I used to be a card carrying member of the Git Gud Club. I say “used to,” because I’ve had to rethink that lately. While in the past decade of gaming I’ve felt a lot of pressure to be an above average player, due to my visibility as a woman (a topic I covered in depth in the collaboration Shooter), it’s at odds with another aspect of my identity, that of a disabled person.
For a time, I thought maybe the mentality was mostly harmless. If a game is hard, after all, I should just challenge myself to be better at it. I think part of that may be how I was socially conditioned. Growing up in Evangelicism, I had a lot of influential forces in my life that suggested I accept my environment and adjust my emotional response to it, rather than challenge my surroundings. I notice, then, as a reviewer, I’m often more likely to blame myself for any issues with a game’s difficulty. It must be my fault! If I tried harder, I’d be better.
Sometimes, the perception of our own abilities becomes a part of our identity. As a result, it becomes a source of pride. Taken further, we resist the idea that achievement should become more accessible to other people. After all, if more people can achieve what we can, it makes our abilities less distinctive. It takes away what makes us special.
We do this a lot in videogames. I think I’ve done it a lot in videogames. Sometimes I’m hypercompetitive, mostly as a response to the anticipated rejection of my peers. In my rush to get ahead of the criticism, I’ve been obnoxious. But looking back at my life, it’s also been a pattern. There are many times where I’ve overcompensated for my mental or physical health because I didn’t want to feel different, or less than. My response was always to work hard, to come out ahead, “better” than the able-bodied or those I saw as “normal.” In many ways, I’ve subscribed to the git gud worldview because being in denial about my own limitations has been the only way to fit in and get by.
The games community is often resistant to the idea that games should be more physically accessible. Think back to 2012, when Bioware’s Jennifer Hepler allegedly stated that games should have “skippable” sections for players who found the gameplay too tiresome or hard. The anger and harassment directed towards her suggests that for many gamers, the skill-based challenge at the core of most games is what defines them. To remove that is to negate their purpose, many feel. Hepler was more or less run out of the industry just for suggesting it.
The fierce defense of this status quo to a certain extent explains the recent condemnation of Dean Takahashi, the games reporter who faced controversy for showcasing his ineptitude at Cuphead. Meant as a light-hearted way for Takahashi to poke fun at his poor performance, a vocal portion of the gaming audience instead claimed that Takahashi was unfit for his job as a journalist, arguing that if he cannot get through a game demo, he must be unable to complete and thus fairly assess any game he reviews. Nevermind that Takahashi isn’t a reviewer, or that the footage was from a press demo and not reflective of the publication’s final review. As a journalist, it’s his responsibility to be great at games, or something like that, according to certain people.
Let’s be clear—there can be dozens of reasons why a player may fail at a certain section of a game at any given time. Fatigue, distraction, hunger or dehydration, sensory overload, stage fright, lack of dexterity in a specific muscle set, good old fashioned brain fart: there are so many things that can happen at any given time that affect performance. It’s why there’s an entire arm of psychology dedicated just to sports—there are many factors in a person’s ability to excel in competition, and it’s not just physical prowess. The human brain needs time and repetition to program deeply ingrained responses to certain stimuli and commit them to memory, and that is key to adapting to games. In a high stress atmosphere where a journalist is playing several games a day (like Gamescom 2017, where the footage of Takahashi playing Cuphead was taken), it is almost impossible to achieve ideal play conditions. This may be why even able-bodied competitive players with a high degree of skill have been known to abuse focus-enhancing drugs like Adderall.
But that’s not the point. The vast majority of people who play games aren’t proficient at the ones they play and the hardcore gamers among us only make up a slim percentage. Takahashi’s skill might actually be a more honest reflection of the general Cuphead playing experience. But for various reasons, the needs of our most competitive players often drive the market, leaving those of us who have varying skills behind.
Sometimes that includes me. I have severe joint stiffness and inflammation as a result of my illness, and my hands often cramp around a controller after an hour or so of play. I can’t be the only one who has that experience, yet it’s often considered niche and thus invalid.
