Content Note: Discussions of disability and accessibility including examples of social insensitivity/hurtful terminology.

There are stories only games can tell, because we’re allowed, as players, to hear them at our own pace, placing personal experience over narrative economy. Through individualized participation, we can learn difficult lessons in our own time, in a safe environment, and create what can essentially serves as a laboratory for empathy, a pace beneficial for difficult stories.

Recovery from trauma, for example, either physical, or psychological, or both is a slow process—in many cases, a lifelong process—and it’s something that’s hurried through narrative convenience whenever possible in other forms of media; in games, however, it can breathe and become something more than a lesson.

Many well-known games deal with neural challenges—Kratos processing the trauma of his life in God of War, Senua’s experiences with schizophrenia in Hellblade, or, hell, the externalization of internal trauma through pathological body modification in The Binding of Isaac—but physical disabilities are rarely seen in games. RPG mods exist that map characteristic modifiers and character trends to diseases and disabilities—from the scuzzier edge of Mediafire-distributed systems to homebrew D&D mods that let you roll a character with schizophrenia or intrusive thoughts. It’s an interesting way to ideally build up an understanding of the drawbacks and triumphs of a life lived with an ongoing disability when employed well, or another method of attack when it’s not.

Game designer Kevin Snow wrote a superb piece for Waypoint a couple of weeks ago about playing Frostpunk and how the game handles disability within a fictional culture that’s nonetheless inflected by ours and how that’s informed and affected by the experiences of people within our culture who live with disabilities. It’s definitely worth a read.

There’s not much in the official Wizards of the Coast-released tournament organizer documents or judge rules about helping players with disabilities—rather, it’s left up to the judges to determine how best to accommodate players’ needs. Sometimes, thanks to the compassion and empathy of organizers, this goes extremely well. Other times, with busy judges trying to do everything at once, it doesn’t. These are recent advances; we’ve made great strides in being more inclusive in the last decade.

Compare the way we operate now to Wizards’ official resource for tournament organizers/judges from 2009, “Dealing With Disabled Players.” “Dealing With.” Not “Accommodating,” or “Ensuring All Planeswalkers Have the Same Magic Experience.” “Dealing With.” The actual content is essentially on-point, outdated language aside: “If you don’t know how to deal with a particular issue, talk to the player about it. You are not going to offend him by asking how you can help.” But your first experience—either as a player with a disability or a judge seeking information—is that phrase, and it’s worth wondering what lesson you’re supposed to take away from it.

The most convenient of narrative conveniences, of course, is magic (or magical technology, etc.), with time-travel a close second. In Magic: the Gathering, of course, planeswalkers are capable of the former with a select few having explored the latter.

The goblin planeswalker Daretti, who lost the use of his legs in an explosion, gets around with the assistance of a wheelchair construct. We’re lucky to live in a culture that—while far, far from perfect on issues of disability rights—has access to technological advances and medical care. I was taking a campus tour a couple of months ago, and was shown a 3-D printed prosthetic hand that was undergoing repairs; the user, a fourteen-year-old boy, had shattered it while playing baseball and needed new struts. The whole hand—from the printed polymers to the hinges allowing basic function on the fingers and wrist—cost $35 and could easily be replaced as its user grew or ran it through its paces.

That’s one person’s anecdotal experience with assistance technology and adaptive physical learning; how do we learn similar stories about Magic? Simply put, there are unanswered questions that keep Magic’s cultures from feeling complete and coherent: how do the Kor care for those who have lost a limb to ravenous baloths or experience chronic pain from a bad fall? How do inventors on Kaladesh create prosthetics? Do the Mardu celebrate the loss of a critical limb in battle? As Cabal adherents sacrifice more and more in the service of their dark god, do they feel gratitude? Loss? A complex cocktail of emotions?

Discussing disability within the game itself is also difficult because Magic deals so heavily in body horror—in the strict definition, that’s feelings of fear arising from the loss of bodily integrity or through surgical, magical, or genetic adjustments made without consent or resulting in loss of function. It covers a broad swathe of culture—from District 9 to Society to Metamorphosis to the Animorphs—and flirts with the most upsetting and uncanny aspects of our bodies, the sense of invasion and detachment that people experience when something changes drastically.

Magic, in its focus on combat and death, depicts bodies as fragile, but often doesn’t balance it with representations of the equal strength that bodies are capable of displaying. It’s important, too, to delineate the difference between “mutilation” and “disability.” They’re not the same. China Mieville operates in this space with his Remade—people who have been punitively mutilated by the state, but still exist as people with needs and desires and functions. In a sense, it’s comparable to the Sultai employment of mutilated and humiliated corpses as furniture or the eviscerated war-dead of Draketown—sending a message through brutality. Like most things, disability is personal, but it can also be political.

In depicting ongoing disability, both horror and trauma can be pitfalls. Snow touches on the trauma of disability in his piece, but is also careful to point out that no experience is universal, that the way one person thinks of their disability should be taken as just that, the valid but individual experience of one person. The trauma of bodily harm can be a very effective tool when applied to alien cultures—the flavor text on the Mirrodin Besieged Phyrexian Revoker has always vaguely upset me, and I’d be intrigued to hear why it changed for the Magic 2015 reprint—but it can also be alienating to people who have been through something similar.

Magic’s version of Snow’s Frostpunk experience comes across in an unexpected place: the Gruul guild of Ravnica’s Scab-Clan. Check out the art on Scab-Clan Mauler: a warrior with no legs riding a bruiser with, presumably, no vision—overcoming disability through teamwork. Don’t let depiction be the same as endorsement, of course—the way the Gruul feel about something is not the way Wizards feels about something. Even then, note that the creative team described these warriors as dehumanized “Morlocks,” as people who are depleted and angered by their disability.

Magic’s worlds are difficult worlds: people suffer the depredations of monstrous creatures, the effects of planar war, the machinations of intergalactic aliens and villains, the ongoing effects of living in a culture that subsists on the edge of extinction or existential peril. But there are anthropological gaps, too, places where cultures could be more fully realized—empty spaces where grace or empathy could dwell, places that could inspire and include the totality of Magic’s player base.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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