Ableism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the most memorable sci-fi shows of the 90s and more than 20 years after it first aired it’s still being discussed. Despite its flaws, DS9 is engaging with its deep setting and characters that still merit discussion. One of these flaws is the show’s ableism, or what would be generally described as the show’s disabled erasure.  Now granted, most shows have this problem; what makes DS9 stand out is that it is a part of the Star Trek franchise and Star Trek is socially progressive utopian scifi so this ableism and disabled erasure is far more important.

So if there are no disabled characters in the main cast, then this naturally raises the question of what is this post going to talk about? While there is a disabled character with Gen. Martok, a single supporting character with a purely cosmetic disability presumably as the result of combat isn’t terribly supportive. Also the fact that Geordi, a single character, existed on a show in the same franchise aired at the same time doesn’t count for anything in this discussion. Instead, it would be far more helpful to look at specific episodes: 2×06 -“Melora”, 5×16 “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?”, 6×09 “Statistical Possibilities” and 7×05 “Chrysalis”. So if you haven’t seen the show, or are in the process of watching the show, these are the big spoiler points and you have been warned. At the same time I’m going to assume some familiarity with the characters for the sake of brevity. I’ll cover the first two episodes this week and the second half next week.  Let’s jump into it.

Melora

Doctor Bashir ends up falling in love with a new officer when he develops a way for her to function in a high gravity environment. Meanwhile, Quark receives a death threat from one of his former associates. Memory Alpha summary

Plot Summary: This episode is a Very Special Episode about the disabled and wastes no time in establishing that as Dr. Bashir’s voice over talks about how Melora is the first of her species to join Starfleet and requires special accommodations due to her growing up on a low gravity planet, as we then cut to Bashir and Dax tinkering with a wheelchair. As they go to meet her they encounter O’Brien as the three of them discuss the difficulties that Melora will have in navigating the station. O’Brien asks why they can’t just transport her everywhere, and we are informed that Melora didn’t use anything other than the basic accommodations and that this is extraordinary. Bashir, being Bashir is clearly smitten with the idea of Melora that he has gained from reading records.

Our first shot of Melora is her struggling to make it out of the landing pad and is greeted by Bashir and Dax. They exchange greetings and Melora doesn’t put up with infantilizing crap as she takes the wheelchair, heads to her quarters and we get the opening credits.

The next scene is rehashing much of the previous scene, only with Sisko in the loop until Melora appears. And the conversation continues, which can mostly be summarized as Melora not taking any of their crap and Dax being assigned to go with Melora.

Bashir, still being Bashir, decides to check in on Melora off the clock. Melora apologizes for her speech and Bashir responds by being a patronizing ass, claiming that “all of these broad shots you fire. They’re your way of keeping the rest of the universe on the defensive, has to be.” This somehow has an effect on Melora and they go out for dinner. Melora again shows her assertiveness by getting into argument, in Klingon, over the quality of the food after Julian had ordered.

The next morning, Dax goes to Melora’s quarters and no one is there. It turns out  that Melora had fallen while retrieving additional supplies. Melora is taken to the infirmary where we get another conversation between her and Julian about Melora’s drive to independent and how “we all have to depend on one another in space” as it’s important that being able to count on one another is a two-way street. They leave the infirmary and we see where most of the effects budget for this episode went as they float in Melora’s chambers and become closer.

What follows is a sequence of Bashir figuring out a way for Melora to be able to function in normal gravity in a fine example of Star Trek’s technobabble, that eventually has Melora be stricken by second doubts about the procedure as it radically change her life and make her an outcast from home.

I’ve been neglecting to mention the B Plot with Quark as it isn’t terribly relevant to the discussion at hand and it’s fairly generic. Fallit ends up taking Quark, Dax and Melora hostage with the situation being resolved by Melora turning off the gravity and using it to her advantage. The episode ends with Melora and Bashi having a heart to heart as she decides to not take the treatment while Klingon opera in the background.

