Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 2

Return to Contents»

Mass Effect's, Supercrip, and the Normate Body / Amanda Joyal

Abstract: This essay examines Joker through the lens of the “supercrip,” a term disability theorists use to discuss disabled characters who because of, or in spite of, their disability, are perceived as possessing extraordinary talent. In the case of Mass Effect, the player and Commander Shepard are seen as normates, defined in opposition to Joker and the supercrip. The supercrip character allows the able-bodied to view disability as something other than physical suffering. This essay argues that Joker is a character designed for the able-bodied player; he compensates for his disability through humor and his unmatched ability to fly the Normandy. The Normandy acts as Joker’s prosthesis. As a supercrip character, his prosthesis is a sign of empowerment and super-ability, rather than a reminder of his disability. However, the beings that inhabit the Mass Effect universe are all deeply reliant upon new technology, redefining the normate body as one that includes prosthesis, even while it defines Joker as Other. In Mass Effect 2, Joker’s disability is all but cured. This paper examines how a cure for his disability allows Joker to take on the more traditional role of the hero figure that would not be possible for a disabled character.

Keywords: Disability, video games, Mass Effect

<1> In the science fiction future, it seems almost impossible to imagine that we have not eradicated all of the diseases and health problems that afflict the world today. Yet, in the universe presented in Bioware’s Mass Effect series, the world is far from perfect. Disease is used in biological warfare but even non-bioengineered diseases have no cure. Mass Effect is a third person action/role playing game that takes place in 2183, in a future where humans have branched out in the universe and have discovered several advanced alien life forms. The player’s avatar is Commander Shepard, a Systems Alliance officer in charge of the SSV (Systems Alliance Space Vehicle) Normandy. The games follow Shepard’s discovery of and battles with the Reapers, an ancient alien race of sentient machines intent on wiping out all organic life in the galaxy.

<2> The focus of this paper is on the first and second Mass Effect games and Jeff “Joker” Moreau, the pilot of the Normandy and self-proclaimed “best damn helmsman in the Alliance fleet.” Joker is also a disabled figure; Vrolik’s syndrome, or brittle bone disease, has made walking very difficult for Joker. As a disabled character, Joker must manage his relationship with Shepard and the player in a way that makes them comfortable with his disability. His interactions with Commander Shepard are between someone with a disability and the “normate body,” a term Rosemarie Garland Thomson coins in her book, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. The normate body is the body that exists in contrast to the disabled body—they define each other through their differences. The normate body is a theoretical ideal that does not exist but still operates as a useful term that describes those that are considered “normal.” Unlike Joker, Shepard and the player can be defined as normates. Because of his abilities as a pilot and his disability caused by Vrolik’s syndrome, Joker falls into the category of the “supercrip,” a term common in disability theory. Supercrip refers to a person with a disability who is seen as possessing amazing and inspiring ability that allows them to “overcome” their disability. Supercrips allow people without disabilities to see disabled people as locations of super ability. People with disabilities become inspirational figures and this allows people without disabilities to view them without guilt or discomfort. As a supercrip figure, Joker is a disabled character designed for an able-bodied player; his character encourages a representation of disability that treats and defines both Shepard and the player as normates. By including the character of Joker, Mass Effect becomes a game about the player defining themselves as normal, in contrast to the disabled body. The relationship between the normate and the supercrip come together to form a representation of disability that privileges ability over disability even as the technology of the game unsettles the stereotype of disability.

Positions of Authority: Shepard and the Player as Normate

<3> The relationship between Shepard and Joker mimics the lived experience of people with disabilities in several ways [1]. In Extraordinary Bodies, Rosemarie Garland Thomson refers to what she calls the “normate subject position.” According to Thomson, the normate “is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them” (8). As commander of the Normandy and his position as the games hero/protagonist, Shepard is a character whose identity allows him to step into the position of authority. Shepard is the normate body. As the normate, Shepard wields power over Joker which Joker must then be wary of. By extension, the player also inhabits the position of the normate as it is Shepard’s body they are playing as within the game. Since Shepard can be fully customized by the player, it makes sense that Shepard already inhabits the player’s ideal “bodily configurations” and as a fictional being, Shepard probably comes fairly close to being the normate body that cannot be achieved in reality.

