Would anyone believe me if I said I was playing an eroge for research?
I found out about Katawa Shoujo
, aka Disability Girls
, last spring. This coincided with a reporting project I was working on in graduate school about disability rights. I was spending my weekends interviewing high school students with visible handicaps.
I had just spent the afternoon with a sophomore who described herself as the “typical high school girl” who liked fashion, celebrity gossip, and doing makeup for her friends. Tall and slender, she modeled part time. But as soon as she walked with her stilted, loping gait, or more often, rolled around in her wheelchair, her disability got all the attention.
“I wish people could see for me for more than ‘the girl in the wheelchair,’” she told me.
After that interview, finding out about Katawa Shoujo
was jawdropping. What if she knew there was potentially a whole game about fetishizing that girl in the wheelchair?
At the time, Leigh Alexander had just written an interesting piece on the origins of the game. (Originally conceived on the 4chan /b/ board, Katawa Shoujo spun out of the board’s affection for a real life amputee.)
My curiosity was piqued. I had been asking disabled girls how they thought other people viewed them. Here was a chance to see how a certain population of other people, both disabled and non, did. I had never played an eroge before, but this seemed like the right time.
I really didn’t want to like Katawa Shoujo. Can you blame me? Liking it would feel like an offense to the real world women in my project and in my life coping with a disability every day. And if you want to look hard at the game, there are plenty of reasons not to. As I wrote last year, when I reviewed it:
In some ways, disability is understated. “If I don’t mention [her disability], it’s like not discussing the elephant in the room,” Hisao says to the librarian. She replies, “It’s only the elephant in the room if you make it that way.” On the other hand, most plot points depend on assisting the girls in things they can’t do, like carrying things for armless Rin or informing blind Lilly of what the sunset looks like. This isn’t any different from other games in the dating sims, where you do favors for women to win their affection, but they still reveal the girls to be defined by their disabilities.
I don’t agree with that anymore. Looking back, disability is not the defining point of each girl. The way she deals with it is. She can choose to ignore it, like Emi, who runs daily despite being a double amputee below each knee. Or she can embrace what she does have, like Lily, who is blind but gets the most out of her other four senses. And then there’s Rin, who I basically fell in love with for her unique view of the world.
The truth is, Katawa Shoujo is not about fetishizing “the girl in the wheelchair.” Rin was my favorite, but I don’t have a kink for people without arms. And whichever girl you liked best, I’m sure it’s not because she fit your “favorite” disability. It’s her looks and personality, right? Sure, the favors you do for her fit her disability, but this offering of favors simply obeys the established rhetoric of eroge.
The disabled teens I interviewed are probably not going to end up dating or marrying people with wheelchair or crutch fetishes. Neither are they going to stay with people who like them “in spite of” their disabilities. They’re going to find partners who love them for the full package, disability and all.
At first, I was disturbed by the ultimate goal of this eroge -- to get it on with the girl of your choice. If that’s not fetishism, what is? However, the inclusion of sex and romance helps to portray the girls as consenting adults. (And even though the sex scenes have yet to be released, it’s clear from the artistic exercises of the creators and fans in The Mishimmie, the game’s NSFW art forum, the sexy bits are going to focus far more frequently on lady parts than disabilities.)
To say that people with disabilities can’t be sexy would be to set disability rights back many years. After all, as I’ve pointed out, the majority of players are choosing a girl based on the looks and personality she does have, not the senses or limbs that she doesn’t.
Katawa Shoujo will be completed and released this year. Will you play it?