Danielle Burrell-Kim

Danielle Burrell-Kim is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia. With a background in linguistics, her research largely focuses on language ideologies and representation in video games and higher education.

Contact information:
danielle.kim at ubc.ca

“Stuttering Matt”: Linguistic ableism and the mockery of speech impediments in video games

by Danielle Burrell-Kim


Language ideology and the representation of language in videogames has been largely neglected in the field of game studies; only recently have researchers begun to examine this crucial topic more. Recent studies (see Burrell-Kim, 2020a; Ensslin, 2010; Ensslin 2011; Goorimoorthee, Csipo, Carleton & Ensslin, 2019; Tarnarutckaia & Ensslin, 2019) have found that language and language users are often represented through stereotypes built on oppressive language ideologies that often result in real-world discrimination (Gee, 2015; Lippi-Green, 2012; MacSwan, 2018). Ableism has been a significant and growing research topic in game studies (e.g., Carr, 2014; Jerreat-Poole, 2020). Yet, no studies currently exist examining inequitable representations of language-related disabilities and speech impediments, which I will refer to as linguistic ableism. In real-life interactions and mainstream media, people with speech impediments are routinely misrepresented and discriminated against (Dolmage, 2018; Gayoso, 2018; Johnson, 2008; St Pierre, 2016). Thus, this study aims to explore how linguistic ableism occurs in mainstream roleplaying video games through the representation of speech impediments in Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Project Red, 2015), Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 2009), Dragon Age II (Bioware, 2011), Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare, 2014), and Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Project Red, 2020). This study utilizes multimodal, medium-specific discourse analysis (Ensslin & Balterio, 2019; Hawreliak, 2018; Pérez-Latorre, Oliva & Besalú, 2017) to analyze video clips of characters with speech impediments collected from the selected games. A majority of the encounters with linguistic ableism indicate that speech impediments are most often used to signal a lack of intelligence in characters or are framed as a source of humor for players through mockery. As the first empirical examination of linguistic ableism in videogames, this study aims to both raise awareness of the ways in which language is often utilized for discrimination in videogame representation and highlight possibilities for the normalization of diverse voices in videogames.

Keywords: Language ideology, discourse analysis, ableism, speech impediments, sociolinguistics



Language ideology and the representation of language in videogames has been largely neglected in the field of game studies; only recently have researchers begun to examine this crucial topic more. Recent studies (see Burrell-Kim, 2020a; Ensslin, 2010; Ensslin 2011; Goorimoorthee, Csipo, Carleton & Ensslin, 2019; Tarnarutckaia & Esslin, 2019) have found that language and language users are often represented through stereotypes built on oppressive language ideologies that can result in real-world discrimination (Gee, 2015; Lippi-Green, 2012; MacSwan, 2018). Ableism has been a significant and growing research topic in game studies (e.g., Carr, 2014; Jerreat-Poole, 2020). Yet, no studies currently exist examining inequitable representations of language-related disabilities and speech impediments, which I will refer to as linguistic ableism. Ableism refers to the discriminatory ideology, represented implicitly or explicitly, that able-bodied people are superior to those with disabilities (Ellis & Goggin, 2015). This intersects with language ideologies, the judgement of language and language users embedded with cultural, moral and political values. Language ideologies extend to beliefs regarding individuals’ identities and worth based on their use of language (Lippi-Green, 2012; Woolard & Schieffelin, 1994), resulting in oppressive representations and discrimination of those with speech impediments -- also referred to as speech differences, such as muteness, stuttering, and lisps.

By definition, a speech impediment is a speech difference which impacts a person’s ability to communicate. Speech impediments vary in severity; some speakers may be completely unable to control their speech difference while others may hide or mask their speech impediment through focused effort and speech therapy (Gayoso, 2018). The effects of speech impediments may also vary within time and space. For many, stress and anxiety may trigger speech impediments such as stammering and turrets to become more pronounced (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.; Gayoso, 2018). It is important to emphasize that speech impediments do not inherently impact intellectual capability, yet discriminatory representations often frame people with speech differences as less capable of intellectual thought. Speech impediments may occur due to a variety of factors, including genetic conditions such as cleidocranial dysplasia (John Hopkins Medicine, n.d.), neurological conditions like apraxia of speech (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.) and damage to the language center of the brain as in Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia (Lightbown & Spada, 2013).

In physical interactions and mainstream media, people with speech impediments are routinely discriminated against and misrepresented (Dolmage, 2018; Gayoso, 2018; Johnson, 2008; St. Pierre, 2016). Most often, media does not represent speech impediments and other disabilities (Carr, 2020; Jerreat-Poole, 2020). However, misrepresentation can be as damaging as a lack of representation. On the importance of representation, Taylor (1994) argues that identity is, in part, constructed by recognition, misrecognition, or the lack of recognition. From this perspective, identity is partially co-constructed, and misrecognition or a lack of recognition of one’s identity may negatively impact an individual’s perception of themselves. Media is only one of the texts and interactions through which co-construction occurs, and it may be a site of contestation as well as a template for imagined selves and possibilities. Thus, recognition and misrecognition play vital roles in how people adopt or reject inequitable ideologies regarding their own identities (Taylor, 1994), and, ultimately, people either resist or participate in their own oppression (Fairclough, 1989; Garnar, 2006).

