Diane Carr

Diane Carr is a Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, London, UK.
Contact information:
D.Carr at ioe.ac.uk

Ability, Disability and Dead Space

by Diane Carr


This paper focuses on representations of able bodies and disability within Dead Space. The method used is textual analysis. The inquiry is shaped by two essays in particular: Williams’s screen studies account of ‘body genres’ (1999) and Snyder and Mitchell’s disability studies extension of Williams’s work (2006). In her essay, Williams describes the pleasurably excessive and spectacular aspects of body genres. Three instances of ‘excess’ in Dead Space are used to structure the analysis. These are (1) the abject bodies of the game’s undead monsters, (2) the colourful nature of the protagonist’s deaths and the uncertainty of his existence, and (3) the extravagant amount of gore and blood on offer. Through textual analysis, it is found that Dead Space represents the idea of disability as threatening, and able-bodied identity as conditional and precarious. Locales that are culturally associated with positivism and corporeal assessment (clinical and medical facilities) are tainted; contaminated by the intrusions of uncontrolled, excessive and abject bodies. It is argued that these aspects of the game contribute to the generation of sensations associated with generic horror, including fear, anxiety and dread. At the same time, the game offers players the opportunity to display attributes that are culturally associated with able bodied status, including accuracy, precision and control.


Representation, ability, disability, horror, abjection, excess, bodies, the clinic.


Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores/2008) is a survival horror game. The game’s protagonist, Isaac Clarke, is able and yet unstable. Despite his high-tech prosthetic skin, he is in constant danger of going to pieces. The game features bodies that are marked as monstrous, distorted, capable, and imperiled. What Dead Space offers - in addition to compelling play - is an opportunity to explore the ways in which the idea of disability is used in horror games to generate generically appropriate sensations such as fear and dread. Dead Space combines representations of disability as threat, with depictions of able bodies, and opportunities to display and demonstrate ability. These are the issues explored in this paper [1].

Popular texts reflect the cultures they emerge from, and in turn become part of how identities and social groups are perceived, experienced and articulated (Dyer, 2002). Many action-adventure games feature representations of injury and monstrosity mixed with depictions of ability and augmentation. Ability in terms of skills acquisition has been discussed in the games and education literature (McClarty, Orr, Frey, Dolan, Vassileva and McVay, 2012). The links between ability and status in player culture have been explored (e.g. Chee, 2005; Taylor, 2003). However, there has been little or no game studies research focusing on ability and able bodies as representations. Literature on representations of disability within games also remains rare (Carr, 2009, 2013; Gibbons, 2013; Champlin, 2014; Ledder, in press 2015) [2]. Yet as disability theorists Snyder and Mitchell have pointed out, because “disabled people must negotiate a finite repertoire of social meanings […] there are significant stakes in the humanities-based analysis of disability” (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, pp 168-169). Disability theorists argue that “disability tends to be figured in cultural representations as an absolute state of otherness that is opposed to a standard, normative body” (Snyder, Brueggemann and Garland-Thomson, 2002, p. 2). From this perspective, “the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person” (Davis, 1995, p. 24). The humanities-based digital games analysis that is featured in this paper is informed by disability studies literature, particularly that which draws on literary and cultural theory in order to investigate the social construction of disability, and the ways in which disability as an idea functions relative to notions of the neutral, normal and able bodied (e.g. Thomson, 1997; Linton, 1998). More specifically, the analysis is shaped by Snyder and Mitchell’s disability studies adaptation (2006) of Linda Williams’ paper on cinematic body genres (1999).

Williams’ essay has already appeared in horror game analysis (see Carr, Campbell and Ellwood, 2006; Perron, 2009). In ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess’ (1999), Williams focuses on three film genres (horror, melodrama and porn) that share low cultural status due to their association with embodied sensation, that feature various forms of excess, and that use bodies to provoke feelings and physical responses in their audiences. Body genres feature “the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation” (Williams, 1999, p. 703), as well forms of ecstatic excess marked as “uncontrollable convulsion or spasm” (p. 703). For Williams, body genres combine visceral manipulation and repetition, and they thrive because they function as a form of cultural problem solving (p. 714). Popular genres are popular, because “they address persistent problems in our culture, in our sensualities, in our very identities” (Williams, 1999, p. 710).

