Saturday, October 12, 2013

Playing Characters with Disabilities


Two WildStar Wednesdays here. Sorry I am a little behind. I thought it would be really cool if I tried being sick again, you know, for old time’s sake. I was wrong ;P

WW: October Game Systems Update: Just a little update on new features for beta. Though the WS beta has not been reopened just yet, this article covers some of the system features that Carbine has smoothed out. We have a new leveling system that explains what you’ve earned a bit better, new ability systems that appear to have additional features to them and a better quest system that rewards people for working together with open tagging and allows for a bit more variance than “kill ten blobs”

WW:Crossing the Streams: WildStar will allow Cross Realm communication and play. There are some limitations to the system, but it ultimately will help keep people in touch even if we don’t necessarily play on the same world!

Also don’t forget, class reveals coming SOON!!!


Who's a good reptavian? You are!!!

Recently I picked up Star Wars: The Old Republic again with two close friends to play through the amazing stories Empire side while translating our WildStar characters over to get an even better feel into their personalities. I hadn’t played in some time and had quite a bit of fun sifting through all the new Cartel shop items (including a Veractyl mount that I had only wanted since launch, which I am now the proud owner of) and all the new features, etcetera, etcetera. While I was browsing through some of the new adaptive armors I came across an interesting set called the Series 505 Cybernetic Armor. This collection of armor could make the wearer look like a cyborg, with some really cool mechanical bits, or it could be used for something even cooler: mechanical replacement limbs.

The full set of the Series 505 Cybernetic Armor

Okay, to explain my excitement at seeing this, perhaps a little background. Back when I used to roleplay in SW:ToR, I had written this really long, exciting mission on Nar Shaddaa with my partner about some big Cabal plot that was going to start off a cool series of missions and stories we were going to make with our guild as some sort of ongoing plotline everyone could enjoy. Long story short, our dear Agent Hawkens found himself in a harrowing situation that ended up with his right arm being badly mangled by scattergun fire. He still manages to escape and the news of the adventure gets passed on to the needed individuals and the day is saved. Well, sort of. With his mission complete and the plotline begun for the guild, Agent Hawkens turned to resting and recuperating from his injurious encounter...which sadly left me with a dilemma. Now I am a big fan of treating injuries and ailments very seriously in roleplay (within reason), which is a topic I intend to write about more sometime in the future. I dislike when people magically shrug off mortal wounds or ignore the idea of recovering from grievous wounds. Unfortunately, though, I had no idea how to handle Hawken’s injury.

In the world of Star Wars, they have some pretty fantastical medical technology. There’s kolto, which is a healing liquid found in the depths of an ocean planet that can heal most ailments, and then the synthesized bacta which replaced kolto and is so powerful that it often can heal without even producing scar tissue. Being an agent, Hawkens had a decent chance of having access to the miraculous bacta, which could have restored his shredded arm without even a scar, except for the fact that in his storyline, he was an ex-agent on the wrong side of the war and on an unsanctioned Cartel-funded mission. Instead of bacta, it might have also been perfectly reasonable for his arm to have been replaced by a mechanical substitute, which I would have jumped at in a heartbeat if not for one glaring issue: there was no way to visually represent this in the game.

It could be frustrating enough, trying to explain that Hawkens carried around a Kaas accent, so that the other Republic players would know him as an Imperial, nevermind if I constantly had to explain his metal hand to others. Instead, I opted to make up some reason he found bacta and his arm was healed.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I found a cyborg arm slot armor that would make my right hand into a sweet mechanical piece, complete with three wickedly curved talons. Yeah...I might have danced around a bit and confused my poor cat with my excited flailing. As I intigrated the piece into the hybrid WildStar/SW:ToR personality that I had created for Hawkens, it really got me thinking about a roleplaying topic that I think is really important: playing characters with disabilities.

Now Hawkens finally has his mechanical hand!

Characters with disabilities can sometimes be a bit of a touchy subject. Some people find the idea of trying to emulate what can often be difficult or even devastating real life conditions insulting and rude. Some, sadly, play these ideas off as a simple gimmick to garner attention and can really come off as ignorant or rude, even if they didn’t mean to. However, with a bit of thought and a bit of research, characters with disabilities can be some of the most interesting and rewarding characters to play and/or interact with.

