You may have noticed that when disability shows up in the media, it’s:
Short hand for evil: Bond villains, anyone? Limps, scars, prosthetics, mental illness. The media uses disability to other the bad guy. Not cool.
Inspiration porn: the disabled character isn’t a person so much as their tragical experiences are the plot mechanic to spur able-bodied people to become better human beings. Me Before You pretty much takes the biscuit here, but most disability biopics fit this trope through condescension and “good on them for trying”. To quote my friend: don’t say it’s good because I’m dyslexic; say it’s good.
The Overcoming Narrative: because the most important thing in the world is for a disabled person to be cured of their disability. All disabilities can be magically cured if it suits the plot! Nobody needs to be ok about disability, because Real People pull their socks up and defeat it.
Exceptionalism: a trope common to all marginalised people, that we accept your disability (or blackness, or womanhood, or sexuality, or immigrant-status) if you redeem yourself through exceptional achievement. It’s not all bad, but it’s a toxic message when it’s the only positive portrayal of disabled people. It sends a message that you’re doing your disability wrong if you’re living a perfectly normal, happy and fulfilled life like 99% of the rest of the population.
Disability Issues Only: the disabled character only gets to have storylines about being disabled. Because that’s all disabled people do, right? They don’t have lives, or jobs, or partners/spouses and kids *eyeroll*
Like “the Gay Agenda”, folks with disabilities just want to get on with life the same way all you non-disabled folks do: go to work, remember to buy milk, collect the kids from school, and see positive representations of people like them in books, films, TV, and in the games we play.
Sara Thompson has created a ruleset for what’s basically a murderball chair, which levels the playing field for an adventurer with a physical disability: it functions as a basic melee weapon (with ramming, crushing, and side-swiping actions), it laughs in the face of steps and stairs (you know, like able-bodied adventurers do), and has plenty of options for upgrading and levelling-up with your chair as you adventure—mounted combat, being one with your chair as far as spell-casting goes, and pockets.
Sigh. If you’re genuinely asking this question, alas dear reader, you have the ableist mindset that sees disability as broken, undesirable, and to be avoided and put out of mind at all costs. Yes, absolutely, disability is hard and frustrating, and at times and in certain situations, limiting (though you’d be surprised how often it’s not the disability that’s limiting, more society, infrastructure and assumptions). But, you know, so is having ginger hair or an Essex accent, or being a woman in a male-dominated field, and nobody is saying “OMG why would you want to play as these things in D&D, what’s wrong with you? Don’t give them the rules, don’t let that be an option.”
I wondered how could I get abled folks to understand and see us as people like them? – Sara Thompson
Everyone plays D&D as a little bit themselves. Why shouldn’t disabled people have the same choice to play as all-the-way-themselves as able-bodied players, if they want to?
One of the ugly things about ableism is the assumption that disability must be eradicated. That’s like saying the cure for racism is to get rid of all the non-white people, which is just about the most offensive idea going.
I have received death threats, mockery, and vitriol from people who don’t want to understand why this representation is so important – Sara Thompson
Not all disabled people want to be cured of their disability. In part that’s because it’s not an option and it would be a pretty unhealthy mindset to live your life waiting on your legs to grow back, the injury to un-happen, or your genetic code to rewrite itself.
Then there’s the matter of identity: disability is a part of who you are when you have one, particularly if it’s something you’ve had since birth. Not all of that is good, but excising the disability isn’t a clear-cut thing either. Maybe more akin to amputating your cultural identity.
And finally, the ableist notion that disability must be cured is based on the idea that a person can’t be happy or fulfilled with a disability, and that s#$t doesn’t happen to able-bodied people alike—it’s like saying poverty is the cause of unhappiness, so rich people must not have any problems… they just have different human issues to deal with. Admittedly, there’s a lot to be said for not going hungry, but having food and money for the rent is necessary but insufficient to a good life.
Which is all to say, that disabled people exist, and they’re not going anywhere, and a lot of the time they’re happy and fulfilled and expect to be accepted in society like any other person on this planet. Which means seeing positive representations of themselves in games, and having the choice to play with core aspects of themselves if they want.