In ‘Body Genres and Disability Sensations’ (2006, pp.156-181) disability theorists Snyder and Mitchell adapt Williams’ account of the ways in which female bodies are used in body genres, in order to study cinematic representations of disability. They find “a similar utility for explorations of disabled bodies as staple characteristics within these popular formulas” (Snyder and Mitchell 2006, p. 162). They argue that “body genres are so dependent on disability as a representational device […] that each formula can also be recognized by its repetitious reliance on particular kinds of disabled bodies to produce the desired sensational extremes” (p. 162). In generic horror, the authors propose, these bodies are monstrous and repellent, and they “serve to cement longstanding associations of stigma with bodily difference” (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, p. 168).

Using these resources it is possible to explore depictions of able bodies, abject bodies, excess, unease and anxiety in Dead Space. The paper begins with an account of the methods used and a description of Dead Space. The analysis itself is organized under three categories of excess (abject bodies, overkill and spillage). It is argued that Dead Space generates generically appropriate sensations by combining psychoanalytic problems of identity and origins, with culturally prevalent discourses of disability and ability.


Forms of textual analysis have been used to study digital games for more than a decade and when the topic is disability, textual methods are particularly appropriate. Textual analysis offers ethical advantages because it is a form of academic research that does not rely on recruiting human subjects, which is an issue because “one of the primary oppressions experienced by disabled people is that they are marked as perpetually available for all kinds of intrusions” in the name of research (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, p. 187). Furthermore, “since texts provide us access to perspectives that inevitably filter disability through the reigning ideologies of their day, their analysis proves tantamount to turning social beliefs into an object of investigation” (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, p. 201). Using textual analysis, it is possible to hold a mirror up to mainstream culture in order to better understand the ways in which said culture depends on, uses, and remains appalled and fascinated by the idea of disability [3]. Here, textual analysis is used to produce an interpretation of Dead Space by a culturally situated player-analyst (Aarseth, 2003; Carr, 2009).

The process of analysis involved fragmenting the game, and using these fragments to detect themes or threads. These threads were then followed back through the game as a whole [4]. To produce the analysis, Dead Space was played through once for pleasure. The game was then replayed, allowing for a more focused exploration of its rooms, objects, threats, obstacles, objectives, missions and characters. Notes were made and screenshots taken. These were used to identify threads running through the game (including gore, timing, medicine, bereavement, babies, work). A section of the game where these threads seemed to be particularly concentrated was then identified: Chapter 5, ‘Lethal Devotion’. This chapter was played though again while making more notes, and taking more screenshots. All the notes and screenshots were reviewed, combined with reflections on the experience of play, and considered in relation to Williams’ body genre essay, and Snyder and Mitchell’s disability studies adaptation of Williams’ work. The notion of ‘excess’ as described in Williams’ essay was then used as a framework to structure the analysis.

Williams’ essay brings together feminist film theory, theories of spectatorship, genre and temporality, and various psychoanalytic theories. Snyder and Mitchell adapt and discuss Williams’ work while referencing Foucault, other disability theorists, and disability documentary cinema. As this suggests, there will be a certain amount of theoretical pluralism at play in the analysis that follows [5].

Introducing Dead Space

Before moving into the analysis it would be helpful to provide a short description of the game. Dead Space is set on a marooned and apparently abandoned spacecraft, the Ishimura. The Ishimura is a mining ship engaged in a particularly destructive yet profitable form of resource extraction known as ‘planet cracking’. Setting and story-wise the game resembles science fiction films that incorporate elements of horror, including Alien (1979), The Thing (1982) and Event Horizon (1997). The playable protagonist, Isaac Clarke, is a taciturn engineer who progresses from one broken machine to the next attempting to repair the ship. Generally alone, Isaac receives video-link mission updates from his two anxious crewmates, Kendra and Hammond. Early in the game it is revealed that Isaac’s lover, Nicole (a senior medic stationed on the Ishimura), is missing along with the rest of the crew. Through logs and records, an account of recent, horrific events begins to emerge. Human colonists had unearthed an apparently alien artifact (the Marker) on a nearby planet. The artifact is implicated in the spread of a form of psychosis. When it was brought aboard the Ishimura, the contagion arrived too, with disastrous results for its human crew. Isaac’s efforts to repair the ship, find Nicole and save his crewmates are complicated by a demented medical scientist named Dr Mercer, and by the efforts of undead monsters known as Necromorphs [6].

