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Image description: This is an artwork of a sunset scene centered on a small island floating in the sky. The island has a modern USA style house on it with a waterfall trailing off the edge. The landscape around the island is mountainous with lush growth and a waterfall. The large buildings on this landscape have a traditional Japanese architecture style.

Image description: This is an artwork of a sunset scene centered on a small island floating in the sky. The island has a modern USA style house on it with a waterfall trailing off the edge. The landscape around the island is mountainous with lush growth and a waterfall. The large buildings on this landscape have a traditional Japanese architecture style.

This is a work in progress list of those things I want game masters to avoid, include, and be aware of as they craft their games. I expect it to grow and change as I work with different game masters.

 

Common Harmful Representations of Disability

This is a list of all of the harmful patterns in the representation of disability I am currently thinking of. It is not complete. I do want to note that one of my inspirations for this list is the article, “Sages, Villains, and Seers: Mapping Disability in Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Charlotte Loftus.

I am going through these harmful patterns one-by-one in much greater detail along with ideas for alternatives in my Trope of the Week Series:

  1. Villainous Disability
  2. Bitter Disability
  3. Disabled in Name Only
  4. Helpless Disability
  5. Inspirational Disability
  6. Magical Cures and Disability as an Obstacle
  7. Fragile Body, Magic Mind
  8. Privileged Disability (released on Monday, July 31)
  9. Metaphorical Disability (released on Monday, August 7)
  10. Not-Sexual and Not-Romantic (released on Monday, August 14)

Villainous disability. This pattern happens when the stereotype of disabled people being deformed, broken, or less human is used as part of the villainous nature of a villain. An example of this is Darth Vader being “more machine than man.” This isn’t to say that disabled character can never be villains, but care should be taken that disability is not used to make them appear more villainous, unsympathetic, or less human. The disability should also not be the reason that they are villains.

Bitterness. There also a pattern of portraying disabled characters as bitter which sends the message that being disabled so terrible that as soon as someone becomes disabled they are no longer able to have meaningful, happy lives. The disability is treated as the source of the bitterness and is often treated as if it is somehow worse or more destructive to a person’s life than anything else, even in stories where many terrible things are happening to many people. Because of this, please be careful about writing disabled characters who are bitter and please be sure to have a clear cause for their bitterness that isn’t their disability.

Disabled in name only. This pattern is one where a character is set up to be disabled but they have magic, abilities, or technology that make them essentially able-bodied. From the point at which these abilities are granted or awaken, the disability no longer impacts the character’s life. This pattern is particularly common with blind characters and characters that have lost limbs. This isn’t to say that characters shouldn’t have assistive devices or use their skills and abilities to meet their needs, but if the character’s disability does not impact their everyday life then they are no longer representing the experiences of disabled people (instead disability is being used to add flavor to a character who is otherwise able-bodied).

Magical cures. Providing a cure makes the story into one where disability is an obstacle to be overcome on journey to becoming able-bodied, something which puts the focus of the story on the value of being able-bodied. This is not to say that people with disabilities don’t experience changes in their condition for better or worse. I myself have experienced a significant improvement in my back pain in my own life, and it is fine to show that. However making a cure for a disability into a goal or reward sends the message that being disabled means being lesser. Instead I’d like to tell stories about disabled people accomplishing heroic things in the world and have those stories end with heroic triumph that the character enjoys as a disabled person (rather than as a suddenly able-bodied person).

Mind only. This is a pattern where characters who are physically disabled are given mental abilities and powers while having their bodies ignored or treated as vulnerable and helpless. One of the problems with this is that it portrays disabled people as physically incapable in a way that denies the many things we are physically capable of. The other main problem with this is that it can suggest that without either magical powers or a super mind, disabled people have nothing to contribute. Having disabled characters with mental powers can be fine as long as there are other disabled characters with physical powers and all of the disabled characters use the abilities of bodies, whatever those may be, to accomplish their goals.

