“Reading Loop” is a close reading or discussion by an invited contributor.
Horror Video Games, (In)accessibility, and (Mis)representation
by Benjamin C. Jones
The video game genre of survival horror is rife with tropes and representations of disability that can be viewed by a person playing the game from a disability studies/social justice perspective. The variance in the portrayals of characters with disabilities and other marginalized populations in the context of the horrific makes the interactive nature of video games as a medium more apparent. Interactivity allows for pseudo-lived experience to be experienced on the part of the player through the usage of the player character. Player characters within the survival horror genre are intended to have a player connect with and empathize with them through interacting with the virtual environment. This interaction is only possible if the player takes on the role of the protagonist as the goal of the game is not to win, per se, but to survive a horrific situation; thus the “survival” aspect of survival horror.
The problematic part of this context and its layers is that many player characters, especially female characters, are shown having a disability or being disabled by their environment via the social model of disability (Shakespeare, 2006). The social model of disability when applied to survival horror explains what makes the genre frightening for players. By placing obstacles in the player’s path, a non-disabled player can experience disability in an adjacent manner. The adjacency of disability with the challenges faced by the player in survival horror video games includes various gameplay devices to make the genre difficult to play. These devices include “tank controls” within classic entries and various types of puzzles to provide challenge but also providing accessibility barriers for players with disabilities. This combination of adjacency and (in)accessibility allows for gameplay and representation to form a unique blend for players and others’ consideration and exploration.
Gameplay Devices as Analogies for Disability
The accessibility of the survival horror genre is debatable on multiple levels due to its complex gameplay which are viewable as “disabling” the player even if they do not have a disability status. This idea of “disablement” makes the genre more horrific as it directly plays into the fears of the player through gameplay. A key example of this is the control method used in the early entries of the Resident Evil and Silent Hill video game franchises known colloquially as “tank controls” due to the type of directional movement used. The control method consists of having to turn the player character in the direction desired before and then moving the player forward in that direction using the directional pad or control stick on a gamepad.
Due to the complexity of this method, making it difficult for some players to adjust to, tank controls effectively provide a barrier, or “disability,” for a player. While not a disability by the usual definition of the word, the barrier to entry for the genre that tank controls provide engages access issues that affect a player’s ability to succeed in the game when the goal is survival. The goal being survival within the genre is also analogous to having a disability IRL (in real life) despite the fantastical settings often used. People with disabilities are disadvantaged by society and the horrific content of survival horror video games runs parallel.
Another aspect of the accessibility of the genre that is comparable to the experience of people with disabilities IRL is the genre’s use of complex multi-part puzzles to progress to new areas. These puzzles are pervasive within the genre regardless of any other aspects of the game such as combat or plot. As these puzzles are required to progress, they make the genre problematic for the player and the protagonist, thus disabling them. Through having the puzzle be present in multiple steps, they can be compared to access barriers for people with disabilities.
Disability Adjacent Content in Survival Horror Video Games
Within the survival horror genre disability is seldomly stated outright. Due to the interactive nature of video games as media, developers tend to use adjacency rather than actuality when discussing/using disability representation. By dodging the subject of disability, players create fan theories regarding a character’s diagnosis. Fan theories present many problems when looking at disability as these theories often lead to misdiagnoses being applied to a character as some fan websites and wikis showcase. The issue with declaring a character to have a disability without direct confirmation from the game developer, including in this writing, is that such a practice is based on conjecture. The idea of conjecture when discussing adjacency directly applies to survival horror video games due to their being interactive and leaving many ideas up to the player. As the player directly controls the interactions with the game environment, it allows for the player to interact with what is disabling for the playable character, even if the character does not actually have a disability. Interactivity is the main idea behind choosing video games as a storytelling method.
As horror media relies on storytelling to make a person afraid, the interactivity aspect lends itself to conjecture. Making a story playable rather than passive thus allows for what would not constitute as (a) disability to become one through gameplay. This makes players force a disability status onto a playable character complicating adjacency versus actuality.
A character seemingly with a disability is viewable as such through both storytelling and interactivity within survival horror video games. Heather Mason the protagonist and playable character of Silent Hill 3, for example, does not from the standpoint of the developer have a disability; instead, she has a disability through the circumstances—the plot and the players place her into. This adjacency hinders the player’s perception of Mason as a protagonist and their likely non-disabled perception of disability. Due to a nondisabled player playing a video game, the idea of application becomes apparent as the nondisabled player applies disabling traits to characters using an able-bodied lens. This lens hinders perceptions, creating problematic elements for the player (including players who have disabilities). Problematizing representation is not uncommon, yet survival horror video games make the player afraid creating representations that may not be present.
Disability is omnipresent in horror media and thus is present in the video game genre of survival horror. Due to the interactivity of video games as a medium, survival horror video games complicate both what gets constituted as horrific and what gets constituted as disabling. Due to the different circumstances between passive and interactive horror (and non-horror) media, while both have the goal of frightening a person, the way in which interactive media handles this feeling of fear is more powerful than not, as the player experiences the tension directly rather than viewing or imagining it (notably, virtual reality and augmented reality games make these circumstances that much more complicated and problematic). The vivid experience of fear provided by a survival horror video game also allows the player to experience aspects of perceived or presumed physical and mental disability through controlling the player character in the game environment. Fear is a powerful emotion and fear of frailty and weakness can lead to a fear of acquiring a disability.
Simultaneously, survival horror video games allow the player to experience helplessness not dissimilar to the experience of marginalized populations including people with disabilities by restricting agency in an ableist context. The limited inventory space and combat options found in the survival horror genre are atypical to how most other video game genres operate from a gameplay standpoint. Like a disability status, survival horror video games are both a difference and a part of a whole identity. The difference provided by the genre is divisive as it can be inaccessible from a gameplay standpoint to players with and without disabilities. As the genre has a high difficulty level it can turn away new players from the genre as well.
While the gameplay of survival horror video games plays a key role in how franchises in the genre operate, one could argue that the plot and presentation of these games plays an even larger role. The plotlines of survival horror video games are what makes them frighten the player with the gameplay being secondary. Unlike many other genres of video game, survival horror video games are not meant to be “fun,” instead using an involved story to make a player feel dreaded emotions. The emotional response that the player feels from playing a game in the genre differs through its use of serious topics in comparison to other video game genres including disability among other “controversial” subjects. The use of taboo topics within the survival horror genre thus complicates it legacy among other more prominent genres of video gaming. The legacy left by disability (mis)representation within survival horror video games is one of controversy and incremental progress. With each new entry in survival horror franchises new gameplay and plot ideas are introduced, leading to complex ideas regarding the representation of disability within the genre.
Shakespeare, T. (2006). The social model of disability. The disability studies reader, 2, 197-204.
About the Author
Benjamin (Ben) Jones is a Disabled/Autistic Scholar currently serving Disabled students at The Center for Disability Resources at Syracuse University. Fascinated by horror media from a young age, Jones is interested in the intersection of disability and popular mediums in the horror genre. A gamer with an interest in the culture of video games, Jones also writes music and does “trad-digital” animation as hobbies.