The extraordinarily atmospheric Ishimura is divided into specialist zones linked by long, ill-lit corridors. Many of these zones reference bodies, medicine and technology. The structure of the ship itself references the body. Tasks set in the bowels of the ship involve ejecting waste matter through a circular exit. In the lung-like hydroponics area there are problems with respiration and toxicity. Isaac spends much of the game traveling down arterial corridors, cleansing the ship of numerous infected and infecting undead. He passes corporate propaganda and ‘health and safety’ notices. The Biological Prosthetics Center, for instance, welcomes employees with a promise to “keep you working” along with a notice reminding staff whose injuries are not yet stabilized to “proceed to hospital wing of medical deck”.

Figure 1. Anatomy. Dead Space screenshot

Like many survival horror games, Dead Space is composed of sequential chapters, each built around a mission that is broken down into a set of objectives. During a mission the player is presented with a site-specific puzzle that must be solved using Isaac’s capacities and tools in combination with any available resources (e.g. levers, keys, flammable canisters or oxygen dispensers). For example, making a necessary repair might first involve locating an access panel in order to restore gravity. Isaac’s abilities are repeatedly tested, demonstrated and performed (along with the player’s). Failure to act effectively results in Isaac’s physical damage or death, and the temporary removal of the capacity to act at all. While Isaac occasionally dies by misadventure or industrial accident, most of his deaths involve ambush by the undead Necromorphs. Isaac generally defeats Necromorphs using a combination of temporal manipulation (a stasis weapon) and ‘strategic dismemberment’.

Perron (2009a, p. 5) describes generic survival horror as “horror-based third-person action-adventure games” that incorporate various conventions from horror cinema, and that succeed critically and commercially when they evoke feelings such as discomfort, anxiety, fear and tension. In addition to being structured as an action adventure game, and functioning as survival horror, Dead Space is a science fiction. This is significant to Dead Space, and to discourses of disability, because science fiction involves the mapping of “social relations as they are constituted and changed by new technological modes of ‘being in the world’” (Sobchack, 1993, p. 255). As a science fiction, Dead Space depicts a particular social organization: it is set on a mining ship owned by a corporation. It features themes of knowledge and power, and it explores “the cultural attitudes and competencies” associated with technologies (Kuhn, 1999, p. 3). Science fiction content is common in games, and games themselves have a particular relationship to technology. Gaming technology has, for instance, been described as involving “seemingly perfected yet constantly perfectible machines” (Therrien, 2009, p. 27). A similar interest in perfectibility is present in Dead Space as upgradeable weapons, tools and armour. It is present in the player’s need to improve and progress, and reflected in Isaac’s role as engineer, finder and fixer.

As noted, Williams’s concept of excess - when a body on screen is “caught in the grip of intense sensation” or in “uncontrollable convulsion or spasm” (Williams, 1999, p. 703), has been used to frame the analysis that follows. There are times when the bodies in Dead Space are gripped, seized and convulsed, and it is feasible that these correspond to moments when its players might feel gripped, seized or otherwise “viscerally manipulated” (p 705). However, limited reference will be made to player experience as it lies largely outside the remit of textual analysis. The first part of the analysis that follows focuses on the excesses associated with the game’s monsters (“abject bodies”). The second part addresses Isaac’s vulnerability (“overkill”). In a third section, attention is turned to the Ishimura’s problems with mess, gore and filth (“spillage”).