Analysis:  This episode is about disability and the way in which it is set up has to be addressed before anything else. While using an alien species to convey the isolation that the disabled feel from society has a certain logical appeal to it, this approach is also offensive. Using a fake disability instead of a real one just furthers the Othering of the disabled and reduces any sort of meaningful commentary that this could have to be toothless and abstract. In the future, disabled people aren’t an accepted part of the human experience, they’re relegated to an alien analogy. The ultimately meaningless nature of this allegory is reinforced by the circumstances of Melora’s ‘disability’ being the product of her species means that the entire plot of ‘curing’ her is packed with ramifications that a real disabled person wouldn’t face in a similar situation. While the premise is flawed and problematic, it’s not the only noteworthy thing in the episode.

Melora as a character is compelling; she’s as competent as any member of Starfleet and doesn’t take any of the patronizing nonsense that the other characters say with every other line. While this is acknowledged on some level, Melora points out “the truth is there is no ‘Melora’ problem until people create one”. Yet, this callout is not registered by the other characters as they keep engaging in that behavior. In fact, Melora’s outspoken behavior, despite the perfectly logical reasoning “sometimes they make me feel like a carnival attraction, so usually I prefer to keep everyone out” is completely ignored. Bashir getting through that exterior and having her warm up is supposed to show what? Bashir is a nice guy? Melora should just accept the everyday infantilization that she experiences as no big deal? That said behavior from others is fine because they mean well? There’s no good answer to this as the premise itself is bad.

A lot of the dialogue that the regulars are given is patronizing, and it’s not really worth really worth recounting as it is little more than mundane microaggressions. Bashir’s line about how extraordinary it is that Melora eschews anything but the basic accommodations required.  There’s nothing extraordinary or inspirational, it’s called living your life. The only way in which such a lifestyle is extraordinary is if you assume that people, especially the disabled, are lazy leeches who choose to live with their handicaps. This is brought up in response to O’Brien asking why she doesn’t just use the transporter to move around, which raises the perfectly reasonable counterpoint of why doesn’t the Chief use the transporter to move around the station? The question is ridiculous.

All in all, this episode is not good. It starts from bad but well-meaning assumptions and doesn’t question them. Melora is convincing as a disabled character to a large degree but that seems to be by virtue of Melora being given all the words that a disabled person would say, but zero understanding of those words. Any virtue it has in spite of itself and at the end of the day doesn’t do anything more than make the abled feel better about themselves. The nicest thing I can say is that it not a complete blueprint of what not to do. While this is the only episode about the disabled in such an explicit manner; it is not the only episode that touches upon the disabled and ableism.

Dr. Bashir, I Presume

Doctor Lewis Zimmerman arrives on Deep Space Nine to use Bashir as the model for his new Long-term Medical Hologram, but his past could unveil a dark secret which Bashir has carried since childhood.-Memory Alpha summary

Plot Highlights:  Bashir and O’Brien are playing darts when they are approached by Dr. Zimmerman, who wants to use Bashir as the model for the next generation of the EMH. In order to develop an accurate model, Dr. Zimmerman seeks to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with the people in Bashir’s life. Bashir makes a point of asking Zimmerman to not interview his parents, which is ignored in the name of the project.  Julian is unhappy bbut civil about the violation in front of the rest of the crew.

Once they are alone however, it is clear that there is an issue about a ‘little secret’ that has caused this gulf of resentment.  A secret that is conveniently stated to the Bashir hologram while O’Brien and Zimmerman are off to the side, Bashir is genetically enhanced. Bashir and O’Brien have a heart to heart over this revelation. O’Brien concerned about the violation of trust and the official repercussions while Bashir reveals a part of his self-loathing as well the circumstances surrounding his augmentation.   Bashir was severely developmentally challenged, “unable to tell a dog from a cat or a house from a tree” as well as physical problems prompted his parents to have “accelerated critical neuropathway formation” as a new Bashir was made. His issues aren’t just the stigma of being an Augment but also how he’s a new person. Julian is convinced that he’ll be removed from Starfleet.

Bashir’s father is insistent upon coming up with a proactive plan of dealing with this while Julian is resigned to his fate. He’s convinced that’s a fraud and that his parents replaced him, without giving him a chance. His parents, on the other hand, did it out of love and frustration that they couldn’t do anything to help their struggling son.