I had a chat with Sara over e-mail:
What led you to coming up with the combat wheelchair rules?
There were a lot of factors that led up to the chair’s creation. I’ve had experiences of asking Dungeon Masters if I could play a disabled character at their tables and was generally met with an awkward “Oh, yeah, there’s no rules for that so you can’t,” or the unsurprising method of “Okay, but you have to take all these negatives and/or penalties,” which isn’t an accurate portrayal of disability/chronic illness/neurodivergency at all.
A lot of my friends are also wheelchair users (both ambulatory and full-time) and it got me thinking about how we never see an adventurer in a wheelchair. We never see disabled folks represented as the capable people that they are – many of us, like me, have jobs and families and responsibilities. Our disability is just a part of us, and I think that able-bodied people don’t understand that. We are often seen as and used for pity or inspiration – there’s a real issue with inspiration porn in the media; look at Queer Eye’s episode about a disabled man, for example.
I wondered how I could represent us in D&D, how could I get abled folks to understand and see us as people like them?
Already, the average Level 1 character is above the typical NPC villager, so I decided to take inspiration from Paralympians. Essentially, I spent 6-7 months submerging myself into the culture behind wheelchair sports – I recommend to anyone that they watch some Murderball matches; they’re very intense! I made some very rough concept ideas which was Combat Wheelchair v1.0 and took feedback from wheelchair users in the community who play-tested it to tell me what I could do to better reflect a wheelchair inclined towards combat and adventuring. This feedback, along with the design for the basic chair being taken from sports chairs used in Murderball matches, was then put together and written up into what people know as the Combat Wheelchair v2.0 today.
What’s the response been?
The response in general has been overwhelming, regardless of it being good or bad. I never really expected the chair to take off and get as much coverage as it did. I posted it knowing that the people I made it for (wheelchair users and the disabled community) were the ones it would reach and I only cared for their reactions to it – I wanted more than anything to put positive and accurate portrayal of them into a game that has, for the most part, failed them on the representation front for the past 40+ years D&D has been running. But then so many people started RT-ing it, including writers at WotC and Critical Role’s DM Matt Mercer, and it suddenly had a lot of eyes on it.
In general, the response has been positive. For every 1 mean comment are 20 more that have kind words of support. But still, I have received death threats from sock puppet accounts, mockery for being disabled and making an item that doesn’t erase disability, and vitriol from people who don’t want to understand why this representation is so important. It has been a lot, but at the end of the day, it made the people who needed it and who I wrote it for happy, and that’s all that matters to me.
Where would you like to see the hobby in five years?
I would like to see our hobby and communities accept that a lot of the demographic of RPGs is disabled people – they are something disabled folks can play every week and, now that a lot of it has moved online, it’s become more accessible (not entirely accessible though). A lot of disabled people play ttrpgs and it’s time we all step up to acknowledge and work on bettering our games to represent everyone.
Anyone can be an adventurer.
What would you like straight-white-male wargamers to know about gaming from a disability perspective?
Don’t be afraid of disability; open up that dialogue at your tables. Talk to disabled folks about this and learn – there are a lot of free resources out there online for you to learn from. Stop treating representation of disabled folks as a threat and see it as an opportunity to learn, broaden your mindset, and help you become a better DM/GM and player. Disability isn’t a bad thing and it’s time we stop treating it like it is.
This is awesome, what can I do to make my games more inclusive?
The FATE Accessibility Toolkit is a great disability resource. It covers how to make your gaming table accessible to players with disabilities, as well as how to include disability in character design within the FATE system, which also translates well to other systems. You can buy a copy on DriveThuRPG.
If you want to get your learn on about disability culture more broadly, I recommend reading No Pity by Joseph Shapiro, a collection of essays on disability rights and history, and watching Crip Camp on Netflix, which tells the story of the 504 Sit In, the longest non-violent occupation of a U.S. federal building in history: 100 disabled people, supported by the Black Panthers, protested for 26 days for equal access to public services. Fun fact: disability equality is part of the anti-segregation ruling handed down in Brown vs Board of Education.