Abject bodies

The Necromorphs ensure that Dead Space functions as horror. Some Necromorphs are relatively humanoid, whereas others mix human features with arachnid qualities. Some wear human faces, and these faces (while dead, in several senses) are frozen in screams or grimaces - expressions associated with extreme emotion or trauma. Necromorph bodies are assembled from the disparate parts of multiple dead humans. Some are eerily agile, others totter or stagger. Some are fixed to the Ishimura’s walls. The monsters roar and spasm while disgorging toxic liquids. They burst (and dispense numerous smaller monsters), or sigh and moan while leaking noxious fumes. If they touch Isaac, his body is jerked, seized, flung, penetrated and shaken.

Figure 2. Necromorph specimen. Dead Space screenshot

The Necromorphs are hardly straightforward depictions of disability, and yet the manner in which they function relative to Isaac, the deviance of their bodies, their association with medical research, and their spectacular ‘freakishness’ (Thomson, 1996) certainly evoke discourses of disability. As Snyder and Mitchell have explained: “Quite simply put: disabled bodies have been constructed cinematically and socially to function as delivery vehicles in the transfer of extreme sensation to audiences” (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, p. 162, emphasis in original).

What matters in horror, they go on to argue, is not the fact of bodies - or the fact of physical variability - as much as the “social investment in certain bodies’ presumed proximity to abjectness” (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, p. 163). Abjection (Kristeva, 1982) involves the feelings of revulsion (spasm, contraction) that are evoked by phenomena that threaten the boundaries that are necessary to a sense of self (e.g. inside/outside, self/other): “It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object” (Kristeva,1982, p. 4). The abject undermines and “disturbs identity, system, order”, it is associated with the crossing of “borders, positions, rules” and with the “in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 4).

In Dead Space the Necromorphs function as abject. They fuse themselves to Isaac’s body in various ways including chewing him, piercing him and infecting him. The Necromorphs are associated with forms of psychic intrusion, including the generation of hallucinations that blur the boundaries between life, death, past and present. By combining hostile alien sentience, with human body parts, they ignore any border between the human and the alien, and they over-ride the boundaries between individual human subjects by recycling flesh. As animated corpses, they are “death infecting life” and the “utmost of abjection” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 4). Their bodies mix grotesque swellings, or rapier like appendages, with bare, human feet. They are composed of reanimated, reassembled dead flesh, and yet they are capable of reproduction (dead bodies are fertilized or infected). The Necromorphs are simultaneously dead, fecund and murderous.

According to Snyder and Mitchell, proximity to or distance from the abject is indicated by a body’s capacity to perform according to culturally determined notions of propriety, and by “one’s ability to dissimulate actions or behaviors deemed aberrant and, thus, unrespectable” (2006, p. 163). What the Necromorphs make clear is that Isaac’s ability to avoid abject behaviors (loss of control, spasm, convulsion, leaking) is conditional, and it can be compromised. This precariousness will be further explored in the next section.


Isaac wears a space suit. The suit updates the player on Isaac’s health status and his available resources. It works as a second, thick skin. Functioning as armour and life support, it protects him from giant pincers, claws, teeth, tentacles, and various environmental hazards. The suit enables Isaac to walk, jump and breathe in space. Isaac is rewarded by new suits as he progresses. When the relevant schematic is located as a pick-up it can be downloaded at a store. When a new suit is purchased, there is a brief cut-scene during which Isaac steps into a changing room. The door shuts and seals behind him. When it reopens, Isaac emerges, upgraded. Each new suit is stronger and more protective, offering increased survivability and a more capacious inventory.

When Isaac’s suit is punctured or penetrated, he dies. He rarely just dies. His deaths often trigger short cut-scenes that elaborate on his demise, depicting drawn-out death throes, and providing gory details of the Necromorphs’ monstrous appetites. At times Isaac suffers multiple deaths-in-one: he gets stabbed, slashed and then suffocated, or beheaded and then chewed, and then violated. Thanks to this degree of overkill, Isaac’s deaths can be read as over-determined or excessive: as the symptom of a problem that infuses the text, but is not actually articulated. This problem is Isaac’s tendency to come apart or fall to bits. What this problem suggests is that while the obvious job of Isaac’s suit is to keep things out, its other significant function is to keep things in. Isaac’s suit contains his body and when it is breached, punctured or penetrated, Isaac’s body breaks, leaks or bursts [7].