<4> When the player first has the opportunity to quiz Joker on aspects of his life and background, the scene plays out in a way that gives Shepard the power. The camera uses a low angle shot. It appears that the camera inhabits Joker’s gaze in which it looks up at Commander Shepard from Joker’s position in his chair. This camera angle makes Shepard look bigger and taller. This added height makes Shepard into a more heroic, authoritative figure. Since Joker stays sitting in his chair on the bridge for the entirety of the first game, the height difference is even more pronounced. The difference between the normate and the disabled body is very physical in this scenario. Height is equated to power in this scene—Joker has little and Shepard has a lot. In addition, Joker lacks the ability to stand up to make their heights more even, so he is unable to balance power.

<5> Their dialogue in this scene reflects this difference in height and power. In their conversation, Shepard is the one who drives the conversation. Shepard asks all of the questions and Joker can only answer. The scenario acts as a kind of interrogation scene in which Joker must answer questions about his disability. This interaction leads to an important “coming out” moment that defines Joker’s character. When Shepard talks to Joker at the beginning of the game, Joker states emphatically that he has earned his achievements and never received special treatment because of his disease. He assumes that Shepard has been in his files and already knows that he has brittle bone disease. After Shepard asks him what he is talking about, Joker says, “You mean you didn’t know? Oh crap. I have Vrolik’s syndrome” (Mass Effect). Now that the player knows about Joker’s disability they can proceed to ask him questions about it. In Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers compares coming out as disabled to coming out of the closet as a homosexual. According to Siebers, “the closet is an oppressive structure because it controls the flow of information beyond individual desire for disclosure or secrecy and because it is able to convert either disclosure or secrecy into the opposite” (99). Joker does not know whether he is in the closet or out of it. His disability is not visible as long as he is sitting down (which he usually is) and he would prefer to keep it secret. Yet, the information is in his file for anyone who would care to check. Joker is caught somewhere between secrecy and disclosure and this is an oppressive force. Joker and Shepard act out in the game world what happens in the player’s world—the able-bodied ask a disabled person what is wrong with them and the disabled person tells them.

<6> Within the context of the game, the relationship between Joker and Shepard is a newly developed relationship between a normate and a person with a disability. Thomson asserts that in order “to be granted fully human status by normates, disabled people must learn to manage relationships from the beginning” (13). Joker seems determined to manage the player’s perception of him from the start. In that first conversation, it is why he very combatively says, “I am the best damn helmsman in the alliance fleet…All those commendations in my file? I earned every single one. Those weren’t given to me as charity for my disease” (Mass Effect). Since Joker also mentions that he told all of this to the previous Normandy commander, it is obvious that Joker is used to managing his relationship with able-bodied individuals. Because he has a disability he must “striv[e] to create [a] valued representation of [him]self in [his] relations with the nondisabled majority” (Thomson 13). By making sure the commander of the Normandy knows that he is the best pilot around, he ensures that his contribution will be respected despite his disability. He has clearly learned that he has to do this every time command of the Normandy changes. If certain dialogue options are selected, Shepard will ask Joker is he is able to fly the ship even with his disability and Joker sarcastically responds that he does not fly the Normandy with his feet. Since Shepard has been on the ship for quite some time and presumably knows that Joker has been flying just fine the whole time, this line of questioning seems to confirm Joker’s fears. He seems to recognize that “to the non-disabled, people with disabilities…symbolize, among other things, imperfection, failure to control the body, and everyone’s vulnerability to weakness, pain, and death” (Wendell 60). These feelings towards people with disabilities are what cause them to be the “Other” that defines the normate body. Joker understands this instinct and reacts defensively against it. He must confidently establish his abilities in order to convince the new commander that he is able despite being disabled. His exuberant confidence in his abilities waylays misgivings about his disability. He knows he is an excellent pilot and his file confirms it. By doing so, he finds himself promoting an image of disability that the able-bodied prefer. Joker “proves capable of overcoming a physical or mental limitation through extraordinary feats…[that] remain among our most glorified disabled role models, lavishly lauded in the press and on television” (Shapiro 16). He may have a disability, but he has made himself into the best pilot in the fleet through determination, the same determination that makes him want to be recognized for his earned achievements. The able-bodied player can then see an inspirational figure of disability rather than a disabled figure deserving of pity at the expense of the player’s comfort.

