Monday, 1 May 2017

Zombicide Survivors with Impairments - Inspiration (01)


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I've never had a t-shirt with a slogan before. I've had brand names, designs and logos. I even once had lovely black tee with a picture of a triceratops which, when it was dark, started glowing with a luminous skeleton! I was that cool. But never a slogan.

There was one, though, which I wanted. I've seen it several times since, but back then it was origianl and unique. It was, again, a black t-shirt and in white writing it said;


The night after my grandmother's funeral, I sat and watched the original Dawn of the Dead for the umpteenth time. It's a film full of messages. Reject consumerism, embrace friendship, make the right choices. And accept loss. Since then, the zombie invasion has spread towards the mainstream with tv shows like AMC's The Walking Dead and even the medieval fantasy ice zombies of HBO's Game of Thrones.

Zombies are a great metaphor. They are our own worst excesses. They are blindly following hatred. They are a judgement upon our own crimes. Or they're just a nameless foe whose head you don't mind seeing destroyed with a large calibre weapon.

Ultimately, the best zombie narratives use the threat of the walking dead to emphasise our own humanity and our capability. And that's part of the reason I love the boardgame Zombicide. Zombicide is a game for 1-6 players aged 14+. In it, you take charge of a group of humans who are surviving the zombie apocalypse. They must battle through the living dead, searching out weapons and objectives. The zombies are controlled by the game – the good thing about zombies is that they don't do a lot of strategising and so don't need complicated mechanics. The surviving humans are all different, having a unique set of skills. As they progress through a game, so they gain experience and learn new skills which allow them to deal with the increasingly large swarm of zombies. In other words, it's my t-shirt fantasy come to life. And my goldfish bride and I are brilliant at it.

A Zombicide game in action.  A group of colourful plastic figures grouped in one room of a colourful map.  In the background the map stretches off and a collection of yellow plastic zombies can be seen approaching.
But what does any of this have to do with disability?

Zombicide is fantastic. I started by ordering the 'third season', Zombicide: Rue Morgue. Having spent a lot of time in a hospital school, the idea of zombie shenanigans set in a hospital environment really appealed to me. Also, I knew that this set came with the largest group of survivors. Given that you typically choose six models to then play with, I thought having the largest cast possible from the very beginning would add to the fun. What I didn't realise at the time is that Rue Morgue also comes with one of the most diverse casts of all the main season boxsets.

Wanda, a zombicide character.  A blonde woman with glasses
wearing roller-skates.  She wields a chainsaw in both hands. 
When I was a kid, I used to religiously buy White Dwarf magazine – Games Workshop's publication for everything Warhammer / 40k related. Although I never really got to play the games properly, I would occasionally buy the odd figure to paint and would avidly sit reading the monthly battle report. It was, and still is, much the same as watching a sporting event. Only the scale is greater and there are more dice.

The social justice problems with video gaming have been publicised in recent years. Far more people have a console and a social media outlet than are willing to sit painting toy soldiers for several months in order to play a game which requires a 6x4' table and at least a couple of hours - not to mention a rulebook the size of a small novel. And so when video games make mistakes (which is almost a base state, sadly) the resultant story spreads far and wide. And the battle lines of the internet are a bloody zone.

Wargaming, boardgaming, RPGs – they don't register in the same way. Not that there haven't been moral panics about RPGs, but not so much in recent years and not regarding anything that we might be interested in here. In fact, the closest there has been to a Wargaming controversary recently was the not-at-all-a-publicity-stunt move by PETA to criticise the use of fur in the entirely fictional characters in Warhammer 40k. As with other geek cultures, though, there are genuine problems with representation. I will talk about Games Workshop in specifics as they are the company with whom I am most familiar, but they are in no way unique.

As is the case in much fantasy and sci-fi content, gender is poorly represented. Female characters are rare (non-binary characters are rarer) and, in general, only ever exist as part of all-female groups. They are almost universally lithe, fragile creatures and there are often problems with sexualisation. Bell of Lost Souls recently followed the modelling of Daemonettes over the past twenty-odd years and as you can see, even at their best they are effectively demonic chorus girls with crab hands. For more information about gender in Warhammer 40k, it's worth reading this article by James McConnaughy.