Snyder and Mitchell propose that in body genres such as horror, disabled bodies are positioned as producers of trauma or as threats to “the integrity of the able body” (2006, p. 163). This integrity is precisely what Isaac’s suit is supposed to support. The potential loss of bodily cohesion and control is threatening, and does persist, thanks to “shared cultural scripts of disability as that which must be warded off at all costs” (2006, p. 163). For Snyder and Mitchell, horror generates sensation through spectacles of uncontrolled, excessive and abject bodies that are outside of respectability, and that illustrate the terms of acceptable physicality: “Bodies must remain within certain boundaries, and their ‘leakage’ beyond such parameters violates social expectations of propriety (i.e., the appropriate self-mastery of one’s bodily functions, fluids, and abilities)” (2006, p. 164). The authors discuss the representations of ability that circulate in culture, and “the fantasy of bodily control [that is] deeply seated in the desire for an impossible dominion over our own capacities” (2006, p. 163). Referencing Foucault, they point out that one of the perceived achievements of adulthood entails subjects becoming “responsible for policing their own bodily aesthetics, functions, and controls” (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, p. 163) [8].

Isaac’s suit is a prosthetic that enables his survival, and thus his visibility, at the same time that it renders his actual body invisible. Excess is expressed in the physicality of the monstrous. Excess is also present in Isaac’s myriad and multiple deaths, when the external, penetrative threat of the monstrous combines with the difficulty of containment posed by his own body [9].

In cinematic body genres, “fantasies of loss and dysfunction (maimed capacity) are made to destabilize the viewer’s own investments in ability” (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006, p. 165), but Dead Space is a game, and what horror games can do, of course, is to offer a context in which these fantasies of loss and dysfunction, and this destabilization, become constituents of play. Isaac’s capacity to act is conflated (visually, functionally and spatially) with the player’s capacity to act [10]. The player is invited to demonstrate the attributes associated with able bodies (control, responsiveness, accuracy, effectiveness and precision). The game offers its players the opportunity to perform ability within a fictional setting that is full of disturbing threats and losses that are culturally associated with disability.

The issue of ability will be further explored in the next section of this paper. First it is necessary to ask how Isaac’s tendency to fall to pieces coexists with the sinister call to “make us whole” or “make us whole again” that runs through Dead Space. This phrase is sprayed on walls, murmured by Isaac’s hallucinatory girlfriend Nicole, and muttered by the deranged and undead. Williams situates horror film within a broader category of filmic mode that incorporates spectacle and “stylistic and/or emotional excess” (1999, p. 703). She then associates this mode with feelings of melancholy, loss and regret. In Dead Space these emotions could be linked to Isaac’s ill-fated search for his lover Nicole. He also finds diary fragments and text logs documenting desperate attempts by Ishimura’s crew to locate their spouses. Various characters have hallucinations that feature dead relatives. Using psychoanalytic theories of fantasy, Williams connects such loss and belatedness to a “melancholic sense of the loss of origins” (p. 712) and the “quest to return and discover the origin of self” (p 713). In other words, she associates feelings such as melancholia and loss in body genres, with primal scene fantasies -- that is, with fantasies of birth and conception [11].

This is suggestive because Dead Space does incorporate primal scene imagery. As noted, when Isaac purchases a new suit, he is sealed in a separate space and then re-emerges with his boundaries reinforced. This is a beneficial, tidy, machine-based rebirth. Most of the birth and conception imagery in Dead Space is stranger and messier. Monsters burst and spawn. Dr Mercer makes repeated reference to “my children” when describing the Necromorphs (as when he declares that the future “belongs to the children. Be glad of the knowledge that your death...will bring their birth!”). At his death, he offers himself to that variety of Necromorph most associated with breeding. Isaac finds a room full of foetuses growing in glass vats. He finds a text log listing the names of newborns [12]. This interest in conception and origins is echoed in references to archaeology (the Marker) and religion (Unitology). It also suggests how the menacing offer to “make us whole” functions as abject. For Kristeva, the abject “confronts us [...] within our personal archaeology, with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity [...] a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 13, emphasis in the original) [13].

