Everyone can see themselves and have fun: the case for inclusive video games

Everyone can see themselves and have fun: the case for inclusive video games

In the chaotic kitchens of Overcooked, up to four players work together frantically fulfilling orders from hungry customers.

A recipe might involve chopping lettuce and tomatoes, frying burger patties and assembling ingredients, as chefs navigate around one another in the crowded space, extinguishing fires and even remembering to wash the dirty dishes.

Overcooked is a really good playing field for gamers and non-gamers to play together,” says Gemma Langford, the studio manager and writer at Ghost Town Games, the small, independent UK studio which created the cooperative cooking video game.

Success in the game relies heavily on real world communication and teamwork between players. “You’ve got to tell your friends ‘you chop this’, ‘you cut that’,” she says.

The game – now played by millions and available on multiple platforms and consoles – is designed to be fun for everyone. Children are even playing with their elderly grandparents who have never played a video game before, Langford says.

Raccoon chef picture
Raccoon chef from Overcooked. Credit: Ghost Town Games

One of the most popular playable characters in Overcooked is the Raccoon chef.

Raccoon chef was “the OG” character in a wheelchair, Langford says. With their furry round ears and bandit eye markings, the character remains a top pick among the game’s cast of diverse animals or human chefs, including many non-binary characters, and several in wheelchairs.

According to the developers: “Raccoon chef has always been in a wheelchair. From what we can gather: they achieved a full scholarship to a prestigious culinary school, then worked as a line chef in a number of different kitchens before landing a job with the Onion King’s catering team.”

There’s a very simple drive behind the diversity of playable characters. “We just want everyone to feel included, so everyone can see themselves and have fun,” Langford says.

“It’s a very emotional thing, seeing yourself represented.”

Overcooked logo
Overcooked / Credit: Ghost Town Games

Researchers and advocates say disability representation within video games is important, along with accessibility provided through software and hardware enabling everyone to play, and supportive online communities which form around particular games or platforms.

Video games are a mainstream form of entertainment played by two-thirds of Australians according to industry statistics.

And contrary to stereotypes, video game players reflect the diversity of the population. The majority of whom – 60% – want to see greater diversity in representation, and more accessibility and inclusion.

Yet the representation provided in Overcooked is still rare.

One in six Australians have a disability, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Only 0.1% of characters in video games are depicted with a disability according to a systemic analysis of representation by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

“It’s a very emotional thing, seeing yourself represented.”

Gemma Langford

Antony Clements is a game developer based in New South Wales. His company, Wheelie Good Games, specialises in character development, particularly for minority groups.

A wheelchair user himself, Clements says he has first-hand experience of the lack of representation, or stereotyping of people with disabilities in the media.

“For the most part, representation in video games for people in wheelchairs doesn’t exist, or disabilities in general,” he says.

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That representation is particularly important when people play narrative-based video games, because of the desire to “put themselves in the game”, he says.

“During the gameplay, you’re imparting yourself on the character, and you want to see aspects of the character reflected back.”

He says, that’s why having characters with disability represented in games is so important. It’s more inclusive. “People like me have a greater sense of connectivity with the character, it’s more visceral.”

Clements says there’s only a handful of video games which include a playable character with a disability.

One example he mentions is the character Joker, who has a brittle bone disease in the military science fiction game series Mass Effect.

Mass effect logo
Mass Effect / Credit: Electronic Arts Inc

Joker’s disability informs the character’s story and abilities, Clements says. “He’s the best pilot in his fleet, because he has to learn to avoid damaging himself […] getting himself out of danger in the safest way possible.”

The game includes another character, Jennifer Rammstein (also known as Jack), who suffers from severe PTSD, a mental health condition which informs the gameplay for that character, who distances herself from people.

But it’s not just about representation. Clements says he’s found a community through online gaming, providing a means of social interaction.

“People like me have a greater sense of connectivity with the character, it’s more visceral.”

Antony Clements

Professor Katie Ellis is the director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University. She recently co-edited the book Gaming Disability, which brings together research on disability perspectives on video games.

Katie ellis
Professor Katie Ellis, director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University / Supplied

She says whether it’s in film, toys or digital media, people with disabilities are needing to fight for representation, accessibility and inclusion or they’re being left out of the conversation.

She says lack of representation isn’t unique to video games. “In media, we often see idealised images of people.

“Maybe you have a whole group of people saying ‘I want disability in games’, but the developers are going for the larger audience rather than those smaller niche audiences.  Which, if they went for the niche audiences, they will find success and loyal communities of users.”