In her foundational work on representation in video games, Shaw (2014) expands on the significance of representation. Shaw (2014) asserts that the simple act of representation may not be as significant as the function of said representation. The act of identifying with game characters is far more complex than gravitating toward a surface level, demographic similarity with players or viewing misrecognition as a mirror of players’ identities. Shaw (2014) states:

The way in which representation matters exists, like identity and identification, at the nexus of several factors, including individual players’/viewers’ reasons for using a text, how individual players/viewers understand their identities, how and if a representation is made relevant in a given text, the context in which texts are consumed, and the social sphere in which those texts are created and consumed. (p. 198)

Thus, representation is complex, may become more or less significant through time and space, and has much more to do with the social world than just identification. Shaw (2014) calls for diversity throughout media as a central goal of representation work, and disability and speech impediments are a crucial piece of that diversity. While representation may not be significant to everyone who plays a particular game, common portrayals of disabled bodies as monstrous further cement damaging stereotypes and stigma within society (Snyder & Mitchell, 2006). Conversely, the accurate and respectful representation of speech impediments and other disabilities in video games can act counter-hegemonically. The diversification of representation also gives opportunities for people with disabilities to find recognition in characters; this recognition may be found in people “like” themselves as well as possibilities for imagined selves and communities. This is particularly significant for those who do not have strong connections within the disability community (Gwaltney, 2015).

Thus, this study aims to explore how linguistic ableism occurs in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Project Red, 2015), Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018), Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Project Red, 2020), and the Dragon Age series: Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 2009), Dragon Age II (BioWare, 2011), and Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare, 2014). In this study, I ask: how are speech impediments represented in mainstream video games? This includes sub-questions such as 1) How, if at all, are speech impediments normalized? 2) How realistic are the speech impediments shown in video games? And 3) Are characters with speech impediments Othered and if so, how? The purpose of this study is to gain insight into some of the patterns of the (mis)representation of linguistic differences in roleplaying games that might be used in future studies approaching this vanguard topic.

Theoretical Framework

Critical disability theory

In order to examine linguistic ableism, I turn to critical disability theory. Through this lens, disability is not simply a state of existence but a social construct. Davis (1995) states:

Disability is not an object -- a woman with a cane -- but a social process that intimately involves everyone who has a body and lives in the world of the senses. Just as conceptualization of race, class, and gender shapes the lives of those who are not Black, poor, or female, so the concept of disability regulates the bodies of those who are ‘normal’ (p. 2).

Ellis and Goggin (2015) expand on this to describe the bodily experience as impairment but disability as a socially constructed experience of “unnecessary barriers, exclusion and discrimination,” and thus one is “disabled or enabled by social arrangements” (p. 1).

Ableism takes place through a wide range of expressions, from the purposely malicious to the well-intentioned. Nario-Redmond, Kemerling and Silverman (2019) refer to three forms of ablism: hostile, ambivalent and benevolent. Hostile ableism may take place through purposeful discrimination, denial of accommodations, avoidance and disdain, while benevolent ableism may “manifest as pity, paternalistic protection, and unprovoked praise” (Nario-Redmond, Kemerling & Silverman, 2019, p. 729). Ambivalent ableism, however, occurs through a combination of both positive and negative ideologies regarding disability. Individuals’ behavior may vary depending on the disability, how the individual with the disability matches or diverges from stereotypes, and the context in which they are behaving. This often results in microaggressions or small acts of ableism and Othering (Nario-Redmond, Kemerling & Silverman, 2019).

Language Ideology

Language ideologies refer to beliefs about language and language users that result in more or less equitable outcomes. Oppressive language ideologies, sometimes referred to as linguicism, are beliefs that are rarely based on linguistic facts or empirical evidence and often further disadvantage already marginalized people. For example, common attitudes toward African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in North America reflect an oppressive standardized language ideology which frames one variety of English as the superior norm. Standardized language ideology is built on the idea that there is one superior variety or dialect of English, and “good” or “proper” speakers of English do not make mistakes, break grammatical rules, or deviate from the standardized variety (Bucholtz, 2010; Curzan, 2014; Davila, 2018). It is crucial to understand, however, that there is no one standard variety of any language. Linguists have long known that all languages and language varieties are equally complex and valuable; they change over time and space, and one speaker adjusts their speech based on their contexts. Furthermore, no one produces speech and writing without deviating from prescriptive grammatical rules (Curzan, 2014; Lippi-Green, 2012). Yet, other varieties of English that are not considered standard, like AAVE, are framed as improper, ungrammatical, and incapable of communicating intelligent thoughts within formal institutions (Gee, 2015; Lippi-Green, 2012; Bucholtz, 2010). Language ideologies are deeply intertwined with issues such as race, class, gender, sexuality and ability. In North American contexts, standardized English, as it is idealized, most closely resembles English spoken by upper-class -- white people (Bucholtz, 2010; Gee, 2015). As a result, people face discrimination based on their language use or perceived language use (e.g., Burrell-Kim, 2020b; De Costa, 2016; Séror, 2008), as some people may be perceived as deviating from the standardized norm due to their race, speech differences, or other factors (Flores & Rosa, 2015). In the context of video game culture, players may be perceived as belonging, or not, within the gaming community on the basis of perceived race, gender and sexuality through judgements about players’ voice chat communications in co-op games (Grey, 2014).