Read more about the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.
PAXsims and the Derby House Principles are pleased to present Paul Strong & Sally Davis discussing queer and gender non-conforming representation in the military, from ancient times to the modern day.
Hear how war and the military created gay culture as we know it, and how gay culture has in turn shaped the military and how we think about war. Spot a few familiar faces, from WATU Wrens to Alexander the Great, QueenKing Christina of Sweden, Lord Kitchener, and others.
Peter Perla raised an excellent question in the chat during the Connections North round up at Connections 2020: how do we move beyond just making statements of support for diversity and inclusion?
First recognise the challenge:
On a homogenous team, people readily understand each other and collaboration flows smoothly, giving the sensation of progress. Dealing with outsiders causes friction, which feels counterproductive.
But [a]mong groups where all three original members didn’t already know the correct answer, adding an outsider versus an insider actually doubled their chance of arriving at the correct solution, from 29% to 60%. The work felt harder, but the outcomes were better.
In fact, working on diverse teams produces better outcomes precisely because it’s harder.
Honest consideration of our privilege. Not in an accusatory way, but to recognise the bigger patterns at work: if you don’t “see” colour you also don’t see the systemic biases faced by non-white people. You’re really saying you’re choosing to see them as white—which denies their identity, lived-experience, and gives you all the power to police what’s white-enough. It makes the topic uncomfortable for people to bring up at all. The same goes for gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
Engaging in acts of empathy towards others: shifting to a mindset of womens’/black/LGBT/disability rights and history are everybody’s rights and history too, not a niche interest. Women and minorities are expected to root for straight white male interests all the time, it’s time straight white men returned the favour. We’re a culture of red-teamers, what are we doing not searching out perspectives other-than-our-own? The diversity card deck is a good place to start.
Being ok with feeling uncomfortable. Women and minorities are expected to do all the emotional labour of keeping straight white men comfortable, that needs to stop. Step out of defensiveness when folks talk about the problem—expressing your discomfort by shutting down the conversation or protesting your personal innocence is cheering for the wrong side. Regardless of intention it’s keeping straight-white-male comfort front and centre in a conversation about the very real harms being done to women and minorities. Women and minorities aren’t the problem, it’s on everyone else to do the work of change.
Stop and think before saying or doing something potentially insensitive, or ask if or how you should proceed. Of course, awareness of what might be insensitive only comes from having engaged with minority interests and history to understand life from their perspective, and the humility to accept feedback about your unknown unknowns.
If you make a mistake, apologise, do better, move on. Be ok with admitting vulnerability, “I don’t know how to do this right, but I want to learn.”
You can read the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.
The diversity survey results are in and have been compiled into a handy deck of cards. Instructions are included for a group activity, but in these socially-distant times they work just as well for solo reflection. No plans for hardcopy just yet, but feel free to print your own.
The featured vignettes are just a snapshot of the real things actually happening to women and minority professional wargamers and analysts that have been sent to me through the diversity survey. It makes for some sobering reading.
A few thoughts on the survey itself:
1. It’s bad for women. But there aren’t even double-figures when it comes to non-white wargamers.
Yuna Wong joked when she was asked about her experience and the interviewer caveated that he wasn’t expecting her to speak for all non-white wargamers, “It’s fine, the other one is ok with me speaking for him.”
I think it would be easy to focus on misogynism only, because there are more women to complain about it. Wargaming really needs to ask uncomfortable questions about what’s keeping it so white.
2. A flavour of responses that didn’t feature in the card deck:
“Please note that you can use quotes but I insist on remaining anonymous. I don’t fancy the vitriol and trolling.”
“My husband points out [the fact] that being female makes me diverse is damning.”
“The Connections Community looks very non-diverse, but actually they are quite inclusive.”