Isaac does have problems maintaining a whole, able and agentic body. Yet, at the same time, the call to “make us whole” is threatening, because it hints at an abject, obliterating assimilation that would render Isaac’s able-bodied masculinity, his agency and his individuality moot.


In this final section, attention is turned to another form of spectacular excess in Dead Space, that of blood, gore and gunk. This spillage is considered in terms of location, especially its accumulation in (and contaminating of) clinical and medical areas. This contamination will be considered in relation to the issues raised thus far, including the representation of disability as threat, and of ability as a provisional and vulnerable state. The relationship between these representations, and the pleasures offered by the game’s ludic structures will then be discussed.

A remarkable amount of gore is smeared across the Ishimura’s walls and piled in its hallways. It is a mix of human blood, human bodies, and bits of human bodies. It is concentrated in areas where the ship’s crew had sought aid. Blood trails in hallways lead to clinics. There is evidence that bodies have convulsed, popped, splashed and fragmented in the vicinity. Dead Space is littered with bio-waste bins, blood soaked gurneys, anatomy posters (including one of a pregnant woman), anatomical models and flickering x-rays (of adults and infants). This gory chaos contrasts against the surviving signs of clinical order and routine: “Please proceed to waiting room. Please speak to a clinic technician before taking a seat”. In addition to waiting rooms and signage (“Welcome to the UGS Ishimura clinic: Healing away from home”), Isaac encounters medical logs and patient observation records, therapeutic spaces, and evidence of prosthetic, diagnostic and cryogenic technologies.

At the beginning of Chapter 5 (‘Lethal Devotion’), Kendra advises Isaac that the atmosphere aboard the Ishimura is becoming increasingly contaminated, and that targeting the giant Necromorph responsible will entail mixing a compound that contains an alien DNA sample. The necessary sample is in Dr Mercer’s office. To access Mercer’s office, Isaac enters the Ishimura’s hospital zone. He crosses an emergency room, triggers a Necromorph ambush (they launch from air vents and drop from the ceiling), and escapes down ‘ER Hallway B’ where he passes more blood-splattered gurneys and a rare human survivor. Traumatized and covered with blood, she is oblivious to him. Passing through an intensive care unit, Isaac reaches Dr Mercer’s darkened office. The walls and floors are covered with graffiti (English and alien). The walls are lined with rows of specimen jars containing human heads. Ragged strips of red cloth hang from the ceiling. As the decor indicates, Dr Mercer has acted as a conduit for the alien contagion that emanated from the nearby mining colony. He has experimented on and infected fellow humans, and created a particularly troublesome strain of Necromorph.

Figure 3. “Where would you be without science?” Dead Space screenshot

Williams has argued that body genres become popular and persist because they have salience: they offer a form of problem solving and the opportunity to revisit problems of identity. What I want to consider, in light of Williams’ assertion, is the ways in which the setting and the fictional aspects of Dead Space combine with its more specifically ludic aspects. In the West, the clinic is culturally associated with a particular kind of gaze, with positivism and empiricism, measurement, and the generation of evidence pertaining to bodies (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006). In Dead Space the clinic is tainted. It is contaminated in the sense that it is covered with gore, and because it has been compromised by the intrusions of an abject other. Meanwhile, Isaac’s body and capacities are tested and noticed (Kendra: “For what it’s worth, you did a great job, Isaac”), and the player’s skills are honed and demonstrated. Dead Space confronts players with visions of abject disability, while engaging them in affirmations of ability.

To discuss the game’s depictions of a contaminated clinic, the construction of ability as measurable and demonstrable in Dead Space, and the implications for subjectivity it would be helpful to turn to Foucault. Game theorists have used Foucault’s work on bodies and power to explore discipline and productivity in games (see Silverman and Simon, 2009; Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter, 2009). Foucault has written about the historical decline of sovereign power in the West (with its power over death) and the rise of government and institutional powers directed at the “administration of bodies and the calculated management of life” (Foucault, 1978, p. 140). This power was organized around “two poles” (p. 139). The first of these “Centred on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls” (Foucault, 1977, p. 139). The second focused on “the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary” (Foucault, 1977, p 139).