Talking of crab hands, let's get on to disability. It's extremely rare to have any real example of disability in the characters available. And when there is an example, it tends to be rather extreme and not very...disablish. Take Commisar Yarrick. When I was 10, he was one of my favourite models. The back story of his character involves a running conflict between him and a famous Ork boss. During their final battle Yarrick had his arm torn off. But he also heroically saved the day, killing said boss who had a 'killa klaw' arm. When he came to, Yarrick insisted that, rather than a proper bionic arm, he be fitted with this crab-like monstrosity. Which does look fantastic, but must make eating a burger really tricky. And why, in the forty-first millennia, can't he have both and them be interchangeable? Or, maybe, him just be a character with a missing arm?

A photo taken at a convention of four people dressed as characters from the
Warhammer 40k universe.  The second from the left is Commissar Yarrick.
By Klapi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
There are attempts to represent the impairment of injuries in 40k, but they are very simplistic; the rules for a freshly 'blinded' unit says that, for one turn, they can only hit a ranged target on the roll of a 6 on a six sided dice. There are no penalties to movement or morale, which you might expect on a battlefield. Skirmish level games with campaign rules (keeping track of the same characters over several games) try harder, having more complicated systems that track the health of individuals.

In a fantastic article about disability in RPGs, Elsa S. Henry writes about the problems she has found in the disability mechanics in the RPG games she loves. In many ways, they have a lot more options than the war games of Games Workshop - understandably, perhaps, as they focus more on narrative and adventure than military combat. But as with the incredibly simple and underwhelming effects of, say, 'blinding' in 40k, the games Henry plays involve 'flaws' which people are able to ignore or game away with ease. For example, she mentions someone who takes a 'flaw' for their magic-using character who then simply casts a spell to remove said impairment. Henry also points out another game whose impairments (much like the skirmish games mentioned above) are all acquired in-game. They can never just be something that's a long-term part of someone's character. They are a tragedy to befall them. A tragedy which costs someone...numbers on a dice roll. I'd like to quote this from her article;

Well, we should bother [pushing for inclusion in games] because the world of games has changed drastically since the first publication of Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, and where we are now is a place where we should diversify and accept that our culture and hobby is growing. We can do this by changing the way that games look at disabilities. They’re not flaws, or blockades to the heroism we want to play out. They are not antithetical to the adventurers we play, or the knights who save the realm. A disabled knight is still a knight, her ability—whether or not she can hear—is a part of her physical representation. Disabilities should be written into games as a part of the space, a part of regular play, not as a flaw which doesn’t acknowledge that disability is more than just physical: it’s an identity we carry with us from day to day.

And so back to Zombicide and the diverse cast of Rue Morgue. The survivors have a range of ages, races and genders (although, of course, only in a binary sense). The female characters are not universally young, stick thin sex objects for male player gaze. And female characters are just as likely to be capable of extreme violence as the men. Very quickly our collection of Zombicide boxes grew and Deb has often ended up playing with three female characters who form a very mobile group of fighters who mostly excel in hand-to-hand combat. It's really lovely to see that and it not be some kind of magical enhancement or peculiarity. They are who they are and fight as they would. It all makes sense and the inclusivity really helps the player to sink into the game.

The box artwork for the second season of Zombicide -
Toxic City Mall.  A black woman with a firearm leads
a group of survivors in a fight against zombies.
It's not all great, though. The second season survivors are not quite so brilliant for female characters. Although there is a black woman, her character is more sexualised than I would like. There are 'guest boxes' where other artists have designed characters. These range from slightly more believable strong women, to women who risk dying of cold before the zombies get a look in.  But the ease with which new characters can be created really inspired me. The makers of the game (Guillotine Games) have been very good about providing templates to allow players to create their own characters, equipment and missions. And motivated by the feelings of inclusivity in the season three survivors, I wanted to create a team of survivors with impairments.

In my next blog post I'll describe how I went about collating appropriate skills, finding the right miniatures and some of the challenges I faced in creating a diverse group of heroes.

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