As stated on Wikipedia: “A Disability is the consequence of an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these. A disability may be present from birth, or occur during a person's lifetime.”

It should be noted that: “Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.[1]”

There are many different kinds of disabilities one can choose to use for their character and many different kinds of way to pull it off. I think the best way to walkthrough this is another set of my awesome number lists! Ahem, so here we go!

Well if you insist...

Playing a Character with Disabilities:

Step 1: Choose what you wish to play and why

-There’s an important reason that I combine both these ideas into one step and that is because I think they are strongly intertwined. Sometimes what you play is because of why you play it or perhaps why you play something is because of what you are playing. Okay, that might have sounded a little confusing, so let me explain a little further. I have suffered all my life from some pretty severe anxiety and depression which I still struggle with to this day. As part of my ongoing struggle, I tend to translate some of this into my characters. Hawkens definitely deals with anxiety and depression from time to time as a means of my own self expression. Why I play him that way is because I enjoy the ability to tackle some of these obstacles from a different perspective, and it helps me. So what Hawkens is, is because of why I choose to express that disability. As for the other way around, I have seen many people who choose a disability or idea of one and roll with it, coming up with their reason why because of what they chose.

I believe it is important to have a reason behind the disability you choose for your character. Now I am not saying you have to have some super epic and tragic storyline to it. Something as simple as “she was born without sight” or “he had a bad accident and lost his leg” are just fine. I would say you could technically get away with “because” in place of a reason while you try to come up with one, but I would advise against it. As human beings, we are naturally curious, especially about things that might not be considered “normal” or “usual” or even by things that make us nervous or uncomfortable. We define our world and our place in it by asking and learning about these things. We often crave explanation about such things to feel at ease with their existence. Expect other players and/or their characters to ask you and/or your character about what happened to them if you intend to play it out.

Step 2: Research

-I could write a whole article on this alone. And well, I actually do intend to one of these days. Researching topics for roleplaying not only makes your RP so much more realistic and believable, it can really teach you a lot about things you may not have known much about, expanded on your current knowledge or can even lead to a whole host of other cool ideas and the acquisition of even more knowledge!

Unless you deal with the disability that you choose to play yourself, or know someone closely that deals with it, chances are you could really benefit from learning more. (Though I’d argue, learning more is always a good thing no matter how familiar you are with something) The more you learn about a topic, the better you can portray it in your writing/RP and the better you can explain it to others.

For example, when I had a character who got a punctured lung from an opponent, I took the time to look up what exactly a punctured lung entailed. Moreso than just the breathlessness and pain one would expect, the collapsing of a lung also creates a horrible pressure imbalance in the chest cavity that I had no idea about. By taking the time to do my research, I not only had a really believable reaction from my character to his injury, but I also taught this knowledge to the players who dealt with him, including inspiring the medical character’s players to look up even more information to find a realistic way to treat such an injury.

One side benefit to doing your research on disabilities and playing them out the best you can, is to help spread awareness. You never know who might learn from you, or who might take the time to go learn more thanks to you.

Step 3: Show, don’t tell (when you can)

-So this can seem a bit tricky when you largely RP through writing and there is no guarantee that WildStar (or other mediums) will have the means to show physical disabilites and others still have no visual indication. However, you can apply the same tricks and ideas used in writing stories to roleplay disabilities.

For example: My partner had a character in SW:ToR and WoW who was mute. Rather than explain to each and every person “oh by the way, my character can’t talk” he would show them through her actions. She carried around a datapad or notepad depending on the setting and would write anything that required something more then gestures to get across. But his most powerful tool in explaining her was her body language. Her posture, facial expressions and hand gestures could speak volumes. Sometimes it was really easy to understand her and sometimes it could also be very hard, as without words her communication was still limited. However, it was also really interesting. Being unable to understand her sometimes was just part of the character. Whether frustrated at her own inability to get across her point or by others just simply not quite getting it, she was such an incredibly interesting character to play with.

