April 2, 2024

13 Min Read

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Embracing Individuality: Autism Representation in Watch Dogs 2, The Division 2, and Rainbow Six Siege

Today is Autism Awareness day, and to raise awareness, Ubisoft News spoke to Ubisoft employees on the Autism Spectrum about their experiences as neurodiverse employees, as well as developers who created in-game autistic characters.

This article will explore three characters with autism: Josh Sauchak (Watch Dogs 2), Birdie (The Division 2), and Jäger (Rainbow Six Siege). While these characters by no means represent the full spectrum of autism, and only comprise a small fraction of Ubisoft characters, each provides their own unique piece of autism representation in games.

Josh “Hawt Sauce” Sauchak – Watch Dogs 2

In Watch Dogs 2, Josh is a member of DedSec alongside Marcus, Wrench, Sitara, T-Bone, and Horatio. In the game, he’s portrayed as a hacker with a knack for coding and an ironclad memory; he’s also a bit socially awkward. He can be hard on himself, like when he misses bot accounts that have flooded DedSec’s social media pages; he sometimes takes things a bit too literally, like when he tries to understand what his friends mean when they say “cornholing;” and he’s not a fan of physical contact, as evidenced when Lenni tries to give him a hug.

“Most of his scenes are my favorite ones now, like the little moments where he’s like, ‘oh, you’re using that as a verb, and I don’t understand that,’” said Jonathan Morin, creative director of Watch Dogs 2, in a 2021 Video Games and Neurodiversity panel. “Small touches, and the way the others around poke at the difference, made it feel like he’s not different, he’s just an individual. And that made an impact.”

According to Morin, Josh was initially a much different character, written as an upbeat YouTuber. However, the writers were having trouble finding his place within the DedSec group.

“At some point, the narrative director came to me and said Josh wasn’t working,” said Morin. “At the time, I was going through a lot with my son, who is autistic, so I said, ‘why not embrace having an autistic character?’”

The team was initially concerned that making Josh a hacker on the spectrum with people-skills issues was a cliché, but Morin encouraged them to approach Josh as an individual and find where he fit in with the group.

[UN] [Corporate] - Autism Awareness Day article - Watch Dogs 2

“’Make it so the others understand who he is, and he understands who they are. And through conversations, it’s going to feel right.’ They started to craft Josh as just another individual in the group; in my mind, most of the people in that group have their own specificities, and we all are different.”

Autism in the Workplace

Treating people as individuals with their own unique traits is a skill that translates well to working with neurodiverse people in real life.

“As a manager, one thing I learned is that at the beginning, I wanted to treat everyone the same, but actually you find out quickly not to do that,” says David Manuel, associate producer with Ubisoft Toronto who is diagnosed with autism and ADHD. “You actually find out everyone’s different, with different personalities, and you find out what their strengths are, and put people in places where they can thrive.”

Manuel has been with Ubisoft since 2013 in a number of different roles. However, he only received his diagnosis a year and a half ago. He is open to talking about his autism at work, and chose to let his supervisor know about the diagnosis so they could work out an accommodation plan and better understand Manuel’s communication styles. Overall, he feels there’s been a great deal of growth in how the gaming industry at large, has approached the conversation about mental health in the workplace and helping employees on the spectrum.

Megan Hobby, lead animator for The Division Heartland, agrees. Also diagnosed with autism and ADHD, Hobby has been part of Red Storm Entertainment since 2008 and has seen a shift from a place where there wasn’t always empathy and understanding to one that offers channels to openly communicate needs for those who are comfortable sharing.

“I think it helps to be in a work environment at Red Storm where mostly everybody else is also neurodivergent in some way, because there’s a lot of natural empathy that goes into the workday,” says Hobby.

Hobby describes working on a team with other neurodiverse colleagues as beneficial to team productivity, as they have strong communication skills. “Neurodivergent people have been doing so much work throughout all of our history to learn how to communicate and survive in a neurotypical world,” she says. “But neurotypical people aren’t trained to do the same thing; only a few get on board to help.”

Birdie – The Division 2

Birdie is a newer character in The Division 2, introduced in Year 5: Season 2 – Puppeteers. Initially needing rescue during The Recruiter manhunt, Birdie reveals herself to be a technical genius in need of a challenge.

“Birdie is our savant Stanford engineering genius who went to college when she was 12,” says Lauren Stone, narrative director for The Division 2. “She has dedicated her life to creating alternative power solutions, and she’s built this industry called ODEA Tech with her ‘brother,’ Vikram Malik.”