An agreement is reached, Bashir’s father is sent to prison in exchange for Julian being able to stay in Starfleet. The justification for genetic augmentation being illegal is given as,

200 years ago we tried to improve the human species through DNA resquencing. And what did we get for our troubles? The Eugenics Wars. For every Julian Bashir that can be created there’s a Khan Singh waiting in the wings, whose ambition and thirst for power along with this intellect. the law against genetic engineering provides a firewall against such men

The last scene is a reconciliation of sorts between Julian and his parents while the episode ends with O’Brien and Julian playing darts.

            Analysis:  Bashir secretly being an Augment is a good example of allegorical scifi. The show never tries to map being an Augment to anything in particular. Instead, it’s about being closeted, an idea that isn’t just limited to sexuality but also invisible disabilities.  This idea gives the episode some emotional weight, just enough resonance so that Alexander Siddig’s performance in this episode hits all the right notes.

I often describe Star Trek as the product of Gene Roddenberry being a strange hippy and the bioconservatism is one of the things that come to mind. This episode tries to deal with the idea of genetic augmentation, an idea introduced in the original series, and play around with it. Transhumanism, bioconservatism and disability is a complicated issue and this episode does the best given the context. The fact that Bashir was only augmented because of his unspecified developmental issues makes it instantly sympathetic. The vagueness of Julian’s condition avoids any real world discussion of eugenics but also makes it hard to create an understanding of what is allowed. The fact that genetic enhancement is permitted in the case of serious birth defects, raises the following questions of what constitutes a serious birth defect and if Julian didn’t have a birth defect, what was his condition?  If it is a birth defect, then what is serious enough? If it isn’t a birth defect, then it’s some other problem and who cares? A disability being a birth defect compared to something else shouldn’t make a difference. Instead, there’s an arbitrary line drawn in the sand and if your disability is on the wrong side, then you get some tech and are told to deal with it. This answer is less than satisfactory.

In context, this is justified by the fear of another Khan Singh, a man worse than Hitler, In order to understand Star Trek, it’s important to understand that a lot of Federation culture, or at least human culture, is a result of cultural posturing and collective cultural trauma from humanity’s history of Khan and the Eugenics War/WWIII. It’s somewhat strange, and the bioconservatism is patronizing, but it is part of the setting. This episode could have been better, but those ways would have been ultimately minor. ‘Dr. Bashir, I Presume’ works on a fundamental level that ‘Melora’ did not, the basic story and character interactions hold up.

Next week, I’ll keep talking about ableism, and Augments, in Deep Space Nine with the episodes ‘Statistical Possibilities’ and ‘Chrysalis’. Till next time.

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Violence in Videogames as seen through Fallout: New Vegas

Violence in video games has been something that’s been talked about since videogames have become a thing. It was used as one of the key examples of how videogames were inherently immoral and corrupting those who played them. While those arguments have fallen to the wayside; a sign of videogames maturing as a medium is that you now have people who play games looking at violence critically. I recently read two articles, which you can find here and here, about the topic and it got me thinking about how violence is used from a design perspective and the limitations thereof. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

There’s the question of why Fallout: New Vegas? The answer is pretty simple:: it’s the game I’ve been playing a lot of recently. Not only that, but it is a game that is often praised for its narrative elements and part of that is how it uses the options of violence to provide characterization.

New Vegas starts with your character, known only as the Courier, getting jumped while o the job and left for dead. It’s only through sheer perseverance and luck that you survive. Once the opening cutscene ends you are given the character creation options. You can choose your race, gender, name all of which have at best minor impact on the game. The next part of the process has far more mechanical weight with your stats, skill specialization and traits.