Part of it is that, as a culture, we view things in terms of majority and minority, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Unfortunately this mindset becomes warped to the point where many vilify those in the minority who ask for literally anything. After all, why should they be prioritized when they comprise so little of the population? But while at first glance that may seem reasonable, it often means our most vulnerable citizens’ specific survival needs are not met, and as a result they are all but removed from the public eye. We’re an inconvenience that gets oh-so-conveniently erased. We become invisible.
I’m not the only disabled person who has felt left out by the “git gud” mentality. To get some added perspective on this topic, I reached out to novelist and COO of The AbleGamers Foundation, Steven Spohn. Spohn lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a condition that paralyzes his body from the neck down. Reached by email, he told me, “‘Git Gud’ is an interesting phrase that, taken at face value, seems entirely innocuous—it’s a silly phrase to say off-the-cuff when your friend dies doing something silly. The problem comes into play for those who have taken the phrase as a bit of a mantra.”
He cites a recent experience in PlayerUnknown’s Battleground as an example. “The other day, when streaming from my newly made channel, I was in a firefight with my squad against another. With my handy-dandy sniper rifle, I picked off one person, and then moved to my gun to the right to shoot the next fellow hunger games champion. Unfortunately, they were far enough to the right that I could not make my arm move far enough to put them in the process.”
His team was killed as a result, and they lost the match. “A viewer attempted a joke saying ‘Better learn to Git Gud, Steve’—joking that I had only killed one of two people. Still, it bothered me because it wasn’t my skill level or the game that stopped me from getting both kills and saving the day. It was my disability. My brain knew that I needed to move more, I wanted to, and yet my muscles simply would not comply.
“The problem with the ‘Git Gud’ mantra is that I cannot Git anymore Gud. My disability is the glass ceiling. Doesn’t matter how much I train or how many videos I watch because I understand what needs to be done but that doesn’t mean my body listens when I tell it what to do.” Others, like Tanya DePass, have expressed similar frustration on social media and elsewhere.
When it comes to ableism, it’s important to remember that physical limitation goes beyond a person’s struggle with certain forms of movement. The issues that affect cognitive performance are not limited to temporary, easily-adjustable problems like fatigue and hunger—they, too, are physical. Studies show that many of the forms of mental performance issues can be tied back to minor brain damage inflicted by neglect and abuse sustained during infancy and childhood, including limited attention span, difficulties with sensory perception, or impaired response times, variables key to playing games. Sometimes, when we mock people’s videogame skills, we’re actually mocking their trauma. And that’s without even getting into how genetics and class play a factor.
Can every case of a bad run in a videogame be attributed to these issues? No. But that’s the thing about respecting people enough to give them the benefit of a doubt. You just don’t know.
As a games community I know that we’re capable of better, because I see it every day. Our culture has enthusiastically embraced the skills of our peers and fellow gamers, and celebrated it even in the absence of our own—just look at the money and fame surrounding esports competitions. Sure, some of that enthusiasm is rooted in the projection of our own power fantasies, but in general, we know how to embrace and appreciate the breadth of human achievement within our ranks. Where it all goes wrong is when that same skill is being used as a gatekeeping mechanism to invalidate the perspective of others. Accessibility to videogames is not a zero sum game—it’s not about removing place settings, but about making more room at the table.
It’s not ableist to like Cuphead, or be good at Cuphead. But it’s ableist to insist that we shouldn’t lower the access barrier for those who have limitations. As for how to better support people with disabilities, there are many things developers can do, some of which are already widely in use. Skippable levels, varying difficulty levels, remappable control schemes, support for disability-friendly controllers and accessories are all good. These suggestions are opt-in and don’t take anything away from the game. And for titles like Cuphead, whose identity doesn’t rely on its challenging action alone, it would give players a chance to enjoy the many other wonderful things, like music and art style, that make the game what it is.
In the end this is all a very convoluted way to say that games are supposed to be fun, and we should stop being so hard on each other. The medium only stands to gain if games are more accessible to other people. In the future, it’d be nice to see developers and publishers take a more active role in destigmatizing these accessibility options, and take a stronger stand. And one way we can support that is by starting with a community that knows how to celebrate achievement without it being at the expense of others.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.