Sounds Like Representation
Have you ever met someone and, as you get to know them, find yourself in a perpetual state of astonishment? That’s how I’ve been feeling as I’ve gotten to know Eddy Webb (with a “y”), a self-described “writer, designer, producer, consultant, and pug enthusiast” with hearing loss.
I sent out a message into the chittering amalgamation of the internet called Twitter to find more stories about the amazing work being done in gaming by and for people with disabilities. Eddy was one of those that came through, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him in the midst of the impossible-to-schedule-anything holiday season.
Eddy is a full-time freelancer and very experienced RPG writer, best known for his work with Vampire: The Masquerade and Pugmire, a fantasy RPG where the primary characters are dogs. His portfolio includes all kinds of video and tabletop games, including Futurama Game of Drones, the disappointingly cancelled World of Darkness MMO, and creative director work with an interactive audio drama company called Earplay.
That’s right, Eddy is a person with hearing loss working on audio dramas. Why? He’s a talented and successful writer, of course. Weren’t you paying attention?
Eddy is familiar with the misconceptions regarding people with hearing loss, who are hard of hearing, or who live with deafness. Eddy explains that being hard of hearing is not a binary factor and that it isn’t just a matter of being able to hear quiet noises. Many forms of hearing loss cannot be supplemented by increasing the volume but can be instead influenced by the pitch or frequencies of the sounds being made.
“Cookie Bite” hearing loss is what Eddy says his condition is described as. Basically, he is able to hear the high and low frequencies of sound, but he has a much harder time detecting the middle frequencies. The “cookie bite” term comes from the U-shaped lines of a hearing curve in an audiogram, the graphical display of the audible threshold results from an audiometric exam, where the middle frequencies have lower success results than the end frequencies.
For Eddy’s hearing ability, normal human speech is pretty rough to hear, and he’s had a steady decline in his ability to hear it over the years. In 2018, he received a bone-anchored hearing aid which is a device that captures the sound and uses its physical attachments to the bone to generate the sounds in his head for his brain to interpret, as his ears are struggling to keep up from both his condition and a number of surgeries. Even with the hearing aid, he explains that being hard of hearing is a largely invisible disability, even being invisible to people experiencing some form of hearing loss.
While working on the World of Darkness MMO, Eddy had a head cold and just could not hear anybody one day. He became very aware of this in a meeting, where due to people talking in different directions, Eddy was unable to supplement his hearing with lip reading. Eddy says this was the first time that really made him realize how deaf he might be, and went to a doctor. The doctor found a cholesteatoma, a skin growth in the middle ear, that he had cleared. Upon returning to the office, Eddy had to let his colleagues know that he might look like he’s walking around drunk due to the shift in his equilibrium after the blockage was cleared. From there, though, Eddy says it really opened up the communication about his hearing ability and improved the working relationship between him and his colleagues.
In another office story, Eddy shared his loathing for the open-office plan that swept corporating by storm some years ago. In such a layout, Eddy tries to keep his back to a wall so he can see people coming. At some point due to the constantly shifting nature of games development and Agile team management styles, Eddy was not able to have his back to a wall. So, instead, he had a whiteboard that he wrote a note saying, “Don’t sneak up behind me, please.” While Eddy was on a trip, a colleague changes the sign to say “Don’t sneak up behind me because you’ll get a bonus to backstab.” Eddy thought it was hilarious, shared it online, and had his first encounter with the well-meaning internet that wanted to be angry on his behalf. While that reaction was upsetting, it did introduce him to more experiences with other disabilities.
By 2014, Eddy added disability advocacy to his work portfolio. Offering his own insights, and with some support of others, Eddy has been offering the kinds of design perspectives that The AbleGamers Charity offers at Accessible.Games, as well as some uniqueness for tabletop game systems and storytelling. For example, in many tabletop RPG systems, disabilities are represented through a “flaws” system, offering some amount of character stat points in exchange for taking a flaw, with more points given to what is perceived as a harsher flaw. In a more recent pirate-themed project, Eddy had drawn up specific optional mechanics for disability accommodations. He wants to tie these kinds of supporting mechanics to the popular stories many people already be familiar with, like Treasure Island, but may not specifically connect with disability representation.
Dystopia Rising: Evolution is a recently crowdfunded game that Eddy is working on, and he was able to specifically point out the importance of disability representation with the game team’s leads to bring more awareness to it. With their support, Eddy was able to get additional writers and consultants to explore some disability-related themes in a post-apocalyptic world, such as “How do I beat up someone with my mobility device?” This helped craft Rocket Rose, one of the pre-made characters introduced with one of Dystopia Rising: Evolution’s jumpstart adventures, who suffered a spinal injury in a Raider attack, but with help from her father, built a decked-out mobility rig that allows her to get around and run cargo in the game’s harsh setting.
Sometimes, you might hear about how representation is important, but until you find that one example that really hits the mark, you might not quite feel the depth of that importance. Eddy felt some of that, but someone had pointed him to a Marvel’s Hawkeye series done by Matt Fraction in which Hawkeye was dealing with some level of deafness. When reading it, Eddy found that representation. He explained that being able to visually see how some words in conversation were fuzzy and hard to read really resonated with his experience, saying “when you have hearing loss, you don’t get all of the context all of the time.” Eddy raved about a Netflix show, The Dragon Prince, which includes a badass deaf general and her interpreter as distinctly separate, but interlocked characters, saying that kind of dynamic isn’t really well represented outside of the show.
I asked Eddy if there’s anything else he’d like to share within this story, and it’s about being proud of who you are and sharing that with the world around you. He tries to share his hard of hearing experience with others, like having others experience the frustration that can come from playing games that use binaural or directional audio cues on mono sound settings to replicate what he deals with. Eddy knows from his own research and advocacy that hearing loss is extremely common, and not just in relation to age. Even still, hearing accessibility devices still seem to carry a sort of stigma that vision accessibility devices, like glasses, do not. Eddy says, “don’t be ashamed, don’t be afraid of it, don’t be embarrassed by it, it’s part of you. Own it and rock it.” I have to say, it’s a great statement, almost as if he writes for a living or something.
Kevin is a games & tech industry marketing nerd with an affinity for duct tape and playing an orc in every game he can. You absolutely should @ him on Twitter @norumu.