<7> Joker must compensate for his disability in his relationship with the normate. Thomson asserts that “disabled people must use charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humor, or entertainment to relieve non-disabled people of their discomfort” (Thomson 13). Joker most often uses humor and entertainment to manage his relationships. Although he supposedly gets his nickname because he never smiled in flight school, he is definitely a funny character [2]. Joker is voiced by Seth Green, an actor known for his role in the Austin Powers movies and his role in comedic cartoons such as Family Guy and Robot Chicken. He is meant to funny. He especially treats his disability in a rather joking manner. When questioned about his disability, he states, “Put the Normandy in my hands and I’ll make her dance for you. Just don’t ask me to get up and dance, unless, you know, you like the sound of snapping shin bones” (Mass Effect). He also says that he functions fine despite his disability unless he wants to “get up to take a piss.” These are two actions humorously conveyed to the reader that are affected by Joker’s disability. However, the player never sees Joker performing any of these actions because he only stays in his chair throughout the game. Consequently, the player feels okay with Joker’s disability because they see no physical evidence of it and because Joker treats his disability with jokes and sarcastic tones. In this way, Joker is able to control the normate’s feelings about his disability.

<8> Although Joker is technically managing his relationship with Shepard, more importantly, he is also managing his relationship with the player through Shepard. When Joker makes a joke, it is not Shepard the avatar who laughs or reacts, it is the player. Joker is not disabled in any way that makes the player uncomfortable. As a disabled character, Joker seeks to “neutralize the initial stigma of disability so that relationships can be sustained and deepened” (Thomson 13). By using assertiveness and humor to brush off the seriousness of his disability, he can become a character who is defined by more than just his disability. Clearly, he wants to be thought about as more than just a person with a disability; he is insistent about his many commendations being earned and that they had nothing to do with his disability. Joker spends most of his time in the first Mass Effect game sitting in his chair. He does not draw attention to his disability. Joker is a very popular character in the series, not to mention one of the only characters that cannot be killed. He is popular because he maneuvers the relationship between the disabled body and the normate body very well. He tells the player (and only if they ask) that he has moderate to severe brittle bone disease and that he requires leg braces and crutches to get around, but the player never sees these signs of his disability. He never stands up in the first game. The player never has to dwell on his disability.

<9> Mass Effect is a game that defines the player as normate. The player controls Shepard and identifies with Shepard. When Shepard, the player’s avatar, interacts with Joker, Joker is forced to defend himself and put the normate at ease; this action designates Joker as the Other who defines the normate. In Extraordinary Bodies, Thomson discusses the American fascination with the freak show, which typically featured people who were considered disabled in some way. She claims that one of the reasons freak shows were popular is because the freak “testifie[s] to the physical and ideological normalcy of the spectator…[which] confirm[s] the spectator’s status and identity” (Thomson 62). People tend to not want to be considered abnormal so they like to be assured of their normalcy. When the player sees a character like Joker, they reinforce their normalcy. That normalcy grants them a normate body which causes them to identify with Shepard, the in-game normate body and the person with power and authority. The game reinforces this powerful identity.

Overcoming and Overachieving: Joker as Supercrip

<10> Joker is a supercrip character and consequently, must overcome his disability. The supercrip represents a disability type that contains “heroic superachievers” and people who deserve respect because “he or she proves capable of overcoming a physical or mental limitation through extraordinary feats” (Shapiro 16). The supercrip tends to be someone who, according to the able bodied, has “overcome their disability” in some way. This phrase is hugely problematic to disability scholars as it implies that disability is inherently deviant and is something that needs to be overcome. Simi Linton, in her essay “Reassigning Meaning,” discusses the inherent issues with the phrase. She asserts that it is used to describe “someone with a disability who seems competent and successful in some way” (Linton 165), as if people should be surprised that someone with a disability can be successful. In order to interpret this statement as a compliment, “one must accept the implication that the group is inferior and that the individual is unlike others in that group” (Linton 165). Although none of the game’s characters actually say anything to Joker about how he has overcome his disability, Joker implies that he has. He received the name “Joker” from an instructor because he was so serious and never smiled until he graduated. Since Shepard’s interactions with Joker are frequently humorous, it is assumed that Joker’s seriousness in flight school was due to intense focus. He was very much on focused on making something of himself and proving that he could be the best even with his “creaky” legs. If the phrase “overcoming disability” actually implies that “what is overcome is the social stigma of having a disability” (Linton 165), then this is what Joker was determined to do. When talking to Shepard, Joker says that at flight school, “by the end of the year, [he] was the best pilot in the Academy, even better than the instructors and everybody knew it. They all got their asses kicked by the sickly kid with the creaky little legs” (Mass Effect). Joker had to be the best so he could overcome his disability. The game is not self-critical of this idea. The crew is happy that Joker worked hard because of his disability because it means that they have the best pilot flying the Normandy. Joker himself is pleased and proud to have overcome his disability—even if he has to continuously prove this to the Normandy’s command.

