In a world where gaming culture is dominated by stereotypes, Brig’s Player Profiles aims to introduce gamers outside the norm. Meet Hawke Wood, a disabled & queer actor, storyteller, story-enjoyer, and gamer.
Hawke grew up with a single mum and as a result, they spent a lot of time with neighbours and babysitters.
“My childhood best friend had a Sega Megadrive and I remember ruining their score on Streets of Rage 2” reminisces Hawke. His gaming journey started shortly after.
“I got my first PlayStation and a Gameboy Colour for Christmas from my mum and nana respectively.
“I don’t remember asking for them, but clearly, my interest in games was obvious! Pokémon was a huge part of my childhood and I found out years later my mum used to sneak into my room at night, slide my GBC out from under my pillow, and play while I slept!
“She didn’t keep a save file, so I never knew. I can’t complain, I used to get her to do the cave sections for me because I was too afraid of getting lost.”
As an autistic kid, Hawke was satisfied with just a small collection of games: “I had Spyro: Gateway to Glimmer and I played it so often that to this day, I know the map of every level by heart.
“For years I was happy to just keep playing Crash Bandicoot, Smackdown, and Spyro, and a lot of development in the industry kind of passed me by – I was happy in my little bubble.”
These kinds of deep, specialised interests are a common trait of autism and it’s not uncommon for autistic people to derive significant comfort and enjoyment from repeatedly engaging in the same activities.
When asked about how his taste in games grew and developed, Hake said: “When I was 15, one of my friends invited me over to play his Xbox and it was as eye-opening an experience for me as learning about sex for the first time.
“It had never occurred to me that games could be anything more than what I’d already experienced and suddenly a whole new world was opening up right in front of me.
“I already played games a lot, even if I just cycled through the same few, but now I was searching out new stories, types of gameplay, and a wider pool of developers. I felt like one of the great explorers (minus the awful colonising parts!) uncovering a whole world of treasures left by those that came before.”
“Representation matters. If you want all kinds of people to play your game, then you need to have all kinds of people in it.”Hawke Wood
The recently released short narrative game, Venba, brings to the fore a narrative that until now has been absent from gaming: the struggle of being an immigrant raising second-generation children and keeping your own culture alive.
Tales abound of the two-way connection Venba has created – parents who have never played a video game before seeing themselves represented in one, and kids who never knew the struggle of immigrant life from their parents’ perspectives.
Hawke puts it succinctly: “Representation matters. If you want all kinds of people to play your game, then you need to have all kinds of people in it.”
Hawke was excited to discuss representation in games, to the extent that he emailed a second time to add more details to his answer after our interview.
“I was very moved when I played Horizon Forbidden West,” said Hawke.
“One of the characters loses an arm and replaces it with a machine. It works great, but the character chooses to only wear it when he needs it. He says that he is proud of who he is and doesn’t feel the need to hide it with prosthetics.”
Hawke also speaks about the positive trans representation in Dragon Age: Inquisition, where you encounter a character whose gender as a trans man only comes out if you get to know him – if you don’t, he’s just a well-written, likeable character.
“Believe it or not, there’s more to queer folk than being queer!” said Hawke.
Indie games are particularly good at this, incorporating minority representation into characters without centring that facet of their identity.
“Sometimes gaming is about escapism, and we want to forget the difficulties in our lives for a while, so having people like us existing without having to deal with the prejudices we may face in real life, gives me a quiet sense of hope for how that landscape could be real one day.”
Unfortunately, not all representation is done as well as this. “I have to give a (dis)honourable mention to The Surge,” says Hawke.
“I was giddy with excitement when the game began and opened on a protagonist in a wheelchair. There’s no explanation, he’s just a disabled guy living his life, which I was all for.
“Ten minutes into the game he gets magical metal legs and even though he’s technically still disabled, he’s walking around like it isn’t an issue. I really tried to play the game after that, but I just couldn’t, it made me so uncomfortable.