3. Men might be shocked to learn that women wargamers have to think about keeping themselves safe from sexual assault.
4. Things that are good:
Representation! At games and in games
Groups that are vocal about being inclusive
Supportive (male) colleagues who make space at the table
Being seen as a player not someone with a disability (or other minority)
PAXsims is proud to present the world-premier of A short film about WATU! Lovingly crafted from the historical record, contemporary footage, and the voice-acting skills of the Chelsfield Players and Dstl analysts.
A Filmed In Lockdown production. Written and animated by Sally Davis. Starring: Diana McDonnell-Pascoe, David Bacon, Jo East, Ken Clarke, Jeremy Lowe, James Edmunds, Anna Fothergill, Philippa Rooke, Emily Edmunds, Nick Barnett, Anne Allocca, Gill Bacon, David Childs, Maddy McCubbin, and the Admiralty Collection.
You might be sat there thinking, the Derby House Principles look great, but in all honesty our organisation is a bunch of guys and nobody but guys apply to work with us, it would feel hypocritical to sign-up. Here’s a different way to think about it:
By putting out inclusive content—not just the characters and story, but the interface as well—a whole generation of diverse gamers and game-makers will come knocking at your door wanting a peice of the action.
Change begins with making content that says everyone is welcome here.
It’s the simple things, like allowing users to remap the controls in your game, that can make a huge difference.
Microsoft’s approach to disability access is really interesting: There are (approximately) 100,000 people in America with an upper limb deficiency. That’s not a commercially viable market. But six million people break their arm every year in the US, putting them temporarily in the same category. And parents are juggling children and laptops every other second in lockdown, putting them situationally in the same category. When you frame it like that, something that allows you to drive Windows and your Xbox one-handed is a mainstream need.
Disability is mismatched human interactions. That’s all.
So here’s a public service announcement ahead of the Connections 2020 games fair:
The MacOS screen-reader can’t get hold of content in Google docs in safari, so all the distributed wargaming I’ve been doing in the pandemic has been with rules and player stats and shared intent slides that I can’t read.
It can’t be that hard, surely? You have a degree and everything!
Too easy? How about this:
Sure, you can pick your way through it eventually, but do you remember anything you just read? How much gameplay will you miss wading through the mud to check a rule here and there? Could you even decipher that text while you have other players talking in your ear on Zoom?
Pop quiz: what’s provided in the slide deck…?
If you are running a distributed game at Connections please consider including a very simple statement on your sign-up sheet:
Please let us know if you have any accessibility needs so we can figure out what will work for you.
Are you BAME, POC, LGBT, disabled, a woman, or otherwise diverse?
I want to know more about your experiences in wargaming.
Please take a few minutes to fill in this survey. Thanks!
For the purposes of this survey, diverse means anyone who identifies as outside the majority in terms of backround, life-experience, class, as well as the protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act.
One of my aims here at PAXsims is to raise up the voices and experiences of professional gamers outside the “male and pale” majority. So here’s your starter for 10, from the Wavell Room:
If you want to be the best Armed Forces, then the only way to go is Feminist. If you don’t believe me, there’s stacks of writing out there about the importance of diversity and inclusion to making the best decisions, and being the highest performing team. And there’s also stacks of writing about the importance of feminist thought and analysis when it comes to conflict and peace.
This post, however, is not about the necessity of Feminism. This is about how men in Defence can start to change themselves and lead their conservative, homogeneous organisations into a better, more gender-equal future.
Nick P, So you want to be ‘Feminist AF’? at The Wavell Room
It’s worth reading the whole article, but I’ll pull out this one paragraph, and invite PAXsims readership to take up the challenge:
One small sign can be the sight of (particularly senior men) reading the kinds of books and articles that I recommend below. It’s commonplace for someone like the General I originally wrote to to be reading a weighty, male-authored tome about strategy or leadership. It’s the kind of thing aspirational juniors will always see on bookshelves and in briefcases etc.
I asked him to take Soraya Chemaly’s “Rage Becomes Her” and make it something that he carries around with him, to be read as he goes from meeting to meeting, location to location, in the car, on the train, and that people see him reading and carrying, that he places on the table during meetings along with his notebook and briefing papers etc.