Linguistic Ableism

Language ideologies and ableism intersect, forming ideologies regarding speech impediments or disabilities which impact communication. I will refer to this as linguistic ablism. Through this lens, language is viewed as “right” or “wrong,” “proper” or “improper” and those who are perceived as having a speech difference are often degraded. Individuals, institutions, and/or societies as a whole may assign concepts like intelligence, worth, contribution to society and personality to those with speech differences (Nario-Redmond, Kemerling & Silverman, 2019). These ideologies and perceptions are most often based on misinformation and stereotypes about speech differences and language. Thus, factors of ableism and linguicism intertwine; just as raciolinguistic ideologies are a category of language ideologies concerned with the stigmatization of racialized people’s language practices (see Rosa & Flores, 2015), linguistic ableism can be understood as a form of linguicism built on the stigmatization of those who are perceived as having speech impediments. Ableism may be prompted by the act of speech, or lack thereof, and specific stereotypes, ideologies and forms of discrimination may arise with a specific connection to language.

Related Literature

Disability in Video Games

Critical scholars within game studies as well as other fields have examined the representation of disability in media. Most often, disability is excluded from video games. Futuristic games, specifically, often depict semi-utopic worlds in which everyone is able-bodied. These games rarely state whether disability has been cured or the proposed ideal future is simply one without people with disabilities (Carr, 2020; Kafer, 2013).

Overall, when disability is included in video games, it is rarely as a positive or realistic act of inclusion. As Snyder, Brueggemann and Garland-Thomson (2002) state, “disability tends to be figured in cultural representations as an absolute state of Otherness that is opposed to a standard, normative body” (p. 2). Life is Strange (Deck Nine, 2015), for example, features an antagonist, Nathan Prescott, who becomes increasingly violent until he murders someone. It is later revealed that he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Parlock (2020) explains that Nathan’s mental health is not used as a mechanism to evoke empathy from players but rather to cement his identity as dangerous and unhinged.

Disability is often used in horror games and mainstream popular culture to signify monstrous qualities and evoke fear in viewers. For example, Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores, 2008), a survival horror game set in space, features a protagonist who must work his way through an abandoned and broken space station infested with creatures which were once human, which, due to an infection, changed into gory beings called necromorphs. While most necromorphs are humanoid, many of them are missing limbs, which causes them to limp or stagger, while others have alien body parts or multiple limbs. Carr (2014) explains that “The Necromorphs are hardly straightforward depictions of disability, and yet the manner in which they function relative to the player character (PC), the deviance of their bodies, their association with medical research, and their spectacular ‘freakishness’ (Thomson, 1996) certainly evoke discourses of disability” (para. 15). Horror games such as Dead Space, Silent Hill (Team Silent, 1999), and the ever-popular zombie genres (see Wind, 2016) rely on ableist associations of the disabled body with death and “life’s frailties and the body’s vulnerability to decline, dismemberment, and deterioration” (Nario-Redmond, Kimerling & Silverman, 2019, p. 728). Such games then utilize abject bodies to invoke fear of disability and frame the disabled body as grotesque and inhuman, warranting fear and avoidance.

However, it is worth mentioning that positive and subversive representations of disability also exist in video games. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software, 2012) includes two disabled characters. The first is T.K. Baha who is blind. His blindness does not impact his ability to survive in the post-apocalyptic, extremely dangerous borderlands, and he subverts ableism and pity through humor. Sir Alistair Hammerlock, a character who has lost his arm, leg, and eye in hunting incidents, plays a much larger role in Borderlands 2 and 3; as a Black, disabled, gay man, Hammerlock presents an example of positive representation of intersectional identities. He is a highly successful and respected hunter. The player interacts with him throughout a series of quests which develop Hammerlock’s personality and background (Parlock, 2020). These quests include positive and negative experiences, such as his experience with homophobia from his family and ultimately the player’s role in celebrating his wedding. Hammerlock, therefore, is presented as someone who is not defined or limited by his identity or disability while offering the player some critical perspectives on the discrimination he has faced.

Speech Impediments in Popular Media

To examine representations of speech impediments, I turn to film and popular media, as game scholars have never addressed the topic of speech impediments in video games to my knowledge. While the narrative of film differs greatly from the interactive, ludonarrative structure of games (Toh, 2018), film and other media have set examples of common tropes and ideologies toward speech impediments over a longer time period.