<11> Joker falls into the category of the supercrip because his disease barely allows him to even walk and yet he is the best pilot around. For example, towards the end of the first Mass Effect game, Shepard needs to get to an area with the Mako (an infantry fighting vehicle). Since Shepard has been exploring planets using the Mako the entire game, at first this does not seem to be a problem. Joker usually just brings the Normandy close to the ground and drops the Mako down with Shepard inside it. However, the Normandy’s crew insists that the Mako requires at least a hundred meters of open ground in order to be dropped successfully. At the end of the game, a vital mission requires the Mako to be dropped with only twenty meters of open ground. Even while the crew says it is suicide to even attempt it, Joker twice says “I can do it” in a very determined and confident tone of voice. The he performs the drop with seemingly little trouble. If overcoming disability “demand[s] that you be plucky and resolute, and not let the obstacles get in your way,” (Linton 165) then Joker is the epitome of this idea. Overcoming disability is about mental determination defeating physical limitations. Not only does he manage to successfully drop the Mako with less than a hundred meters of open ground, he drops the Mako with only twenty meters of open ground. This is more than just talent as a pilot. The difference in the two numbers, eighty meters, is absurd—this is the super ability of the supercrip.

Still Life: The Normandy as Prosthesis

<12> The Normandy itself is the device that acts as Joker’s prosthesis. He mentions crutches and leg braces but the player never sees any evidence of their existence. Although Joker cannot walk, he gets around using the Normandy. The Normandy acts as prosthesis in that “prosthetic interventions increasingly extend human embodiment into hyper-ability in addition to their original function of ‘making good’ the body that is disabled by lack” (Eyre 109). In his dialogue with Shepard, Joker emphasizes that his disability should not matter because of his ability to fly the Normandy. In this way, the Normandy is making up for the loss of Joker’s motor ability. Tobin Siebers claims that the able-bodied often view prostheses “as devices of empowerment” and as signs of disability that are “viewed exclusively as awakening new and magical opportunities for ability” (Siebers 63). His extraordinary flying abilities compensate in some way for his inability to walk and also, act as a symbol for his status as a supercrip. The Normandy is necessary for demonstrating the skills Joker has, despite of, or because of, his disability. Without the Normandy, Joker would not be considered a very valuable member of the crew as it would be difficult if not impossible for him to maneuver around the ship. As the pilot, the player easily forgets Joker’s disability.

<13> The Normandy, as prosthesis, also allows Joker to pass for able-bodied. As previously established, the player sees no indication of Joker’s disability and Joker does not volunteer the information except when he believes Shepard knows his background. He only brings up his disability to defend himself; there is no other indication in the first Mass Effect game that Joker has any kind of disability. Joker does not wish people to know about his disability and the Normandy masks his disability. As the pilot, he is never expected to stand or walk around; he is in charge of keeping the Normandy in motion and does not have to be in motion himself. In “The Vulnerable Articulate,” Marquard Smith discusses the prosthesis as the device that makes a body able-bodied. He asserts that “the success story of prosthesis…is in fact determined by hiding the truth, making invisible the body’s ‘disability’ and the very thing that makes it ‘able-bodied’ again” (Smith 312). In these terms, the Normandy makes a very successful prosthesis. Despite the assumption that Shepard has been on the Normandy’s crew for some time, Shepard is apparently clueless about Joker’s disease. The invisibility of Joker’s disability and prosthesis “allows the prosthetic wearer to carry out a so-called normal life safe in the knowledge that the rest of the world is unaware of their disability” (Smith 312). Joker can pass for able-bodied because the movement of the Normandy itself compensates for his inability to move his body. Disability scholars acknowledge that although many people with disabilities try to pass as “normal,” this has some negative effects. Thomson states that if “disabled people pursue normalization too much, they risk denying limitations and pain for the comfort of others and may edge into the self-betrayal associated with ‘passing’” (Thomson 13). Joker must be as normalized as possible “for the comfort of others,” meaning the normates. As Joker’s prosthesis, the Normandy alleviates the discomfort of the player by making him seem like any other crew member. Joker cannot move his body but he can move the entire crew between planets; despite Joker’s words, this makes his physical limitations seem less serious.