People will see this, and it will send a sign to women in the room, and to men who are shy of being allies but want to participate, and it will begin conversations.
Nick P, So you want to be ‘Feminist AF’? at The Wavell Room
In 1945, Roberts was sent to Germany to the headquarters of the German U-boat command at Flensburg. His task was to find out and confirm U-boat tactics, obtain all confidential documents and records and to interrogate any U-boat command officer he could. …
Roberts was pleased to find that there was little new to him. Western Approaches Tactical Unit had got it right, they had correctly assumed the U-boat strength and tactics. … Roberts asked to see the plots of the overall situation on the 2nd June, 1944, just prior to ‘Overlord’. He was pleased to see a situation identical to that presumed by WATU. …
It was noticeable that, whenever Roberts appeared, a sudden silence descended on the Germans and anxiety showed in every face. For Roberts’ was a face they all knew. In the German Operations Room was a blown-up photograph of Roberts taken from an illustrated magazine and underneath, ‘This is your enemy, Captain Roberts, Director of Anti-U-Boat Tactics’. He never bothered to take it down.
Williams, “Captain Gilbert Roberts, RN, and the Anti-U-Boat School”
This was a photo I needed to find.
It took a year to track down the text of Roberts’ Trinity Lecture, teased in later chapters of the Williams’ Biography. (And which turned out to have a lot in common with passages from The Cruel Sea.) It took two-and-a-half to track down the illustrated magazine.
After an exhaustive search, and much thanks to Ed Butcher’s ebay bidding wizardry, I give you, most likely*, Your Enemy, Captain Roberts, Director of Anti-U-Boat Tactics:
The article is light on the contribution of the Wrens, but does a stellar job of putting the fear of god good operational research into the enemy:
Captain Roberts plays a grim battle of wits with his opposite number in Germany. He spends weeks working out what Doenitz may think of next, and then, translating that next possible manoeuvre into a situation in the game at the Tactical School. …
The more exciting the game becomes, the better pleased is Captain Roberts.
At the end of the game he sums up. Some of the decisions have been brilliant. Some have been faulty.
“But,” says the tactical school director, “make your mistakes here and you won’t make them at sea.”
So thorough is the course, so clever the setting of each game, that many naval officers fighting actual U-boats in the Atlantic suddenly realise that they first saw the same situation present itself when it was only a game on a make-believe ocean. …
Meanwhile, in the main building—Atlantic Battle G.H.Q.—at the other end of those underground passages, Admiral Sir Max K. Horton, C-in-C, Western Approaches, smiles as he peers at the plot of what is actually happening at sea.
For more than a year he has been directing our Atlantic Battle operations and seeing the Allied sea-war effort reaching a stage where, for some time, every Atlantic convoy ship has almost a 100 per cent chance of getting through safely.
It was not always like that. But Admiral Horton knew, like all the experts, that given adequate naval and air escort strength around the convoys, the U-boats could be beaten.
“Maxie,” as the Navy calls him, had the satisfaction of seeing the Atlantic Battle so develop during this winter that with increasingly powerful naval and air strength around the convoys, U-boat packs could often not get within fifteen or twenty miles of the actual convoy ships.
But, well as we have been doing at sea, there has been no relaxation for the Western Approaches C-in-C or for his men. Where Doenitz, Hitler’s naval commander-in-chief, failed in the winter, he may hope to stage a comeback in the spring.
March is the month to watch. March was the only good month for the U-boats in the whole of 1943.
But Max Horton is prepared for a new submarine campaign. He knows the tricks of the trade. He established a world-wide reputation as a submarine man himself.
And he, of all men, knows the value of working out new tactics for yourself and, at the same time, anticipating the tactics of your enemy.
A.J. McWhinnie, “Behind the Atlantic Battle”
* There are several great pictures in the article. This one has such a marvelously intimidating shadow cast on the wall, it feels sinister enough to put fear in the hearts of U-boat command.