It is not difficult to map these onto Dead Space: there is the directing of Isaac and the management of his capacities, the various forms of control that are involved in play, the need to school the body of the avatar, and opportunities to prove the accuracy of the player. The management of life and populations is reminiscent of Isaac’s health (constructed as a quantifiable phenomenon) as well as the game’s many references to reproduction, childbirth and mortality, the future of humanity, and threats to the species.

This analysis suggests that the idea of the clinic (as a perspective, as a site, as an epistemology) becomes one of the things that is played with in Dead Space [14]. What also matters here is the acknowledged significance of Foucault’s work on bodies and power, to disability studies. For Foucault, “A normalizing society is the historical outcome of a technology of power centered on life” (1978, p. 144) and, as disability theorists have made clear, a normalizing society is one that equates anomaly with threat, and which acts to manage this perceived threat by segregating and eliminating social practices that are “based in part on the interpretation of physical disability as not only anomalous but dangerous, indeed contaminating, like dirt” (Thomson, 1997, p. 36).


There is a convention that persists in literature on generic horror that involves regarding monsters as metaphors or allegories while overlooking their bodies (Smith, 2011). While monsters have been shrouded by metaphor, ability in games is generally taken literally. It hides in plain sight when it comes to critique or reflection. Approaching ability as a representation makes it possible to highlight and denaturalize the repeated skills assessment that is central to many digital games. Ability (constructed as something that can be acquired, performed and proven) is such a given within games that its function in terms of the fantasies that games offer has rarely been questioned.

At the centre of Dead Space is an able male body that has problems with permeability and self-containment. This able body is risked in proximity to a location (the clinic) that is culturally associated with the production of evidence relating to the body. Dead Space is not alone in being interested in the relationship between bodies, control and the clinic. Consider, for instance, the significance of the clinic and the consequences of its corruption by corporate interests in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011), or recall Joel’s choice, the function of zombies, and the demise or death of the clinic in The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013).

Disability theorists have noted the extent to which “the physically disabled body becomes a repository for social anxieties about such troubling concerns as vulnerability, control, and identity” (Thomson, 1997, p. 6). In Dead Space, the contamination of the clinic is equated with extinction, disability is depicted as threatening and contaminating, and able-bodied status is represented as precarious, temporary and provisional. At the same time, the game invents measures of ability, and invites the affirmation of ability through play. This play between disability and ability is common in certain games genres, including survival horror, but it has rarely been discussed within game studies.


This research was undertaken with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Portions of this analysis were discussed at events including the Future Reality of Gaming Conference, Vienna, September 2013 (Carr, 2013) and at the Critical Evaluation of Game Studies, University of Tampere, April 2014. Thanks to my colleagues Alison Gazzard and Andrew Burn for their feedback on draft versions of this paper.


1. This research was undertaken as part of an AHRC project that examined representations of disability in games, particularly games featuring either the undead or forms of human augmentation. Eight games were played in full on the PS3. Dead Space was one of the richest in terms of the project’s themes, and one of the most enjoyable to play. Dead Space was a commercial and critical success, it spawned a franchise, and it still appears on lists of the ‘scariest games ever’.

2. For resources on games and disability that addresses the topic of accessibility, go to http://igda-gasig.org/. This paper does not discuss questions of accessibility, although accessibility features made the work possible. There is a substantial amount of research on ‘disability and games’ within technology and education fields that uses a medical model of disability (i.e. that conceptualizes disability as an individual deficit that calls for treatment or compensation). It would be difficult to reconcile this literature, with the disability studies literature generated by theorists who have rejected the medical model in favor of a social or cultural model of disability. In her introduction to Disability in Science Fiction, Allan explains that by contesting and rejecting medical framings of disability, disability theorists have sought “to remove the socially constructed aura of deficiency and deviancy from the disabled body” (Allan, 2013, p. 5). For an account of the ways in which the social model of disability differs from the medical model of disability, see Linton (1998). For an account of the ways in which the cultural model of disability extends and adapts the social model of disability (by re-engaging with issues of embodied experience, for instance) see Snyder and Mitchell (2006, pp 5-11). For a detailed account of the function of figures of otherness in relation to the neutralizing of the ‘normate’, see Thomson (1997).