Gayoso (2018) identifies three indicators of a positive representation of speech impediments in media through which normalization occurs:

  1. the character is shown as respected and unaffected by their speech impediment
  2. they are not silenced, or their ideas and communication are not devalued
  3. they are not cured as a solution to a “problem”

Using these criteria, Gayoso (2018) examines fifteen characters with stutters from film, novels, television shows and comics across different time periods. A large number of these representations feature negative portrayals, such as Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Columbus, 2001), who fakes a stutter to appear “weak and harmless” (Gayoso, 2018, p. 30). However, Gayoso (2018) also cites positive portrayals in media. Unlike the horror games discussed above, the horror movie IT (Muschietti, 2017) features a main character, Bill Denbrough, who has a stutter that is not mocked, silenced, disrespected or framed as a defect he must fix (Gayoso, 2018). It is worth noting that Bill is played by an actor (Jaeden Martell) who does not have a stutter. While the representation may be positive, this is reminiscent of the continuous issue within the film industry of able-bodied actors being hired to play disabled people over people with those very disabilities. Similarly, the game industry often hires English speakers to imitate non-English accents (Ensslin, 2011). Aside from inequitable hiring practices, actors imitating speech differences they do not have brings into question the actual authenticity of the representation within the film.

Nevertheless, more positive representations of speech impediments are starting to become more common. Stranger Things (The Duffer Brothers et al., 2016-2020), for example, features a main character (Dustin), played by Gaten Matarazzo, who has cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic condition which impacts the development of bones and teeth (John Hopkins Medicine, n.d). As a result, Dustin’s speech is impacted. Yet, the majority of comments about this within the show are casual and overall supportive remarks from Dustin’s friends.

Data Collection

This media analysis presents data from a larger project in which I examined scenes with characters with speech impediments in the Dragon Age series, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Cyberpunk 2077. It is worth noting that Cyberpunk 2077 is created by the same company as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. However, as discussed in the findings section, the framing of and reason for the inclusion of speech differences in the two games are vastly different. I have made the decision to include multiple games under the same company as well as the small number of games in this study as, broadly speaking, speech impediments are rarely included in video games.

The selection of video games is inevitably somewhat haphazard, as no database or resources exist to identify which games have characters with speech differences in them. I was limited to games I already knew would have characters with speech impediments in them, which I mainly identified through referrals from colleagues and exploration in my own play. In a less systematic approach, and only briefly mentioned in this article, I have continuously collected data through video captures and screenshots of instances of language ideology and linguistic ableism in every game I have played casually over the past four years (a majority of which were open-world RPGs and turn-based RPGs). Even then, only two additional games provided examples of speech differences: The Sinking City (Frogwares, 2019) and Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous (Owlcat Games, 2021). Including these two additions, I identified a total of nine characters with speech impediments (or imitating a speech impediment), as listed below.




Dragon Age (Origins and II- mentioned in Inquisition)


Dragon Age: Origins

The Silent Sisters

Dragon Age: Origins


The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt


Cyberpunk 2077

Lizzy Wizzy



Red Dead Redemption 2

Arthur Morgan, pretending to be ‘Fenton’

Red Dead Redemption 2

Clive Davis

The Sinking City

Unnamed NPC

Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous





However, this article does not seek to be comprehensive in its analysis of linguistic ablism, but rather to highlight significant and widely viewed instances. Thus, when I selected the excerpts to feature in this article, encounters with the NPCs had to be long enough to illustrate underlying ideologies. I also aimed to emphasize the games that would be widely played and influential in their genre; this led me to focus on mainstream gaming companies. I have removed The Sinking City and Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous from my analysis for these reasons. Each of the five remaining games are AAA RPGs, most of which have over 100 hours of gameplay. As of June 2023, Dragon Age: Origins, II, and Inquisition have sold roughly 3.2 million, 2 million, and 5 million copies respectively (Radić, 2021), Cyberpunk 2077 has sold 20 million copies (Clement, 2022), and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Red Dead Redemption 2 have both sold over 50 million copies worldwide (Co, 2023). Each game is widely acclaimed by critics and players alike, earning game of the year awards for Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Additionally, as AAA RPGs, these games are well funded, immersive experiences. In Shaw’s (2014) discussion of the function of representation, she highlights how representation may become more significant to players when characters, backstories and narrative are more central to the game. All of these representational modes are central features of RPGs.

I played each game to completion at least once, engaging in reflexive play and taking screen capture videos and/or screenshots of any incidents relating to language ideologies, including speech impediments and linguistic ableism. It is worth noting, while I analyzed these games systematically, completing every quest, reading every artifact and talking to every non-player character (NPC) I could find, it is still possible that NPCs, hidden quests, character dependent dialogue and other interactions may be missed due to the expansive nature of choice-based open-world RPGs. Thus, there may be some instances of linguistic ableism that I overlooked or did not discover. The data collection process resulted in one screenshot and fourteen videos portraying every unique interaction the player character had with the listed characters above. The videos ranged in length between thirty seconds and ten minutes. The Dragon Age series had the most characters and clips of speech differences out of all the games, with a total of six videos and one screenshot; however, Red Dead Redemption 2 displayed the longest uninterrupted focus on a character with a speech impediment, at ten minutes long.

