming setups for disabled players, this neoliberal model places the onus on an individual to seek accommodation rather than making gaming more accessible in the first place. Relying on private donations is not only a tenuous model for inclusion that will never be able to reach all disabled players, but relegates disability to the margins of game design and player community, putting the disabled player in the position of an exceptionality, and a charity cause, something to donate to—not a group of players.
We need to re-centre disability in our gaming, academic, and community conversations and demand accountability from developers.
Since Pokémon Go has been out, Niantic has banned disabled players from the game for using third-party software to mimic physical travel and placed restrictions on speed, making it more difficult for disabled players to catch Pokémon using automated transportation.
These tensions, contradictions, and intersections matter. How do we make space for Mad and disabled BIPOC and WOC bodies in location-based games?
Horror games are often the worst offenders when it comes to villainizing and stereotyping mental illness, filled with “psycho” enemies and bloody asylums. But indie game developers are challenging the sanism/ableism of traditional horror games, taking us inside their dark and crazy, making the feelings visible and visceral.
I’ve played Kaitlin Tremblay’s Twine game There Are Monsters Under Your Bed over a dozen times. There isn’t choice in this choose-your-own-adventure game, not really. Just a feeling of dread, the inevitability of pain. There are monsters: isolation, depression, self-harm. I know intimately these monsters. The game asks me to select a weapon: scissors, screwdriver, or eyelash curler. I stare at the word scissors for a long time. I hover my cursor over the neon green font. I pick it. But the game won’t let me use scissors: these are childproof, they won’t cut through anything. I’m left defenseless with the eyelash curlers, the weight of gendering and beauty standards wrapped up in shiny plastic. I kill a monster with it anyway. I eat a candy bar. The game tells me exactly how many calories I’ve eaten. You have to keep track, you have to know. You have to be in control of your body. Without the scissors, how else are you going to leave a mark?
Listen to Mad, crip, disabled people. Listen to Johanna Hedva , Louise Tam, Margaret Price, Allie Brosh, Anne McGuire, Kate Aubrecht. Stop listening to sanist/ableist rhetoric. Throw out your copy of SuperBetter—you can’t cure mental illness with a game, or “win” a non-disabled body if you just try hard enough.
Listen to Sarah Stang explore the distinction between “cure” and “heal,” call for diverse representations of Madness, and celebrate anti-psychiatry games in “Madness as True Sight in The Cat Lady and Fran Bow” (March 21st).
Listen to Amanda Cullen, Kathryn E. Ringland, and Christine T. Wolf’s analysis of disability fandoms in “A Future Worth Fighting For: Representation of Disability in Overwatch” (March 28th).
Listen to Ingrid Doell discuss harmful stereotyping, the significance of player identity and positioning, and falling in love with an alien in “Depictions of Mental Illness in The Sims 4” (April 4th).
Listen to Rebeccah Redden explain the shortcomings and problems of accessibility in VR, as well as a host of solutions, in “VR: An Altered Reality for Disabled Players” (April 11th).
I want this special issue to be the community I’ve never found, a gathering place for players and developers and writers who aren’t neurotypical, who aren’t able-bodied, who didn’t make it to the conference or game jam because the building was inaccessible or the forced socialization gave them panic attacks. I want this to be a queer Mad crip utopia. I want us to agree on how best to dismantle the ableist, racist, cis-hetero-patriarchy, those exploitative and painful hierarchies that make up the fabric of North American culture, of settler colonialism. I want us to like each other, support each other. I’m hungry for family.
Feminism isn’t smooth, singular, linear, gentle, ordered; it can’t be mapped out, pinned down, marked off with chalk or yellow tape or a magic circle. Feminism has edges; sometimes it bites; at times, it is heavy; it is plural and messy and beautiful and incredibly hard. Disabled women and genderqueer and non-binary folx can disagree with each other. We make mistakes. We can be oppressive.
As Kai Cheng Thom writes in her novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, “I don’t believe in safe spaces. They don’t exist. I do, however, believe in dangerous stories” (1). This special issue isn’t a safe space and it didn’t come out of safe spaces. Academia is dangerous, made up of bodies and spaces that are infused with power.
Games and game culture are dangerous. There are no utopias.
But the stories.
These stories need to be read.
I hope they make you uncomfortable.
Berghs, Maria. “The New Humanitarianism: Neoliberalism, Poverty and the Creation of Disability.” Disability, Human Rights and the Limits of Humanitarianism. Dorchester: Dorset Press, 2014. 27-43. Print.
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Nakamura, Lisa. “Cyberrace.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Society. 123.5 (2008): 1673–1682.
Price, Margaret. Mad at School. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011.
Thom, Kai Cheng. Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir. Montréal: Metonymy Press, 2016.
Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review. 3.3 (2003): 257-337. Web.