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A screenshot of gameplay in SimCity 2000, with a large arboretum in the centre of a sprawling city, and a large body of water at the top of the screen.

SimCity 2000. Image: Tumblr/animatedscreenshots

I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros on Nintendo (I think I was 4 or 5 years old), with my shaky fingers on the buttons, trying to work out how to control Mario. I have a physical disability, Cerebral Palsy, and I use a wheelchair—my plan of attack was to press a random combination of buttons all at once, in the hope I’d unlock a hidden cheat that would allow Mario to vanquish all of Bowser’s weird minions and rescue Princess Peach. Instead, mashing those random buttons caused Mario to die instantly, right at the start of level one. Obviously, I’d stumbled on a glitch, a mistake made by the game’s creators—in that moment, though, I felt like the fault was in me. I was sure I’d killed Mario with my uncoordinated hands. Worse still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game somehow knew I was disabled, and had rejected me accordingly. Video games were for people with proper hands and bodies, I thought, not someone like me.

My guilt as a self-confessed Mario murderer followed me for years. I was anxious whenever I went near a computer or console not to cause any more wanton destruction by pressing the wrong button or key. From car racing games like Need for Speed to shooters like Doom, I felt like a spectator, rather than a player in the middle of the action. Indeed, often the only way I could really enjoy a game was by letting somebody else breeze through levels at a pace I could never match, like watching live sport on TV. I looked on as friends and cousins played through Donkey Kong, Mortal Kombat and Prince of Persia, among others. Over time, I got better at managing my fear of making mistakes, and I slowly started to feel like I was controlling games, instead of the other way around.

A particular point of pride for me was finishing the quirky DOS adventure game Hugo’s House of Horrors, where the titular hero Hugo is tasked with rescuing his girlfriend Penelope, lured to a haunted house by the promise of a babysitting job and held captive in an underground dungeon. The game requires the user to type commands like ‘BREAK OPEN PUMPKIN’ or ‘TALK TO IGOR’ to control Hugo, rather than quickly pressing button combinations. This text parser interface let me stop and think about what commands would work in each scenario, giving me a feel for the game world’s strange logic. At long last, I had found a way into a game, instead of watching on from the sidelines. More than that, I’d found a way to assert myself, take control of a character and explore a new space without someone else’s assistance. All these years later, I can see that my real prize for reuniting Hugo and Penelope (apart from a final cutscene depicting their romantic reunion) was a sense of freedom and independence from gaining access to a virtual world, often denied to me by the physical world.

Over time, I got better at managing my fear of making mistakes, and I slowly started to feel like I was controlling games, instead of the other way around.

Around the same time as my spooky adventures with Hugo, a number of other games came into view. SimCity 2000 let me experiment with different ways to plan, build and preside over a virtual metropolis and its budget. I usually received negative press in the game’s daily news bulletin, due to setting taxes too high, or failing to provide sufficient amenities for my citizens (not unlike politicians in real life). Still, I was drawn to the open-ended aspect of the game. I could spend hours strategising and creating without worrying about any lives being lost—unless I chose to enable apocalyptic disasters like fires and earthquakes. Ultimately, SimCity 2000 offered me escapism through building worlds, giving me a taste of the fun of building with Lego and other similar activities that I struggled with physically.

A screenshot of the video game 'Hugo's House of Horrors'. The playable character has entered a red room where a vampire, a grim reaper, and several other figures are seated at a dining table. On the wall is a large painting of a witch.

Hugo’s House of Horrors. Image: WordPress/ancientelectronics

There was 3 Skulls of the Toltecs, a point and click adventure set in a playable cartoon version of the Wild West. This time, I played as Fenimore Filmore, a baby-faced cowboy searching for a set of 3 gold skulls that are said to be the keys to the world’s ultimate treasure. More than anything else, this game required next level patience. I spent what felt like an eternity trying to figure out how the utterly bizarre and elaborate puzzles comprising each scene could be solved, with the use of different items and dialogue options. One mission involved distracting a grave-digging friar by hiding the corpse, stealing his pickaxe and knocking him out with the handle in order to take his cassock. Solving it was incredibly satisfying. Where SimCity 2000 offered escapism through designing worlds of my own, 3 Skulls of the Toltecs was about figuring out what a given world required of me, performing the necessary actions, and then seeing those actions accepted by the game as achievement and progression. In retrospect, I can see how the game enabled me to play out a certain fantasy of acceptance and accessibility; if I could outsmart the game world, it might let me into areas that were otherwise inaccessible to me.

All these titles shared something in common, despite their disparate genres: They all required immersion in the game world, rather than immediate physical action. These were games I could play on my own terms, giving me access to experiences that I thought weren’t meant for me.

SimCity 2000 offered me escapism through building worlds, giving me a taste of the fun of building with Lego and other similar activities that I struggled with physically.

The real watershed moment in my trajectory as a gamer with a disability, though, was my belated encounter with the original 1993 Myst. I’d heard the game talked about by adults for some years—usually bemoaning its difficulty or lauding it as a masterpiece. By the time I got hold of a copy in the late 90s, its reliance on pre-rendered scenes navigated by clicking on objects seemed dated, reminiscent of simple websites with linear hyperlinks, or moving through the lifeless slides of boring PowerPoint presentations. Despite these drawbacks, it drew me into a world and its story in a way that no other game had up to that point. As the introduction movie played, showing the anonymous player (in this case, me) finding a book called Myst that transported me to an island to begin the game, I felt as though I really had stumbled into a living world with a history all its own. Even now, I find myself marvelling at the meticulous attention to detail shown in the game world’s design, from the woodgrain panelling in the island’s library, to the innovative usage of static-laden full motion video that left me pondering unanswered questions and ethical dilemmas surrounding the game’s central feud between the brothers Sirrus and Achenar.

A screenshot of the video game Myst. A wooden ship floats in a small pool outside a large building with greek-style columns. A mountain can be seen in the background.

Myst. Image: IMDb

By solving the deeper familial mystery that lay behind Myst’s outward objective of completing the game’s complex puzzles, I felt I had achieved a level of mastery over a game world that was inaccessible to others who had tried and failed. In a sense, this experience was the pinnacle of my efforts to enter into a world and explore it on my own terms, a quest that had begun with Hugo’s House of Horrors. Once I had overcome Myst, a whole range of adventure/mystery games began to open themselves up to me. I tracked down Mulder and Scully in The X-Files Game, went hunting for replicants in Blade Runner, and served as a disenchanted grim reaper in Grim Fandango.

These were games I could play on my own terms, giving me access to experiences that I thought weren’t meant for me.

Though the technical advancements in games since those days have been dramatic, my basic investment in games as a way of bypassing the limitations of the physical world and immersing myself in a whole range of virtual worlds has never changed. I can walk the streets of 1940s Los Angeles as a police detective in LA Noire, I can travel forward in time to a future driven by artificially intelligent androids in Detroit: Become Human, and I can fight the good fight against rogue underworld elements in the Yakuza game series. The form of access gaming offers me goes far beyond the usual ideas around allowing people with disabilities into spaces normally accessible only to able-bodied people. In game worlds, I can become someone else entirely, and even dictate the actions of an able-bodied character under my control. These kinds of experiences are fantasy until they are realised as playable worlds in the imaginations of their creators. If we can imagine virtual worlds where the previously inconceivable is made possible, surely we can reimagine the physical world so that the same feeling of limitless possibility is open to everyone. Like hidden levels or bonus areas, there’s a form of radical accessibility just below the surface in your favourite games. It’s time to unlock it.