<13> It is perhaps this reliance on the Normandy that makes Joker so unwilling to abandon ship at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. The Normandy is attacked by an alien race and sustains heavy casualties. She is all but torn apart and missing huge sections of her hull. All the survivors abandon ship except for Joker and Shepard because Joker refuses to leave and Shepard is determined to get him off the ship. In a cut scene, Shepard tells him to leave and Joker responds passionately, “No! I won’t abandon the Normandy. I can still save her!” (Mass Effect 2). Shepard responds that the Normandy is “dead.” Shepard then hauls Joker to his feet and literally drags him to an escape pod. Because of Joker’s hesitation in leaving, Shepard is killed while Joker escapes. This scene is the first time in the entire series that Joker’s disability really manifests itself. It is no coincidence that the moment the Normandy is pronounced dead is the same moment that Joker suddenly appears disabled. His prosthesis is destroyed and with it goes his disability’s ability to be invisible and his own attempts to look normal. The loss of his prosthesis, the Normandy, leaves Joker helpless. Siebers discusses how the empowerment granted to prostheses causes people with disabilities to be seen as cyborgs—a hybrid of man and machine; consequently, the Normandy turns Joker into a (figurative) cyborg. Although Joker does not technically use a wheelchair, he always sits in a chair in the cockpit and refers to it as his chair, much the way a wheelchair user might. He controls the ship, and in many ways functions as the ships voice, interpreting the data the ship gives him and relaying it to Commander Shepard. These elements come together to make him seem cyborg-like. Because prostheses acts to make disability into a site for super ability, “the cyborg is always more than human—and never risks to be seen as subhuman” (Siebers 63). For this reason, Joker is willing to risk his life and Shepard’s life to save his prosthesis and avoid the problems inherent in disability. With the Normandy, he is a cyborg and “the cyborg is not disabled” (Siebers 63). As a disabled person, Joker must strive to overcome all obstacles and not allow his disability to show; however, he needs the Normandy to do this. This is why he is willing to sacrifice his own life.

The Normate Body in Science Fiction

<14> As is typical with science fiction, technology plays a large role in the Mass Effect universe. Furthermore, all major species in the galaxy seem very dependent on this technology. The mass effect is not just the name of the series; it is the basis of a lot of the technology found in the universe. Most importantly, it is the basis for the technology that permits faster-than-light travel which is what allows the galaxy to function as it does. Some human and alien lifeforms also possess “biotic” abilities which grant the power to manipulate mass effect fields. Consequently, they can create barriers, lift people into the air, or tear them apart. Almost all characters carry omni-tools, high-tech computers that when activated, form an orange hologram that engulfs a person’s arm and hand when in use.

<15> All of this technology operates as prosthesis. The universal availability of technology has made all of these characters dependent on these advancements. Without it, there would arguably be a type of universal disability, in the same way that contemporary individuals claim to have trouble functioning without cell phones and computers [3]. Essentially, the Mass Effect franchise has created a new normate body that necessitates prosthesis. The science fiction normate has cyborg qualities that rely on technology. If prostheses are universal and come with, as Siebers says, “magical opportunities for ability,” then the science fiction norm demands extra-ability. In a way, this makes Joker into a more complicated figure; he is disabled in a world where everyone is “disabled.” Yet, he is still viewed as a bodily other. He has superability but futuristic technology has given all species special abilities. Arguably, his body is actually superior to the futuristic normate. Where the normate’s ability derives from technological advancement, Joker’s ability comes from his body even while it is showcased by the Normandy and therefore, technology. Joker does not let a computer fly the ship even when it is an option. When the Mako must be dropped with too little space, Joker performs the maneuver successfully even while technology tells him it is impossible. These feats are what turn him into a stereotype of disability, but they are also what place him outside it. In a way, he is less dependent on technology and prosthesis than other characters. At the same time, science tells him that his body is inferior and that is what other characters, including Shepard are reacting to within the game [4]. His disability still defines him as a character.

Joker and the Cure of Mass Effect 2

<16> Two years after the destruction of the Normandy Stealth Reconnaissance ship #1 (Normandy SR-1) and Shepard’s death, the organization known as Cerberus rebuilds Shepard’s body and brings Shepard back to life. After waking up, Joker is the first familiar face Shepard sees. Joker explains that the Alliance grounded him after Shepard was killed, and therefore, “took away the one thing that mattered to him” (Mass Effect 2). Cerberus allows him to fly so he joined them instead. Cerberus also built the Normandy SR-2 and Joker flies it all throughout Mass Effect 2. When Shepard talks to Joker on board the Normandy SR-2, Joker giddily says “Can you believe this, Commander? It’s my baby, better than new! It fits me like a glove!” (Mass Effect 2). He has his prosthesis back and it feels like a part of him. The impression of Joker as a cyborg is further strengthened in the second game due to his interactions with the ship computer, EDI (Enhanced Defense Intelligence). At first, they are antagonistic towards one another and argue constantly. Over the course of Mass Effect 2, they bond, as demonstrated by the shift that occurs in how they refer to each other. At the beginning of the game, EDI calls him “Mr. Moreau” and Joker refers to EDI as “it”; by the end of the game, EDI is calling Joker “Jeff” and he is calling EDI “her.” Joker and his prosthesis manage to bond fairly seamlessly even when the Normandy has an actual personality.

