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July 16, 2009

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Wordplay

"You are crippled," says Fallout 3.

"Huh," says I. "That seems a little tone-deaf."

When you get shot in the leg, or you fall off a building, or a mole rat eats your hand (or all of the above) in Fallout 3, the damage gets broken out into one of six body zones. Take enough damage, and there's an appropriate penalty (loss of accuracy, slower movement, etc.) as well as an amusing pained expression on your in-game HUD. I'm okay with all that. But the word "crippled" took me aback. I'm not terribly savvy when it comes to persons with disabilities, but it strikes me as a particularly loaded term--I certainly would have avoided it when I was writing for the World Bank.

I'm not trying to cast Bethesda as insensitive bigots. The terminology (used in the classic RPG tradition of Capitalized Status Conditions like Confuse, Sleep, or Haste) appears to be a holdover from the older Fallout titles. They're using it as an adverb, and not as a noun ("You are crippled" instead of "You are a cripple"), which makes some difference. And it's not like they did something outrageously stupid, like putting Africans in grass skirts and wooden masks or something. Still, you'd think that while they were updating everything else about those previous games in the series, putting them on a new engine and everything, they must have thought about the language they were using. I wonder why they thought "crippled" was the best choice.

It's not even, from a writer's perspective, a particularly flavorful word. A thesaurus search finds several alternatives with more punch, including "wrecked," "maimed," and "mangled" ("vitiate" is also amusing, but probably too obscure). Individual terms for specific injuries would be even better: "You are hobbled." "You are concussed." "You are defenestrated." And here I've always taken such good care of my fenestrates.

In any case, it's easier to nitpick someone else's hard work than it is to figure out what it means, and I'm still not sure how I feel about Fallout's status condition. Is it significant? How does it relate to the game's subject, as well as its underlying mechanics? Can it tell us something about portrayals of disability and normality in media? Or is "crippled" just a writing decision that rubs me the wrong way?

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