Stats are important for the game’s mechanics, but their impact on visible actions taken by the player are limited. Skills on the other hand, are far more important as they determine what you can and can’t do. They determine how effective you are at various features of gameplay as well as serve as the primary means of passing checks in conversation. Traits are completely optional and allow you to add a level of personalization, such as being a night person or needing to wear glasses along with things that can alter the way you play the game. Of these three, skills are the most important in terms of impact and their delineation is informative. Many of these are straightforward: Repair determines how well you can fix things, Speech is how well you are at talking and so on. A majority of the skills are delineations of how you want to enact violence.  The logic behind this makes sense; a player will want control over the predominant activity in the game. Not only that but someone who uses energy weapons is different from someone using a rifle and is different from someone using their fists. These decisions invite you to create a character archetype at the very least. These archetypes can be further fleshed out by the player in a way that the game itself can’t acknowledge, but are still important to the player. In my current playthrough of New Vegas, I am using mods in order to solidify the archetype of my character, which you can find here and here.

In comparison the non-combat skills are either far broader or relate to a narrow field in practice.  Science represents omnidisciplinary mastery, Repair is to fix anything from a gun to robots fall into the former category. Lockpick, Survival and Medicine fall into the latter category. This leaves Speech and Barter, which are worth discussing in their own category. Speech doesn’t do anything beyond letting you pass skill checks while Barter impacts your dealings with merchants as well as be used in conversation checks. These two skills stand out because they’re social skills they show how competent you are in social situations. The fact that Speech is just one skill and not multiple skills shows that the developers didn’t want to elaborate on the social system. Speech being one skill means that it’s a measure of general social competence whereas if there were more than two social skills they would represent your ability to handle a multitude of social situations differently or the same situation in different ways. (The exception to this is the Terrifying Presence perk)

All in all, this shows that there is a big emphasis on how you kill things upfront in the game mechanics and streamlining of many other functions. This trend continues with the perks. More than a few of them continue the trend of fitting your character into an archetype by giving you increased damage of some sort. Others make some part of the game easier, with some using skill or stat requirements to add a layer of characterization. There are two sets of perks that are worth focusing on: Black Widow/Lady Killer and Cherchez La Femme/Confirmed Bachelor. These perks not only establish your character’s sexuality, which comes up in some conversations. The real incentive to taking these perks is the 10% damage you get towards the relevant sex. This juxtaposition shows what the devs prioritized.

So the devs focused their attention on violence and how to be efficient, this raises the question of why? First there are the obvious legacy answers. Fallout is a franchise that took its aesthetic from films such Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog as much 1950s scifi, it’s a bleak post apocalyptic setting in which the use of force is an accepted necessity of survival. New Vegas in particular is also drawing upon Western tropes. There is also an issue of technical limitations, there’s only so much deviation that could have been done given that this is the same system that was used to make Fallout 3. This explanation only goes so far though.

Game design has gotten really good at combat; Dungeons and Dragons started out as narrative layer to a wargame. Since then, we have collectively become good upon iterating on combat design to make it better. The reason for this is threefold. First, the narratives that are often told in games have violence as an accepted part of life and that problems can be solved with violence. Second, combat allows for game design to create something that’s challenging and has replayability, or it should at any rate. Putting this point another way, the actual game is the combat system and everything else is little more than flavor text. Third, combat is easier to program. All of these factors explain the current order of things but don’t go beyond that. While looking at violence in videogames in relation to the patriarchy to be useful, it isn’t the only way to take that discussion.

If one wants games in which violence is an option, not the only option, then it makes sense to have an idea of how to do this. It is worth repeating that any piece of entertainment is the culmination of design choices, both conscious and unconscious; for any of this to matter designers need to think of new things and in new ways. While some games allow for stealth or nonlethal playthroughs, those aren’t really what I have in mind. Instead, enhanced social mechanics and interactions are things that I find much more interesting and seemingly hard to implement.  Looking back at tabletop games again, how to handle social interactions is a tricky question. Ignoring the school of thought that holdVis that all social interactions should be purely roleplaying on the grounds of being impossible to replicate, there are still numerous ways to represent social aptitude and social interactions with no answer that rises above the rest outside of personal preference. Going forward, it certainly makes sense to look at what tabletop games have been doing and modeling system after those.