Data Analysis

I coded each video using inductive coding, marking emerging themes such as mockery, humor, accuracy and normalization. Then, I used medium-specific multimodal discourse analysis (DA) to subsequently analyze the data. DA refers to a method of analysis which regards meaning as socially, collaboratively established and contextualized through the various discourses and power imbalances at play in the social world. DA works to bring attention to linguistic details in relation to texts’ sociopolitical contexts (Fairclough, 1989; Gee, 2014; Kress, 2010; Pérez-Latorre, Oliva & Besalú, 2017). Multimodal DA considers multiple modes of communication, or socially and culturally shaped ways of meaning-making, such as image, audio, gesture, writing, speaking and/or 3D objects (Kress, 2010; Toh, 2018). Video games utilize a large range of modes, including spoken and written language as well as visual, audio and procedural modes, within an interactive environment and flexible narrative. While the majority of this analysis focuses on spoken and linguistic modes of communication, I analyzed visual and procedural modes as well.

Open world RPGs such as the ones in this study also provide the player with a large range of possible actions; the player can traverse large environments and choose anything from what they wear, to whom they speak with, to what dialogue options they select and to what instrumental decisions will shape the entire game’s world state. In addition to the visual grammar of games (see Ensslin, 2012), medium-specific DA must also include immersion, interaction, interface, procedures, rules, haptic interaction and other semiotic modes. One way of doing so is by analyzing the procedural rhetoric, which refers to the rules and actions available to and required of players (Bogost, 2011). Hawreliak (2019) explains that procedural rhetoric in games may include the actions required of characters to solve problems and navigate the world, as well as the actions which receive reward or demerit. Through these actions, games carry and communicate ideologies and discourses to players and viewers.

Lastly, Hammar, Beltran, Walton and Turkington (2018) describe RPG games as “socio-technical systems of play” (p. 448); the constructed world of each game, including the coding, game design and possible player actions, combine with the real-world sociopolitical decisions surrounding the game. Such decisions include who is hired as voice actors, which games are published, or which game advertisements receive more attention. Thus, in order to analyze power and ideologies in video games, researchers must consider both real-world and game-world sociopolitical structures.


In this section, I will discuss my findings by largely focusing on examples from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Dragon Age series that I feel best represent the common, demeaning portrayal of speech impediments in video games. I also offer one contrasting example of normalization in Cyberpunk 2077. Across all six games examined here, I found a total of six characters with speech impediments and one instance of a character pretending to have a speech impediment for personal gain. All characters are white, with the exception of a chromatic character, and five of them are men. Five of the seven characters are also introduced with an explanation for their speech difference, many of which are either medical, affective, or due to an incident. For example, Sandal and Clive are referred to as having other medical and/or mental conditions contributing to their partial muteness; the Silent Sisters are a religious sect which requires members to cut out their own tongues; and Garin has mild aphasia, or damage to the language center of his brain (Lightbown & Spada, 2013), due to lyrium poisoning.

All but one representation of speech differences in the selected games featured discriminatory and demeaning treatments of the characters and/or their speech. Most prominently, games mocked and used characters with speech impediments as jokes. Additionally, NPCs within the games referenced speech differences in order to diminish the intelligence of characters with speech impediments, and mute characters in particular were framed as inherently violent. It is worth noting that interactions with characters with speech impediments often occur only briefly within optional side quests in long games. Additionally, across all the games used in this study, only NPCs are shown to have speech impediments; PCs, though they often have multiple voice options, never exhibit any speech impediments.

Humor and Mockery

The first and most common theme I identified across the data was the abundance of speech impediments used as a source of humor. This takes place both by representing the NPC with the speech impediment as inherently humorous due to their speech as well as including characters without speech impediments who mock or imitate the NPC’s speech impediment. This treatment of NPCs with speech differences is maintained across five of the seven characters I identified in this study.

The first example I turn to occurs in a side quest in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In this large, open-world game, the player traverses the map as the famous witcher Geralt of Rivia. Throughout the game, the player’s main objective is to find Ciri, Geralt’s adopted daughter. However, this fantastical world is filled with side quests and minigames. A handful of horse racing challenges in which the player is encouraged to participate are scattered throughout various locations, one of which features a competitor with a stutter. Upon joining this horse racing competition, the player is informed that their opponent is named Matko by the organizer, Radko (who does not have a speech impediment). I have chosen to transcribe the interaction below, utilizing the game’s subtitles to highlight the ways in which Matko’s stutter is also communicated non-verbally.

Excerpt 1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Radko: So, who you gonna race? Stuterin’ M-m-matko? Iron-arse Hans? Or Black Bogdan? [1]

Geralt: I’ll take stuttering Matt.

Matko, approaching the two: Y-y-y-y-you’ll s-s-s-see I-i-i-i-I’ll b-b-b-b-b-b… ehhh, fuck it.

Radko: Alright place your bets.