<17> The most unusual aspect of meeting up with Joker again is that he is walking around. Based on the comments he made in the original Mass Effect, (such as, “I have to be real careful when I get up to take a piss”) the player would not expect Joker to be up and walking around so much. If he is walking around, it seems like he should have a lot of difficulty. However, Joker is only limping slightly; he also walks at the exact same pace as Commander Shepard. Additionally, near the end of the game, the alien antagonists board the ship and begin carrying all of the crew away. Joker, guided by the ships on board computer, must go and manually allow EDI to take control of the ship. Controlled by the player, Joker executes a very fast-paced limp around the ship. The difference between controlling Shepard and controlling Joker appears to be in the way they walk, rather than the speed. In order to get to the section of the ship the mission requires, Joker must crawl through the ducts and climb up several flights of stairs in order to avoid the alien invaders. Joker appears to perform these actions without suffering any serious damage to his bones. However, one would think that crawling down a ladder and inside narrow metal ducts, on your knees, when you have brittle bone disease would cause some problems. Furthermore, when the computer sends the ship into hyperdrive, Joker falls really hard, backwards onto metal grates. He picks himself up with some groaning, but not the serious damage that one would expect in someone who has trouble getting up to use the bathroom. Still, the game offers no explanation for why, in the first Mass Effect, Joker claims to be disabled in a way that prevents him from performing tasks the able-bodied would deem simple, but in Mass Effect 2, can suddenly move in ways that some able-bodied individuals could find challenging. His disability seems magically cured and his difficulties alleviated as soon as the game developers need him to take action.

Joker as the Hero Figure

<18> This curing happens when Joker is given an increased role in the series. In the first game, his role was rather marginal—he had very little unique dialogue. In the second game, he is one of the few characters from the first game to rejoin Shepard and the Normandy. More importantly, besides Commander Shepard, he is the only other playable character in the two games. Shepard goes off on a mission, leaving Joker and the crew alone on the Normandy. When the enemy aliens attack, it is up to Joker to save the ship. It is at this point that the player takes over Joker and guides him down ladders and through ducts. Because of this, Joker leaves behind the role of marginal supporting character and takes on, at least in part, the identity of hero. This shift is further defined at the end of the game. Mass Effect 2 has multiple endings that depend on the choices the player makes. In one of those endings, Joker will meet Shepard at the door to the Normandy, wielding a heavy weapon that he uses to kill the many hostile aliens that are pursuing Shepard. Wielding a gun is an exploit befitting the action hero of an action RPG—not the action of a disabled pilot who spent the entirety of the first game in a chair. Even if Shepard survives, this scene demonstrates the shift that occurred with Joker between the first and second games.

<19> In another possible ending, Shepard dies (again). Despite Joker’s efforts at hauling Shepard aboard the ship, Shepard will yell last minute instructions to Joker about fulfilling the mission before falling to his death. In this sense, Shepard is passing on the heroic role to Joker. Without Shepard around, it is up to Joker to fulfill the win condition of the game: informing the world that the Reapers, a deadly race of sentient machines, are coming to wipe out all organic life in the galaxy. So it is Joker who takes Shepard’s place in all the cut scenes that Shepard would have been in if Shepard had lived. The player selects Joker’s end dialogue and the game ends with an image of Joker gazing up at the stars from the Normandy.

<20> Joker has to become more able-bodied in order to become a heroic figure. According to Rosemarie Garland Thomson, disabled characters “usually remain on the margins of fiction…[and] main characters almost never have physical disabilities” (Thomson 9). In order to take on the role of a main character in Mass Effect 2, Joker’s disability needs to become less noticeable. Otherwise, he would be unable to function as game developers need him to. In addition, if the player had to control a character who more noticeably limped, moved slowly, and/or was obviously in pain as a result of his disease, the game would have been drawing attention to a feature of Joker that would potentially make the player uncomfortable and cause them to get less enjoyment from the game.