Not-sexual and not-romantic. This is different than having an asexual or aromantic orientation. This pattern comes from stereotypes about people with disabilities not being able to have sex combined with discomfort with envisioning disabled people as sexual. It results in disabled characters being desexualized. They are rarely shown to have an interest in dating, much less having active romantic or sexual lives. As an asexual disabled person, I would be happy to see representation of asexual or aromantic disabled characters, but it is important for those identities to be explicitly stated and discussed. In addition, it is important for there to be representation of disabled characters who are in romantic and/or sexual relationships.

The reason the mentor isn’t the main character. Many heroic stories include mentors. Mentors need to be skilled in order to fulfill their role, but this presents a challenge for the story, as there needs to be a reason why the mentor isn’t just solving the problem themselves (and thus the hero of the story). One way that people do this is to give the mentor a disability. However, this sends the message that being disabled makes even an exceptionally skilled character unable to accomplish their goals. It is great to have disabled mentors, but please be sure their disability isn’t the one thing holding them back. Maybe they have something else to do that requires their focus, or their skills are too specialized for them to do this particular task, or there is a prophesy they are following, or they believe the hero needs to accomplish this goal on their own in order to grow their abilities, or…so many other reasons.

Disability as an obstacle. This pattern is about the stereotype that all disabled people want to become able-bodied and that the ideal is remove the diversity of bodies and create a world where everyone is able-bodied (rather than the ideal of creating a more accessible social and physical culture). It is about interpreting disability as an obstacle in people’s lives only. The truth is that the experience of disability is diverse, and not everyone wants to be changed into their cultures current ideal for what a mind and body should be. However, in many cases it is accessibility and not the disabled person that is lacking, and for many people the ideal is to transform the culture to be more accessible.

Disability as a metaphor. Too often disability and disabled bodies are used as a metaphor, usually for something negative. This process dehumanizes the disabled character by reducing them to a symbol. It also draws on stereotypes about disability which are used to make the point. This can happen when disabled characters are used to symbolically represent something about the world around them, such as poverty or intolerance. Other times disability is used to represent something about the character themselves, such as when disability is used to portray a villain as less human in villainous disability. In general I recommend against using any oppressed identity as a metaphor for something else, as the process of turning it into a metaphor usually denies the lived experience of people with that identity. In addition, the process of turning an identity into a metaphor frequently draws on negative stereotypes about that identity. Instead please think about alternative metaphors that do not involve oppressed identities.

Inspirational. This pattern is about disabled people being treated as inspirational in condescending ways. It happens when disabled people are told they are inspirational or brave for doing things that are part of their everyday lives, something which comes out of the stereotype that the lives of disabled people are inherently terrible. This pattern also happens when a disabled person accomplishes something meaningful and their accomplishment is used to motivate able-bodied people as if an able-bodied person, if they only tried, should always be able accomplish more than a disabled person. It is important not to erase the struggles and pain that many disabled people experience. However, doing something that is to us an everyday thing shouldn’t be treated as exceptional and our accomplishments should be respected the way that an able-bodied person’s accomplishments are.

 

More Things to Avoid

Evil races. Any time a situation is set up where an entire racial group is expected to be attacked and killed on sight we have strayed into the territory of genocide. (It can work to have specific groups of people that are engaged in an ongoing military conflict or war, but this should be handled carefully.)

Privileged outsiders rescuing marginalized groups. The most prominent version of this is the pattern where a white character rescues a group of people of color from an ongoing situation they have been struggling with for a long time. The problem with this is that it denies the agency and power of marginalized people. There is also a long history of white people doing tremendous harm in racist attempts to help people of color. If the plot focuses on rescuing a group of oppressed people, the player characters should be from that group or working in collaboration with (and taking direction from) leaders within that group.

Helpless kidnapped women. There is a very common sexist pattern of using kidnapped women to motivate a hero (especially a male hero) to action. Part of the problem with this pattern is the portrayal of these women as helpless objects. If kidnapping is part of a story you want to tell, please make sure that the kidnapped characters, particularly kidnapped women, retain their agency and no matter how bad the situation, make sure that they retain their ability to think and take actions (even small ones) to work towards their goals.