But Ellis has noticed a positive shift in recent years. “I think there is cause for optimism right now, that there are game developers trying to include disability both in terms of representation, but in terms of accessibility to make sure people with disability can access their games.”

Accessibility might include captioning or audio descriptions in games for people who are deaf or can’t see, and care to ensure the gameplay doesn’t exclude people who have dexterity issues.

She says groups like Able Gamers have been working on different adaptive controllers that people with different physical impairments might need to play games. The group works with players with disabilities providing feedback to the video games industry and creating a support network. Its engineering research works to overcome barriers to play, developing more accessible gaming technology (such as working with Microsoft Xbox on its Adaptive Controller).

Ellis adds that video games can provide a site where “people can be included and find community and participate in a way but they might not be able to in the wider world.”

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Her favourite example from the book is a chapter about online video game forum Tingyou in China, which has become a space for blind gamers to share tips and strategies, helping one another access popular video games.

In Australia, Ellis says she’s working on research with the Federal e-Safety Commissioner showing children with disabilities are forming communities through games like Minecraft and Roblox.

“If they went for the niche audiences, they will find success and loyal communities of users.”

Professor Katie Ellis

Ellis says, often when we hear about video games in the mainstream media, it comes with a negative frame, issues like gaming addiction or cyber safety. But she adds, “research is finding that for kids with disabilities, engagement in gaming can be a really positive thing for them.”

“I find it very exciting that research is finding that for kids with disabilities, this is such an important area for them, allows them to play, and have fun, [and] access things that they might not be able to access in the outside world.

“So I just think we could do more to make sure they’re reflected there. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. We need to send those messages to kids with, and without disabilities, that they’re part of our society. And if we can do that through games, you know, I think that’s great.”

Author of Taming Gaming, Andy Robertson runs the Family Gaming Database, a website helping families make informed choices about video games, including detailed information on things like age appropriateness for the content and skill level, and what kind of online communication like chat is available.

Home page of website
The Family Gaming Database home page. From www.taminggaming.com/en-au/home

For each of the more than 2,400 video games on the site, the site provides detailed information about accessibility features related to controls, difficulty, reading, navigation, visuals, audio and communication.

Robertson says the list of accessibility features were developed, tested and honed through “hundreds of conversations” with people who have lived experience of a wide range of disabilities and impairments.

“We’ve worked very closely for a number of years with the community to develop this set of data,” he says. Robertson says, “we’re setting ourselves up to be here for the long haul”.

That work is supported by a groundswell in the industry with an interest in making sure everyone can play video games.

Ron Curry, the CEO of industry association the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association says, “games that are inclusive and accessible to ALL players lead to greater success.”

“We are encouraged and delighted to see that many major games developers, Australian studios and platform holders are enhancing their accessibility features as accessible game design is good game design.  Removing unnecessary barriers to gameplay means that more people can experience the joy, fun and connection of playing video games.”

Langford agrees.

“If those young people aren’t getting access to games, and aren’t seeing themselves visually represented in games, chances are they’re not going to grow up and want to make games themselves. And then it just keeps going round, and round, and round.”

Gemma langford
Gemma Langford, studio manager and writer at Ghost Town Games / Supplied

Beyond representation, inclusion and accessibility underpins the Overcooked’s design approach, adding modes for people with dyslexia, colour blindness, and options without time restrictions to cater for younger children, or people who prefer a calmer cooking experience.

In the small team of three at Ghost Town Games, part of Langford’s job involves managing the Overcooked community. She says there has been a hugely positive reception for characters like Raccoon chef.

“We’ve had stories about people in wheelchairs, playing with their friends who aren’t, and they all choose a character with wheelchairs and they’re all playing it together,” she says.

“It’s awesome. It’s not always just about representation for yourself, you get to have fun in other people’s skins. It’s just brilliant,” she says.

Langford enthuses about a local charity, Everyone Can, which supports video game access and participation for people with disabilities.

Their technology centre in Manchester offers equipment and alternative control methods for everything from retro arcade games to virtual reality.

“It’s a beautiful space for these kids to go and play games, while their parents have a cup of tea and a natter. It’s ace.

“When you’re watching, like a load of kids playing Overcooked in that situation, and they’re all just screaming and stuff […],” Langford grins. 

“Accessibility and diversity is a source of joy. I think other games need to get plugged into that really. Making other people happy makes you happy as well.”

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