<21> Because no explanation is ever offered for Joker’s miraculous improvement, the player must make assumptions about what might have made Joker better. Since Joker is a supercrip character, perhaps his transformation foes not seem improbable or unusual. Supercrips have such extraordinary ability, so why should Joker not successfully manage to crawl around on his knees without injury? Deprived of any kind of medical explanation or justification for the alteration in his disability, it is assumed that he must have overcome his disability mentally. This idea is part of the issues surrounding the ideology of ability. Siebers defines the ideology of ability “at its simplest [as] the preference for able-bodiedness” (Siebers 8). It is the ideology of ability that encourages the idea of the supercrip because the supercrip makes the able-bodied feel better about disability. The concept of the supercrip and other ableist ideas “represent[] impairment as the product of mental weakness” and claims that “physical disability may be cured by acts of will” (Siebers 78). For example, ableist ideology thinks that supercrips maintain a “can do” attitude and that is the reason for their remarkable feats; the power of positive thinking can help you overcome your disability. By not addressing Joker’s disability, the game leaves the player to decide that Joker is ignoring or powering through his physical pain and suffering. This makes the normate, as the player, feels better about disability. The disabled body is in no way making them uncomfortable or infringing on their peace of mind. Consequently, the game encourages the problematic and prolific idea that physical disability can be cured mentally if only people with disabilities would try harder. It also confirms Thomson’s idea that main characters with disabilities appear rarely. In order to be a main character, Joker has to normalize himself more and appear more able-bodied then he was before.

Joker’s Disability as a Plot Device

<22> When Shepard dies at the beginning of Mass Effect 2, Cerberus takes the body to one of their facilities. They then spend two years putting the body back together and bringing Shepard back to life, memories intact and everything. Yet, despite the ability to bring people back from the dead in the Mass Effect universe, apparently there is no cure for Vrolik’s syndrome and not much in the way of treatment of therapy. This seems to be somewhat ridiculous and makes very little sense. Yes, the Mass Effect universe is a rather fantastical work of fiction; however, it still must abide by its own logic and rules. If the technology exists to rebuild a body, then there should be better therapy for brittle bone disease. Therefore, it seems as if the writers for Mass Effect are depending on Joker and his disability as a narrative plot device and method of characterization. In Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder discuss the ways in which narrative seems to lean on disability, judging from the amount of literature that contains disabled figures of some kind. When writers try to make a “different character, they often rely upon anomalous identities such as disability. This tendency to use “disability as a device of narrative characterization demonstrates the importance of disability to storytelling itself” because storytelling often “borrows the potency of the lure of difference that a socially stigmatized condition provides” (Mitchell and Snyder 55). Joker is strongly characterized by his disability in the first game; his disability is almost the only thing Shepard can question him about.

<23> It is not that disability must be somehow vital to the plot in order to be used appropriately. Because Joker’s disability does not make sense within the context of the game world, it seems like the writers are trying to exploit disability while simultaneously encouraging stereotypes that the disability movement struggles against. Bioware’s writers recognize that “disability marks a character as ‘unlike’ the rest of a fiction’s cast, and once singled out, the character becomes a case of special interest who retains originality” (Mitchell and Snyder 55). People remember Joker because his disability makes him unusual, especially in a video game which usually seem to feature the able-bodied. But by marking him as especially interesting, Bioware turns Joker into a problematic stereotype that is all about privileging ability. They also continuously revise Joker’s disability in order to accommodate the feelings of the normate, as evidenced by his unexplained improvement in ability between the two games. Joker is a unique character when it is convenient for him to be so.

<24> Bioware turned Joker into a stereotype of a supercrip because that is what the audience enjoys. People like hearing about supercrips. In the lived history of the world, “these ‘supercrips’ remain among our most glorified disabled role models, lavishly lauded in the press and on television” (Shapiro 16). Able-bodied people are most likely to want to hear about the inspirationally disadvantaged. That is what the Mass Effect games give the player through the character of Joker. Some would think that this is a positive stereotype—it shows that people with disabilities are capable of so much. Joker is disabled, but he is an unbelievably awesome pilot. However, disability scholars such as Joseph Shapiro argue that:

While prodigious achievement is praiseworthy in anyone, disabled or not, it does not reflect the day-to-day reality of most disabled people, who struggle constantly with smaller challenges, such as finding a bus with a wheelchair lift to go downtown or fighting beliefs that people with disabilities cannot work, be educated, or enjoy life as well as anyone else. (Shapiro 17)

When stereotypes such as that of the supercrip or the pitiable disabled poster child (Tiny Tim figure) are popularized, they damage the momentum that the disability movement is trying to gain. The disability rights movement is about trying to gain equality with everyday events and happenings. This goal is much harder to reach if people are busy applauding the unique individuals with disabilities who get along in life just fine without bothering anyone or requiring any assistance. Over time, people begin to think that if that one person managed to live their life extraordinarily despite a disability, then all people with disabilities should be equally capable. Unfortunately, this is not very realistic and the supercrip stereotype that Joker embodies only perpetuates this problematic idea. His character becomes more complicated when one considers the ways in which science fiction technology perpetuates “universal disability,” but so much of Joker’s character centers around his disabled body that the unsettling of the stereotype is dwarfed by the problematic aspects of the representation of disability.