Monsters based on stereotypes. Throughout history, monsters have often taken on traits of groups that people feared and this means that there are a lot of monsters and monster traits that contain harmful stereotypes. Examples of things to avoid are monsters that are based on racist stereotypes, monsters that come out of racist simplifications of mythological entities from other cultures (such as genies), female monsters that are hypersexualized seducers, female monsters that do not wear protective clothing when it would be appropriate to do so, monsters based on ableist fears of disabled people’s bodies (for example, hunchbacked monsters), and monsters whose appearance or behavior vilifies gender variance.

Women who die to advance the character growth of men. This pattern is a very common problem. This isn’t to say that female characters can never die, but their lives and deaths should have a purpose and meaning to the plot that goes beyond the character development of the men in their lives. Also, be aware that female characters are disproportionately killed in this manner for plot purposes.

The tragic deaths of GLBTQIA+ characters and sex workers. Be aware that in fiction GLBTQIA+ characters and sex workers rarely get happy endings. It is very common for these characters to be tragically killed. Because this is combined with a general lack of representation, it can create a feeling where there in no happy future for people to imagine. Please think carefully about killing off characters with any of these identities, or with characters who have identities that are rarely represented (such as a disabled person of color). This is a particularly big problem in stories where the only character with a particular marginalized identity is killed. If there are many characters with the same marginalized identity (many of whom have happy endings), the impact of a character death is lessened.

 

Things to Include

Racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse humans. Many historic cultures that in the mainstream imagination are thought of as being all white actually had a significant amount of ethnic diversity. A prominent example of this is Vikings. Because they traveled and traded so far, for example there were black and Asian Vikings.

A wide range of diversity and identity.

Characters who are more complex than the oppressed identities they have. Far too often oppressed identities are used as if they are character trait on their own, with only privileged characters getting interesting quirks and flaws. Please be sure that all characters are equally complex.  

 

Please be Aware of

The kinds of oppression you are choosing to include in your world-building. This is particularly important if the setting is in a different world or in the past. Different cultures have different perspectives on identity. Also, even in the same culture, the form oppression takes changes.

The level of ableism in the physical and social environment of the game. This is something that will significantly impact players and it is important to know this ahead of time.

The symbolic use of dark and light. In the USA we live in a culture that privileges light skin. Also in this culture dark is symbolically used for painful, sinister, and evil things and light is symbolically used for pure, true, and good things. This is deeply ingrained in our language and way of thinking. However it is important to remember that the connection between blackness and bad things, and whiteness and goodness is not universal and has real impact on people’s lives. So, please be careful with dark and light imagery.

Original content is strongly preferred over pre-made content. This is especially true for the main adventure plot. With pre-made content there are concerns about ableism and other oppressive dynamics that have been designed into the material. In addition, while playing a game is definitely fair use, there may be copyright concerns that I would need to look into for certain situations. Please let me know if you want to use a pre-made setting or adventure module, or if you want to heavily borrow from copyrighted material.

 

Core Game Information

This is the core game information that I want to be able to give to potential players at the time when I am recruiting people to join the game. This information will help match players with games that they are likely to enjoy. Some of these things will be set by myself or the game master, while others may come out of conversations with players.

  • Whether the game will be played in person or online.
  • The gaming system to be used (for example, Dungeons and Dragons, Monsterhearts, Vampire the Masquerade, etc.) and its level of complexity.
  • The setting, including genre/s and a rough idea of the main location (for example, a wizard university in a medieval-ish fantasy world with diverse non-human races)
  • The extent to which the game master will be limiting player character creation options (this could range from total player freedom to the game master creating characters for players that incorporate input from the player)
  • The level of ableism in the physical and social environment of the game.
  • How physically oriented the game is going to be (this includes how action-oriented the game is).
  • Which forms of oppression will be present in the setting.
  • The expected level of violence (this will vary depending on player choices).
  • How much the plot will delve into intense themes that might be triggering or upsetting to some players (examples of intense themes include murder, slavery, sexual violence, trauma, suicide, abuse, war, and plague).
  • The amount of humor and levity the game is aiming for.
  • How cooperative the game master wants the storytelling to be (this could range from the game master controlling everything except player actions to players being heavily involved in world creation as the story progresses).

 

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