Game Assist is a multi-media project discussing accessibility and representation in video games. I interviewed the co-creators, Sara Khan (she/they) and Errol Kerr (he/him), shortly after Game Assist ended its year-long hiatus and two days before the release of their video ‘“Everything is Political” | Institutional Racism in Life is Strange 2’ on YouTube.
Game Assist began as Gameability, a blog run by Errol Kerr in 2018 based around accessibility in gaming. On moving from Newcastle to Manchester, he met Sara Khan, with whom he ended up developing the framework of Game Assist and working the discussion of representation and liberation into the project. According to Sara, they and Errol “fill in each other’s gaps,” since their main focus is anti-racism and queer liberation, while Errol has a background in disability activism. They both have a background as English lit students, so analysing texts was something they really wanted to bring to video games.
What I find especially interesting about Game Assist is that their content analyses video games to such an extent, that no viewer can deny the socio-political messages that video games convey, or the stereotypes they perpetuate. After watching a Game Assist video, a viewer has a newfound appreciation for exactly what the developers were doing when dealing with issues of mental health in games like Night in The Woods, or making players engage with issues of racism in Life is Strange 2. “Even in the most common where we don’t really think about the narratives, there are messages that you are consuming just by playing FPS [first-person shooter], by shooting people in an unnamed country in Africa and all those people are black,” Sara says. They recount that they became increasingly uncomfortable playing FPS, because they had to shoot people that looked like them and spoke their mother’s native language. “I can’t think of any games where I can play as a Muslim or an Arab and not have to be killing Muslims and Arabs,” she says.
Game Assist homes in on what having good representation, liberation, and accessibility in video games means for wider society. I was keen to discuss the line between good representation of a marginalised group and invading an individual’s inner experiences’. Errol says this depends on three questions: “Is it represented well? Are the discussions around it done right?” and “Who is this for?” A year ago, Game Assist reviewed The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne, referring to it as an “anxiety simulator.” Errol explains that it investigates a moment in the life of a person with anxiety and manages to make its point in only twenty minutes. The length of this game means that someone with anxiety could play it, say “they did that well,” and not have to sit through extra anxiety for hours. Someone without anxiety may mess up, have to redo the game, but still suffer the effects in-game of not being able to do the everyday tasks that a person without anxiety can do with ease, and come away with a better understanding.
“I feel like it can be invasive, and it can be difficult to see your own experiences represented, especially when it comes to disabilities and chronic illnesses,” Errol says. “You do hide your bad days. There is a difference between a chronically ill character where their illness affects them in gameplay and in the narrative, and a game where you follow them doing everything. I would not want to play a game as someone with Crohn’s and you have to go to the bathroom. That is invasive, that is insensitive, that is incredibly problematic. There are ways to discuss these illnesses without being invasive, and that requires having the people who experience them involved from day one, all the way through to the end product.”
A game that Sara hails as ”fantastic and important” is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, where the main character has psychosis and her symptoms are interwoven with the gameplay. “That game has done such a successful job of representing psychotic depression through extensive consultation with psychologists, psychiatrists, and people with psychosis that in some universities, Cambridge in particular, it’s become a case study for students studying psychosis in psychology courses,” they say.
Game Assist’s content teaches gamers that representation isn’t about pandering, it’s about telling as many different stories as possible. In the best of cases, diverse games can be used at places like Cambridge to teach psychology, but diverse games shouldn’t have to directly educate people in order to be considered worthy. “Gaming in particular is an incredible tool for forcing people to really engage with [socio-political] issues in a way that other media can’t, because of its interactivity,” Sara says.
Game Assist’s roots belong to disability activism, and accessibility is key to liberation. “Everything should be accessible and playable. You should be able to engage with it whatever your ability is, physically and narratively. Plot-twists shouldn’t be hidden from you for no reason, these things should be thought of from the start,” Errol remarks. “It’s so important to keep developing accessibility in hardware and software, and important to make sure that that comes from the needs of the people who need it, rather than saying ‘here’s a protanopia filter that makes the game look hideous.’ Liberation isn’t just about telling the stories that need to be told and paying the people who need to be paid, it’s about making sure these games go out and can be played by the people who need to be playing them, rather than being a Metal Gear Solid level of academic text where you need to dig through everything. Games can’t become academic, there shouldn’t be a bar. If a game is talking about race or socialism, I should be able to access that even if I don’t have a background in that.”
Sara and Errol hope to continue doing consultation work, talking to developers and producers about representation and looking at the liberation of the gaming industry itself – how the industry is structured, the conditions that people in the gaming industry are working under, and what the demographics are. “Studios like Blizzard are hearing ‘we want diverse games’ so they put black characters and queer characters in Overwatch, but those games are made by white people, who are making money off putting black characters in games,” says Sara. “Meanwhile, black indie developers are trying to make games that are meaningful to them, games by black people for black people and there’s no money in that. Talking about who has the power and platform and money in the gaming industry is really important, because we can’t just talk about representation without talking about the mode and the means of production.”
At the moment, Game Assist is releasing one video a week for the next couple of weeks, which take the form of Let’s Plays and video essays, among others. “I think the main thing is that we aren’t stopping with all the hard discussions we’re going to have. Getting bigger is important but we want to be louder, we want to reach more people,” Errol says. “We want to have the discussions around gaming that not only we want to have, but everyone else wants to have too. The long-term dream is to be doing this full-time, doing this with people’s support and about historical games and games that are coming out now, and constantly having more and more conversations. We are fully aware that using YouTube, we’re on shaky foundations that aren’t designed for us. Those foundations need to change. How they change is bigger than us.”
Game Assist is a pun on the gaming function Aim Assist, a point of access that zooms you closer to the enemy in FPS games when you zoom in on-screen. Game Assist “zooms” people closer to specific discussions that need to be aimed at. Subscribe to them on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/TheMisterKerr and support them on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/GameAssistYT
Words: Beatrix Livesey-Stephens
Images: @fiona_creates (courtesy of Game Assist)