For Hawkens, if there is no visual representation to show off his mechanical hand, then there would be some need to “show” this injury to other players. However, I don’t have to resort to necessarily going “hey guys, he’s got a mechanical hand!” all the time for this to work. Instead, I can use it’s existence as a means to explain it, just like an other piece of equipment or item. By mentioning that Hawkens would “tap the talons of his right hand on the counter” or “think better and offer his good hand instead” I can remind people that it is still there and still a part of his character without necessarily having to shove it in their face constantly.

Showing doesn’t just have to be about the existance of the disability either. It can also tell a lot about what the character feels about it. My partner’s character accepted that she couldn’t speak with grace until she ran into large gaps in communication. Then she would become obviously frustrated. It was difficult for her to deal with and she would sometimes need some encouragement to get through those bumps in the road.

Different personalities deal with certain disabilities differently as well. For instance, Hawkens is proud about his mechanical hand. It is a reminder of the cost of his mistakes that netted him the replacement, but it is also an opportunity. Instead of a flimsy human hand, he now has three wickedly curved steel talons that are as good an intimidation tool as they are a weapon. He can hide darts and other technical tools inside them and reach into places that might have injured flesh and bone before. In many ways, it is an upgrade. However, for his friend Gaius (in his TOR iteration) the prosthetic foot replacement after a mine field accident is a source of shame and frustration. Gaius is embarrassed by his fake limb and irritated that it is stiffer and harder to use then his old foot. He winces when it clunks around on floors or gives him trouble climbing stairs. He does not see it as an opportunity and instead takes extensive effort to find a potential cure or live replacement when he can.

Step 4: It’s okay if they don’t get it

-Roleplaying disabilities can sometimes be really difficult. How does one easily portray anosmia: the inability to smell? What happens if people just don’t get what the mute girl is trying to say? What happens if someone doesn’t get that my character has anxiety or the fear of being touched? Well, it just is what it is. Some people just won’t get it. Perhaps they don’t always catch what you are trying to say, or perhaps they just flat out refuse to accept it, that can happen sometimes too. But in the end, it’s alright. People with disabilities in the real world may sometimes have qualities which may be more recognizable, but they do not walk around with glaring neon signs. There are some whom you may never know they had a disability at all. It’s alright if not everyone gets what you are trying to do all the time, or right away. If, however, you find yourself constantly struggling with people not getting it, maybe some more research is needed. And don’t be afraid to talk about it. It’s alright to let people know about it too.

Step 5: Have Fun

- I know I put this on everything, but it still rings true here. However, there is another aspect of this. Disabilities can be a bit touchy. They can be very tough and sometimes downright devastating for people in real life and to see people playing make-believe with them online can be frustrating. The thing is, that this is really a two part deal. On the end of the roleplayer, it really just boils down to doing your best to be respectful. Take the time to learn about what you wish to play and just don’t make fun of it. Nice and simple. As for those who watch, try not to get up in arms over something like this. It’s okay to roleplay something just because you thought it was interesting or because it sounded like a cool idea. That’s not rude or disrespectful. If you see something that really bothers you, just talk to the player. Chances are they didn’t mean it that way, or perhaps you might teach them something. Ultimately, if you really cannot stand it, just don’t play with them.

Now if you try out roleplaying a disability for a character and find it is just not fun to roleplay, it is okay to stop. Forcing yourself to do something you are not enjoying won’t help anyone have fun. And no matter how lifelike we might like to make our roleplay, to help us better associate and enjoy, it’s okay to bend the rules now and then so you can have fun and enjoy your time.

So to recap:

Step 1-Choose what you wish to play and why
Step 2-Research
Step 3-Show, don’t tell (when you can)
Step 4-It’s okay if they don’t get it
Step 5-Have fun
(Across 29 – Dangerous mutated Boulderback)

Playing a character with a disability, whether they be mute or blind, whether they have lost a limb or suffer from diabetes or asthma can be challenging, but it can also be very rewarding. Taking the time to learn more about what you write, can not only teach your more, but spread awareness and teach others around you.

In our literature and stories, we often like to associate these disabilities with very powerful character traits: strength, perseverance, courage. Despite all odds, these characters learn how to live with their disabilities and instead of despairing and giving up, they conquer them instead. They turn them into a strength, learning from them and never giving up. They are not only fantastic and uplifting characters to learn about, but they are also inspirations for ourselves both inside and outside the world of games.

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