“I then read an article with the developers which made it so much worse! They’re so self-congratulatory about how they’ve saved this poor man from his sad disabled life and given him a new chance blah blah blah. It gives the impression that none of the team has spoken to a real disabled person.
“It’s common nowadays for games to feature characters with amputations or other disabilities, which is fantastic and normalising, however, most of these examples include an artificial limb or tool that completely cancels out any ‘disability’ that disabled people face.
“It’s a common misconception that disabled people are missing something or that aids is because we are lacking. As someone who has been both able-bodied and disabled, I can safely say this is not the case at all!
“Just like glasses, disability aids enhance our lives, we don’t stop dead without them. Our aids help us do the things we want to do but they do not define us – I am thankful for the freedom my wheelchair gives me to be myself.”
“Our aids help us do the things we want to do but they do not define us – I am thankful for the freedom my wheelchair gives me to be myself.”Hawke Wood
In answer to a question about ways developers can continue to improve in this direction, Hawke had a quick response.
“Hire diversely! Hire. Diversely. It’s really that simple. It’s a cop-out excuse to say, ‘There’s no X, Y, Z in the game development industry.’ Make space for them!
“There are game developers from every walk of life, I promise you, and more will follow if we give them the space to flourish. Your game can have a real-world impact on the industry as well as your audience.
“As an actor, I am incredibly proud that I get to represent young disabled folk and be part of the inclusivity people see, I don’t remember seeing disabled or queer characters growing up, and the thought that these topics will be normal for future generations fills my heart with warmth.
“Make the community you’re in welcoming and safe. Encourage diversity, be vocal about being an ally, and make space for marginalised people to be heard.”
Hawke also discussed how gaming can have a negative perception in society, and how he has come under fire for his hobby.
“As a disabled person, I am entitled to certain benefits from the government to help me out. Occasionally, I must attend an assessment and fill out a form to say ‘yep, still disabled’ which is an unpleasant experience at the best of times.
“In 2020, my benefits were cancelled because I was suddenly ‘not disabled enough’. Why? Because I made the mistake of admitting that I play games. As soon as those words left my mouth everything changed.
“It didn’t matter what I said after that, I was as candid as I could be about my daily struggles and how much my life has changed since becoming disabled. So many everyday things that I took for granted are now a heady daydream. But I can play games. I can hold a controller. I can press buttons.
“At the time, I’d just graduated from drama school, and we were all in quarantine, so I wasn’t getting acting work, I didn’t leave the house for weeks or months at a time.
“My wife is a key worker so she would be out 12 hours a day and be in bed for 8, and I was stuck. Stories, gaming especially, were my escape.
“It felt like a horrible trick had been played on me. The one thing keeping my mental health from completely unravelling was the reason my physical health was no longer considered an issue.
“I had no money. I had no one to talk to. I had no hope of ever escaping this darkening pit and now the lifeline I’d been clinging to was the noose around my neck.”
Content warning: The next paragraph contains a brief mention of a suicide attempt.
“The day after I was taken to hospital for attempting suicide, was the day I received a phone call to say my benefits had been reinstated.
“It makes me sick to my stomach that things must get so bad before anyone will help. I don’t think of myself as an angry person, though I can be a bit cranky sometimes, but the way disabled people are treated, especially when ‘caught out’ with activities like gaming is a slow burning anger that I’m not sure will ever fade.
“I’m happy to say that I haven’t been hospitalised since then and have spent many happy hours gaming and even going outside sometimes!”
The DWP is currently looking to reduce spending on welfare further. Charities say the proposed changes could result in many more people being deemed “fit to work” despite being disabled.
Before the end of the interview, it was, as always, imperative to find out Hawke’s favourite games.
“I have a lot of favourite games for a lot of different reasons but if I had to name a few, to sum up who I am and my gaming experience, I would choose Spyro, Coffee Talk, Dragon Age, Limbo, Mass Effect, Ikenfell, and Fable and I’m currently playing every hidden object game I can get my hands on!”
Featured image credit: Hawke Wood. You can find Hawke on Twitch as The Hawkeward.