There are certainly technical limitations with this approach though. Social interactions in tabletop games work because the GM is able to react to the players in a way that a videogame can’t. On some level we accept this, being railroaded isn’t an inherent evil so long as the game you’re playing is fun. The tracks are just narrower. Of course it’d be disingenuous to not mention that this calls for a different skill set, which has an impact on the human side of development at some point, but beyond that I can’t comment.

The use of violence in videogames is constricting in the types of games that can be made. This isn’t in question, but it’s still useful to look at how violence is used in roleplaying games as a means of characterization. It is equally useful to posit what can take the place of violence and how to implement that, even if it is only a first step towards actualization.

Next time I’ll be discussing ableism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Till then.

R.I.P. Satoru Iwata

Originally I had planned to write a short memorial for Satoru Iwata and then look back at who he was as a springboard to talk about other things. However, I’ve been staring at a mostly empty document for the better part of the week unsure how to bridge those two things. While this may not be the most timely post anymore, I decided to shelf the ideas about video games for another post.

Satoru Iwata’s passing was surprising for many reasons. The first of which was because I didn’t know who he was, but the outpouring of sadness and remembrance on the internet served as a good crash course and had me joining in. This was a man who not only played a major role in making some of the games of my childhood, but was a genuinely decent person who loved what he did. His passing made the toxic world of videogames dimmer. He was a gamer at heart and thought that video games needed to be one thing, fun. Beyond that there really isn’t anything worth saying. Thank you Iwata.

In light of altered plans and how short this post is, I hope to have another pot up this discussing violence in video games in the context of Fallout: New Vegas. Till next time.

The Ouroboros of Anti-Ableist Stories

Ableism is quite an insidious thing. At its most benign, it’s a series of slurs and bigotry embedded into our language. At its worst, it stands for the devaluation and dehumanization of human life that can lead to things like self-loathing on the part of the disabled and violence against them. Anti-ableism is devoted to the deconstruction of these ideas and the reclamation of human dignity in all spheres of life. Today I’ll be talking about anti-ableism in narratives.

First, it’s important to lay out some groundwork. I am disabled and this is written with the disabled in mind. In this case it means that this post is primarily for the disabled. As such, an explanation of what ableism is or how it’s coded into society isn’t terribly relevant. Nor do I presume to speak for all, or most disabled, this is just my opinion.

There is a certain class of story that revolves around the main character being a part of a marginalized group, usually disabled or MOGAI, where the story revolves around their marginalized status and it end with a sort of coming out or acceptance of who they are. These stories are important, incredibly important to their intended audience, but the scope is narrow. A lack of stories featuring disabled characters as people who have dealt with their internalized ableism and are simply people, dealing with external ableism and whatever the plot is, are far rarer. Or stories with disabled characters in fantastical or scifi settings are even rarer. There are a lot of reasons for this, and a few of them are more worthy of discussion than others.

Yes, ableism is widespread. Yes, people who are concerned with diversity in media and intersectionality may have limits to their intersectionality that preclude the disabled. Yes, these kinds of stories are new and the fact that they exist at all is progress. At the same time though, it reveals the boundaries of our collective paradigm. We spend so much time getting over this hurdle that it’s hard to see what comes after that hurdle. The question then becomes what does exist after that hurdle?

Resolving internalized ableism is important but that internalization didn’t come from nowhere; these are attitudes and beliefs that are ingrained into society. Stories about a reformation of society short of apocalyptic measures aren’t terribly compelling outside of being a fictionalized guide to reform. This leaves stories set in a futuristic setting, which are rare. There is also the question of transhumanism relates to ableism, but that’s a different discussion. Even then these futuristic stories can still focus on overcoming internalized ableism. This is rather bleak, as it shows a lack of capability to imagine a world without ableism. This bleakness this hurdle needs to be overcome. Such a bleak outlook on eliminating the structures of power and oppression that define modern society is not unique to ableism, but the lack of worlds without it is sad. An inability to move past this hurdle means that these stories will be an ouroboros for the foreseeable future.

If I’m wrong, feel free to point me towards works that do so. Next time I’ll be talking about Satoru Iwata’s death and video games. Till next time.