I don’t exist.
Neither do many of my friends – specifically, those with disabilities.
I discovered this recently when playing the Sims, a ‘life simulation video game series’, developed by EA Maxis and published by Electronic Arts. It’s one of the best selling video games of all times – it has sold more than 200 million copies world wide.
There are fat Sims, black Sims, Sims with purple hair. You can tweak your Sim character until he is a morbidly obese black guy with a bad ass taste in goth fashion. You can add traits and characteristics to make your Sim charismatic, a good kisser, lucky – but you will never see one type of Sim in the land of the Sims.
Yep, that’s us. People with disability.
There are no blind Sims. There are no Deaf Sims. There are no wheelchair using Sims, and it is unlikely that you will be able to introduce learning disabilities or neurodiversity into the Sims’ basic makeup. When you google ‘disabled Sim’, YouTube will tell you all about how to unlock your phone with a PUK code. We just don’t exist.
Game designer Will Wright was inspired to create a ‘virtual doll house’, and that’s just what he did. He adapted his life experience from his own experience – a house on a street, with people who live in a certain way. No prayer mats, no ramps and certainly no disabled people. We’re presumably living in the institution or working at the sheltered workshop down the street.
But imagine how much richer, how much better, the Sims would be if there was a disability expansion pack. All of a sudden, your Sim can only get a job in a sheltered workshop if he has a learning disability. He has additional challenges – sometimes he needs to sleep in his electric wheelchair when his disability support worker doesn’t turn up. His budget just doesn’t stretch far enough, and his social circle is comprised of only people like him. He can’t go to other people’s parties if they have a staircase, or if their toilet is not accessible. He has to buy additional ‘household items’ in order to live – a guide dog, a cane, a wheelchair, a hoist.
Imagine, too, that this was a feature of a usual game – where your Sim could acquire a disability at any moment by breaking his or her neck with a fall downstairs. Off to hospital and into a massive learning experience. Imagine if he experienced a mental illness, and suddenly became schizophrenic. How would his family cope with no support? Would he still live at home? What would he do? How would he live?
Imagine that your Sim had a baby and that it was diagnosed with a disability. Or imagine that you could be tested for disability – would you be like the 90% of parents who abort babies with Down syndrome? What would you do?
We don’t exist. We’re invisible. But imagine, just imagine, if we were included, not excluded, from games in ways that offered other people insight into our ‘worlds’ – by using a virtual platform.