3. The politics of disability and research practice are discussed in Linton’s Claiming Disability (1998, Chapter 4).

4. Because these threads are followed back through the game as a whole, structural features are incorporated into this textual analysis.

5. As this indicates, there are references in the material to both psychoanalytic and discursive theories of identity. To avoid these collapsing together, when appropriate, the term ‘identity’ will be used in relation to the former, and ‘subjectivity’ in relation to the latter. The term ‘agency’ is used in a vernacular sense in reference to both Isaac’s capacity to act, and the player’s capacity to act.

6. See Smith (2012) for an analysis of ‘Disability in Mad Doctor Films’.

7. It may be worth exploring these points further with reference to the hyper-masculine armour worn by some avatars, and players’ recognition of the comic aspects of such over-compensation.

8. Snyder and Mitchell also cite Iris Marion Young’s work on the difficulties of reconciling professional identity with physical variability. Young explores bodily discipline and the performance of professional self while making reference to 19th century scientific racism, notions of decorum, and “behavioral norms of respectability” (Young, 1990, p. 136). As this suggests, discourses of disability and ability connect with other aspects of subjectivity including ethnicity and gender. This is where this analysis opens to questions of intersectionality, which could be further explored with reference to Thomson’s work in Extraordinary Bodies (1997).

9. It would be reductive to view death in Dead Space purely as a penalty. Players create and share montages of Dead Space deaths online, indicating that the sheer variety of his deaths is appreciated. Note that his dependence on a prosthetic does not mark Isaac as disabled, because he operates in a context where this dependence is framed as ‘human’.

10. For more on the relationship between horror film and horror games, and shifts between control, and loss of control, see Krzywinska (2002).

11. For an account of primal scene imagery, maternity and abjection in the Alien series, see Constable (1999).

12. There are further references to birth and conception in Dead Space. For instance, one variety of Necromorph has arms reaching out from its lower torso (see the image of Isaac and the relatively safe frozen Necromorph specimen). It is not clear if this is because it nests one dead, grown human body inside another, or if lots of the Ishimura’s crew were pregnant when the undead contagion spread. There are Necromorphs that use infant bodies (with baby hands and feet). A swollen, spawning variety of Necromorphs are referred to as ‘pregnants’ in some online guides to DS lore. Isaac’s crewmate Hammond ejects an escape pod containing a Necromorph. The tiny pod enters a large approaching ship (the Valor). The Valor quickly succumbs to the contagion, and then veers into and penetrates the Ishimura.

13. It is arguable that the feminine is a problem throughout Dead Space, given that Kendra manipulates and then betrays Isaac, and that his eventual reunion with Nicole appears to be fatal. However, not all primal scenes are marked as feminine in the Dead Space universe. In the Dead Space sequels the call to “make us whole” is linked with cataclysmic ‘convergence events’, where monstrous, ovoid male entities (‘Brother Moons’) vacuum tiny figures off the surface of the planet.

14. Sociology of education literature suggest that the ideology of the clinic is disseminated, reified and naturalized through forms of education policy and practice, and that “the exercise of power only remains tolerable by hiding itself within the everyday, the mundane and the intimate” (Ball, 2013, p. 145). The logic of the clinic infuses discourses of status, value, worthiness, entitlement, productivity, adulthood and autonomy -- all of which feed into the “ideology of ability” (Siebers, 2009).


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EA Redwood Shores (2008) Dead Space [PS3] Publ. Electronic Arts

Eidos Montreal (2011) Deus Ex: Human Revolution [PS3] Publ. Square Enix.

Naughty Dog (2013) The Last Of Us [PS3] Publ. Sony Computer Entertainment.

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