Though this encounter is momentary, the entire exchange revolves around the mockery of Matko’s stutter. Stuttering, also known as stammering, is more than just repeating the first syllable of a word; people with stutters may also repeat words, elongate sounds in a word, or have stretches of silence, also called blocks, in their speech (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.). People may stutter more or less depending on several factors such as stress, anxiety, and whether or not they are masking their stutter (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.; Gayoso, 2018). Matko’s speech, however, displays unrealistic and exaggerated stuttering.

Every word except his exasperated statement “fuck it” has a stutter. Once the race begins, Matko says a few phrases, antagonizing Geralt or urging his horse to speed up, while continuing to stutter on each word. Gayoso (2018) explains that “The tradition of stuttering men becoming ‘real men’ only when they speak fluently, and being deemed insufficient otherwise, is long and documented” (p. 32). Often, stuttering men like Matko are only displayed as “overcoming” their stuttering through anger and aggression. In Matko’s case, I would posit that his stutter-free “fuck it” exemplifies this trope while also being used as the punchline to a joke.

Furthermore, the organizer, Radko, directly mocks Matko’s speech when he introduces him as “Stutterin’ M-m-matko.” It is worth noting that Matko’s voice actor, Alastair Parker, does not have a stutter. Thus, mockery occurs both in-game from Radko and in the process of recording as the voice actor imitates a speech impediment he does not have.

Matko’s identity, all his interactions and his title are built around his speech impediment; Matko’s characterization frames him as the brunt of a joke rather than an independent, realistic character. Similarly, in real-world situations, individuals with speech impediments may have their words disregarded (St. Pierre, 2016) or trivialized. When language is trivialized, perceived deviations from the norm are framed as cute, funny, or insignificant, and the speech pattern is emphasized over the person’s intended message (Lippi-Green, 2012).

Intelligence and Violence

A common theme among characters with speech impediments, and especially those who are mute, is an association with violence and a lack of intelligence. This is taken to a point of dehumanization in Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2). In RDR2, the player acts as Arthur Morgan, a fugitive in the late 1800s American frontier. The game features one character who is mute named Clive. Clive assists his twin brother Clyde in fencing stollen cattle. He is largely ignored in most scenes, aside from moments in which Clyde tells him what to do and explains that he is mute.

Linguistic ableism becomes much more obvious in a quest in which Arthur pretends to be mute. He teams up with his fellow gang member Hosea to sell stollen moonshine. They decide to take up fake identities to hide their association with the gang. Immediately, Hosea describes Arthur’s character as a “clown’s idiot brother.” As soon as they approach other NPCs, Hosea says loudly, “Okay, Fenton, stay calm now for mama- she loved you so. Just a shame you had to strangle her in a rage.” As the scene goes on, Hosea and Arthur enter the bar, and Hosea has Arthur begin to serve the moonshine while Hosea repeatedly brings up how violent “Fenton” is, calling him a “murderous moron” and stating, “he rarely bites.” Throughout the six-minute scene, Hosea refers to Fenton’s apparent lack of intelligence five times and his violence or anger nine times.

The content of the historically situated media is often justified by viewers or players because it was prevalent during the era of its production or held a different meaning at that time. Thus, I believe it is worth addressing the linguistic history of the term “turned idiot” within the sociohistorical context of 1890. The terms used to refer to Fenton such as “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” were historically used as a psychological evaluation of one’s intelligence. By the 17th century, 100 years before the time in which RDR2 is set, these terms began to take on the colloquial meanings understood today as insults to one’s intelligence, unrelated to psychological diagnoses (Marriam-Webster, n.d.). That is to say, both within the historical context of the game and within the context of the modern day in which RDR2 was made, Hosea’s description of Fenton’s intelligence is inarguably ableist mockery. Arthur participates in a mockery of linguistic differences by imitating a mute man for selfish gain, and Hosea amplifies it by utilizing Fenton’s fake speech impediment for public entertainment.

Hosea’s rhetoric pulls directly from popular media discourses regarding disability and difference as inherently monstrous and freakish (e.g., Carr, 2014; Gayoso, 2018; Wind, 2016). As in many films, people with physical or mental differences are often placed in the position of villains or monsters. Hosea positions “Fenton” as more beast than human (e.g., he rarely bites), unable to control his “murderous” nature. Contrastingly, Fenton is also positioned as someone to exploit for work (e.g., “put old Fenton to work”; “serve these men, Fenton”); he is both demonized and objectified but never humanized. Yet, Fenton’s dehumanization is all treated like a joke as the bar patrons laugh at him.

In a less explicit example, Dragon Age: Origins and its sequel, Dragon Age II, regularly integrate a character named Sandal, who is a savant. Sandal is a part of the main quest and is present throughout the majority of both games, as the player must visit Sandal in order to enchant gear and weapons. He is a young dwarf that has been adopted after being found wandering in the deep roads. His adoptive father states that he does not know what happened to Sandal before they met. Sandal rarely speaks in complete sentences and uses a small set of words and phrases (notably “enchantment” and “boom”), though his language expands in Dragon Age II. Sandal is an overall happy character who is often praised by the other characters for his remarkable skill of enchantment. However, his association with violence is repeatedly used as a source of ableist humor. In Dragon Age: Origins, the Fort Drakon is attacked by darkspawn, and Sandal goes missing. The player finds Sandal standing in the middle of a room surrounded by over twenty corpses, smiling friendlily as the PC approaches. Again, in Dragon Age II, while exploring the deep roads, Sandal is separated from the group and is found surrounded by darkspawn bodies with a blood-splattered smile on his face.