<25> The public gets their stereotypes from media so even representations of disability in video games matter. Despite the changes the disability movement has made, “the poster child and ‘supercrip’ images remain the most significant obstacle to normal interaction between nondisabled and disabled people” (Shapiro 18). The player, as normate, gets along fine in their interactions with Joker but that is because the supercrip stereotypes is designed to be perfectly comfortable to the able-bodied individual. Unfortunately, Joker’s experiences do not tend to align with the lived experience of people with disabilities. Consequently, normate players still know very little about how to react to people who have real disabilities.

<26> Despite his rather marginal role in the first Mass Effect game, Joker makes an impact on the player. His role as a disabled character serves to define Commander Shepard as a normate body—someone with power and authority. As the hero figure of the game, these are the qualities that the player wants to see Shepard. Joker interacts with the player through Shepard; by masking the seriousness of his disability through his humorous treatment of it, he makes it apparent that the game is designed for an able-bodied player who may feel discomfort in the presence of someone with a disability. His jokes are really for the benefit of the player which makes the player into a normate—a figure of power that is defined by Joker and his disability.

<27> In terms of the disability movement, popular culture matters. The cultural representations of disability have an impact on people. Because Mass Effect is such a popular game, Bioware should be wary of the harmful stereotypes they may be perpetuating. By portraying Joker as a “supercrip,” Bioware is supporting the idea that people with disabilities are somehow inferior; their condition in life is something to be overcome. Joker uses the Normandy to overcome his disability and also to normalize himself. Disability is something to be hidden lest you be judged for it. Even more damaging, Mass Effect implies that only the able-bodied can be heroic figures. Between the first Mass Effect game and the second, Joker’s disability seems to lessen. While in the first game, walking would have been a major challenge for Joker, in the second game he is barely limping. Because this transition happens in time for Joker to take a bigger role in the games, the game perpetuates the idea that disabled characters cannot be action heroes or protagonists in a video game. Confusingly, Joker’s shift towards able-bodiedness is never brought up in-game, leaving the player to assume that Joker has mentally cured himself. The treatment of Joker in these games seems to favor an able-bodied player. The player does not have to grow annoyed with Joker’s slower pace when playing as him because it has all but disappeared; Joker never demonstrates disability in a way that would earn him uncomfortable pity; Joker’s piloting skills allow him to “overcome” his disability so that the normate can give him respect. Overall, the representation of Joker perpetuates some problematic ideas about disability that need to be taken apart and rethought.

Works Cited

Bioware. Mass Effect. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts, 2007. Electronic.

Bioware. Mass Effect 2. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts, 2010. Electronic.

Eyre, Pauline. “Comment from the Field: Transforming Bodies: Prosthetics Seminar. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5.1 (2011): 109-112. Web.

Linton, Simi. “Reassigning Meaning.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 161-172. Print.

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.

Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Times Books, 1993. Print.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

Smith, Marquard. “The Vulnerable Articulate.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 309-319. Print.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Print.

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.


[1] Because disability studies frequently concerns itself with the ways in which cultural representations of disability both derive from and shape society, much of this essay discusses Mass Effect in realist terms. The representation of Joker reflects many of the issues faced by the disabled community and this essay seeks to expose the ways in which we understand disability in a largely able-bodied culture.

[2] There are a number of powerful intertextual references that could be evoked here. The name, Joker, brings up comparisons to the character from the Batman franchise. Similarly, Joker has brittle bone disease like the villain in Unbreakable. However, my analysis concentrates on humor and limits itself to the differing representations of disability and able-bodiedness within the Mass Effect franchise.

[3] This is not to belittle the very real struggle people with disabilities face in reality but to argue that when “cyborg” beings become the normate, then to be able-bodied by modern standards is to be disabled by futuristic, science fiction standards. If prosthetic devices imply a bodily lack, then universal use of prosthetics implies a mindset in which all bodies lack.

[4] This idea also subscribes to the “social model of disability” which claims that disability is located in the environment, outside the body and that society must stop portraying disability as deficiency. According to this model, Joker is only disabled because the medical community tells him he is disabled.

Return to Top»

ISSN: 1547-4348. All material contained within this site is copyrighted by the identified author. If no author is identified in relation to content, that content is © Reconstruction, 2002-2016.