Figure 1. Dragon Age II screenshot of Sandal. Click image to enlarge.

Upon approaching him, regardless of dialogue choice, the PC asks Sandal how he killed all of the darkspawn. Sandal responds by giving the PC a new enchantment rune and saying “boom.” However, the PC then inquires about a frozen darkspawn, to which he responds, “not enchantment.” During this encounter, players can hear an ominous white noise and the sound of wind blowing through the tunnels.

In both encounters, Sandal is not just portrayed as capable of defending himself but rather as being joyful when doing so. Sandal’s carefree smile juxtaposed with blood splatter imitates an often-used trope to indicate a character’s proclivity for violence or lack of mental stability. These implications are only exacerbated by ominous music, akin to that used in horror games, and the suggestion that Sandal did not use enchantment. According to Dragon Age lore, dwarfs cannot use magic inherently and may only enchant items. Thus, to freeze an enemy without enchantment would be impossible. The implication is not explained and therefore leaves a sense of unknown danger. An air of mystery surrounds Sandal throughout the entire series. And though Sandal is also treated with respect and kindness, this mystery is deeply intertwined with implications of unpredictability and violence.

Though “Fenton” and Sandal are framed quite differently, both characters are examples of the ways in which Dragon Age and RDR2 attach identities of violence to characters with speech impediments. In both cases, the implications that the characters are dangerous are framed as humorous, utilizing linguistic ableism for comedic effect. It is important to note, however, that linguistic ableism may function through ambivalence (Nario-Redmond, Kemerling & Silverman, 2019). Contrasting ideologies as well as both positive and negative beliefs about a character can be communicated simultaneously. Sandal is able to take up the position of both a beloved NPC (by fans and some characters) as well as a tool utilized for humor, regardless of the implications.


Much rarer in video games than mockery is normalization or naturalization. Normalization refers to the process through which ideologies and norms are established within society. Norms are established and/or strengthened over time as they occur within society without question (Butler, 2003; Fairclough, 1989; Luke, 2018). Similarly, norms can only be dismantled when attention is brought to them, allowing them to be questioned as well as challenged through subversive representations and identities (Butler, 2003; Fairclough, 1989; Luke, 2018). In this section, I will discuss one example of how speech impediments are normalized in Cyberpunk 2077 by presenting a character with a speech impediment who is represented positively according to Gayoso’s (2018) criteria.


Figure 2. Cyberpunk 2077 screenshot of Lizzy Wizzy. Click image to enlarge.

In Cyberpunk 2077, the player enters a futuristic, capitalistic dystopia in which nearly all humans are enhanced with technological implants. In an optional side quest, the player, a hired mercenary named V, receives a call to meet Lizzy Wizzy, the widely famous in-game pop singer. Lizzy Wizzy has a noticeable lisp. Lizzy is also a drastically cybernetically advanced human. Though most adults in Cyberpunk 2077 are cybernetically advanced to some point, Lizzy is unique in that her entire body is made of chrome, her internal organs have been replaced, and she has a range of enhancements, including superhuman strength. Her voice is also altered, giving it a robotic, synthesized sound, but her lisp has not been removed. Within the context of the Cyberpunk 2077 world, this creates the implication that her lisp is not something undesirable to remove or correct; she does not need to be cured. It is also not something that the player can discuss, as they are only given dialogue options related to the quest when interacting with Lizzy. Lizzy is a powerful and well appreciated public figure; she is respected by V and other NPCs that interact with her, and she has a wide range of accomplishments. Conflict in her questline is tied to her career, fame and money, rather than inherent to her voice or being. Aligning with Gayoso’s (2018) criteria for positive representation of characters with speech impediments, Lizzy is not silenced, devalued, or altered due to her speech. This works to normalize her lisp as a realistic representation of something that does not impact who she is or what she can do.

However, as Hammar et al. (2018) state, to understand power constructs within games, the real-world power structures which influence them must also be examined. Lizzy is played by Claire Elise Boucher, or Grimes, the real-world musician. This is worth noting as it changes the possible perspectives on how a character with a lisp came to be represented at all, let alone in a positive manner within a game well known for its plethora of discriminatory representations (see Henley, 2020; Yang, 2020). Grimes, as a successful and widely known musician, has what Bourdieu (1990) refers to as social, political, and economic capital. Capital is a different kind of power one may have based on social positioning within various fields and the resources available (Luke, 2018). As a wealthy musician who has gained notoriety for her relationship with tech mogul Elon Musk at the time (who also has a cameo in the game), Grimes has extensive social, economic and political capital, especially within the field of music and science fiction genres. This capital influences the opportunities and affordances given to her, including how she and her voice are perceived. In interviews, Grimes has discussed her lisp openly as something she was bullied for as a child and to a lesser extent as an adult (NPR, 2016). I would argue that in cases like this, the significance of Grimes’ capital can take precedence over any perceived deviations from standardized language ideologies. Similarly, the game producers may not have chosen Grimes to play Lizzy because they wanted a voice actor with a lisp, but rather that they wanted Grimes to promote and write songs for the game. While there is no confirmation of the producers’ motivations either way, it is important to recognize that capital and privilege allow voices to be perceived differently (Flores & Rosa, 2015) and individuals to have access to opportunities others may not.

While it cannot be ignored that a large part of Cyberpunk 2077's positive framing of Lizzy’s lisp is likely due to Grimes’ real-world capital, allowing her voice to be normalized and appreciated, that does not make this framing insignificant. Many players who encounter Lizzy may or may not know Grimes is behind her voice. Regardless, they will encounter a powerful celebrity character with a lisp that is not pointed out, mocked, or questioned. Encounters like this work to normalize respectful representations of speech impediments within video games, making it a powerful example for game creators moving forward.


Overall, this exploratory study examines only a handful of major RPGs, yet similar themes across Dragon Age, Red Dead Redemption 2, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt illustrate how games can use speech differences as a tool to mock and Other characters that have them. Analogous to previous game studies research on the representation of people with disabilities in games (e.g., Carr, 2013; Carr, 2020; Parlock, 2020; Kafer, 2013), characters with speech impediments in these games are attributed with traits such as aggression and low intelligence. In more extreme cases, Red Dead Redemption 2 exemplified the dehumanization and vilification of people who are mute, all under the guise of mockery and humor. As a result, these games’ oppressive ideologies and stereotypes about people with speech impediments further perpetuate discriminatory beliefs. While these findings may not apply to all representations of speech impediments in video games, or even all AAA RPGs, they stand as examples of how six critically acclaimed and widely awarded games exemplified the treatment of speech impediments for other game creators.

Lizzy Wizzy, on the other hand, provides an example of the flexibility of positive representation. As Shaw (2014) illustrates, realism and seriousness are not mutually exclusive when it comes to video games. Representation can provide examples for possibilities, desires and, simultaneously, escapism. While Lizzy is a nearly robotic character with wealth, fame and a slew of personal flaws uncovered by her side quests, she does not have to be “realistic” or flesh and blood to work as a form of normalization. Particularly, Lizzy Wizzy is the only character with which the PC did not have the option to ask about her speech, an act which is Othering within itself. Lizzy also does not function as an educational tool. Rather, Lizzy does not conform to stereotypes, tokenism, or benevolent ableism. This is part of what makes her normalization a viable example of positive representation.

If game developers are to move forward from relying on discriminatory representations of already marginalized people, game creators must understand that video game representations also work to shape social realities outside of games. Linguistic ableism which works to paint characters with speech impediments as monstrous or less than human also works to reinforce ableist ideologies in daily interactions. As a result of said ideologies, real people suffer discrimination, differential treatment and in some cases harassment (Ellis & Goggin, 2015; Gayoso, 2018; St. Pierre, 2016). Thus, it is crucial for both researchers and video game creators to bring close, critical attention to the ways in which voices are framed and used in games.

If equitable representations are to be created in games, attention must be given to how normalization can occur through positive representations of speech impediments and disabilities. As Gayoso (2018) illustrates, characters with speech impediments that do not define them offer powerful examples for players. However, this normalization must also take up more than a small portion of a large game, as hidden inclusion does little to change the inequitable status quo. All of the examples provided in this article are from NPCs, most of which were buried under optional side quests. Counter-hegemonic representations of speech differences require more central NPCs and protagonists to be voiced by people with speech impediments. As such, I posit that normalization of speech impediments require hiring diverse voice actors as well; authentic representation can only occur through authentic speech. However, that is not at all to imply that the burden of equitable representation should be placed only on those who are marginalized. To quote Shaw (2015), “The industry, as well as scholars, must treat diversity as a goal in its own right, rather than an exception to the rule or the sole domain of those who are marginalized.” (p. 5). Therefore, normalization of diversity must be a goal for all involved in the process of game creation in order to shift hegemonic norms.

Moving forward, there are still many areas surrounding linguistic ableism and language representation in video games that need to attention in the field of game studies. In particular, future studies may consider examining the positive representations of diverse language varieties and speech impediments in video games. Further study may also examine player reactions to, and understandings, of speech impediments in video games, and/or industry attitudes surrounding language variety and speech impediments. Critical game scholars and game designers may identify ways to create more equitable and inclusive environments and games by gaining a deeper understanding of not only the representation of language in video games but also the systematic ideologies within industries and communities surrounding video games.



[1] Black Bogdan’s pseudonym refers to his Nilfgaardian decent, rather than race, as Nilfgaard is well known for their black armor and coat of arms.



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