[UN] [Corporate] - Autism Awareness Day article - TD2

According to Stone, Malik is one of the most disliked characters in The Division 2, his behavior and unexplained betrayal to the Black Tusk earning him the nickname Vik the Dick both in-game and among players. Birdie was created to explain Vikram’s betrayal, as well as flesh out the siblings’ backstory as defense contractors and their company ODEA.

Birdie is self-diagnosed with autism; as Stone describes her backstory, she was too old to have received a proper diagnosis, having attended Stanford before Asperger’s was a diagnosis, and seen as “one of those weird kids who’s super smart.”

“When you meet an autistic person, you’ve met an autistic person. You have not met autism,” says Stone. “Birdie is a singular representation. I fully expect Claire is also on the spectrum, but she presents as more neurotypical.”

Stone describes Claire, another character in The Division 2, as Birdie’s mirror (coincidentally, Madison Walsh voices both characters), naming a scene where Claire has to work with ODEA Tech, and refuses to work with Vik – but agrees to work with Birdie.

“The two autistic kids were like, ‘yeah, no, we can work together. It’ll be fine; other people are offended, but we’re not,’” Stone laughs. “I think that’s where, even though we haven’t said Claire’s autistic, I fully expect her to be somewhere on the spectrum. I think it’s representative of a very common experience where the neurotypical people can work with each other, and Birdie and Claire love working together because they’re both ‘neurospicy.’ They understand how to challenge each other and help each other grow, and see the benefit of supporting each other. And then we just have these two brilliant women making everything possible.”

Representation Matters

According to Stone, including diverse perspectives in games helps flesh out the story and experience in new ways. In The Division 2, the playable character has no voice; the player is the Agent, and they decide how they feel about the world. However, including a diverse cast of characters – including neurodivergent ones like Birdie – allows the developers to show different viewpoints about the world and how the world responds to them.

“That in and of itself opens the door to make it so that it’s easier to tell different parts of the same story, and different perspectives on the same story, because everybody sees a singular event through their own personal lens,” says Stone.

With Josh in Watch Dogs 2, Morin wasn’t thinking about neurodiverse representation when he suggested making Josh autistic, but now appreciates the importance of it. “I didn’t do it for the representation,” he said in the 2021 panel. “But the impact it had made me realize that doing that type of work makes a difference. The proudest moments of my life as a game developer have been sharing letters to the team from parents of autistic kids, and look at them smiling and talking about Josh as a character who’s making a difference in a group and is positively represented.”

According to Manuel, representation in games is also a great way to lower stigmas and preconceptions about autism in real life. There’s a danger, he says, in only having one point of reference.

“When you get more characters on the spectrum, when we start seeing that variety of characters across the spectrum, that’s when you don’t feel alone,” says Manuel. “Whether it’s race, gender identities, mental health, or anything, that’s when it comes together.”

Hobby expands the idea of representation to its effect in the real world. “I keep coming back to people who don’t know that gaming is an avenue available to them. Having that representation within the game industry is like ‘Oh, they’re doing it, that’s a possibility for me to do as well.’ I think anybody is capable of anything, and sometimes just having that representation can give a little push that somebody needs to get started.”

Jäger – Rainbow Six Siege

One of the first Operators in Rainbow Six Siege, Jäger, is a fierce Defender, using his Active Defense System (ADS) as his unique ability and his bulletproof camera and observation blocker as secondary gadgets to protect allies and seek out Attackers.

[UN] [Corporate] - Autism Awareness Day article - Jager R6S

“His diagnosis is not yet officially stated in-game, but his autistic traits manifest through the same channels as our other characters, mainly the in-game bios and barks,” says Simon Ducharme, a writer on Rainbow Six Siege. “Jäger’s bio mentions, for example, a discomfort with strict academic form, a singular passion for aviation, intense curiosity, a tendency to infodump, and how he views sharing information as a way to make connections.”

Ducharme goes on to describe an accidental visual component: Jäger is one of the few Operators in Rainbow Six Siege who has never shown his face, instead only ever wearing headgear like a mask or a helmet. “I see an element of sensory control in that. Visual and auditory stimuli can often be overwhelming for an autistic person, so this could be his way of self-regulating, if you ask me.”

According to Ducharme, Jäger wasn’t intentionally created as autistic; instead, traits of the writer came through, and fans were the ones to pick up on those tendencies and embrace them. “A lot of the discussion around Jäger over the years has come from autistic people who saw themselves in him,” says Ducharme. “That sense of belonging is important, something that many people struggle with.”

Now that the team is aware of his traits, they are beginning to consciously reinforce them and actively look for more ways to represent that aspect of Jäger. However, in terms of story, there aren’t yet plans to confirm Jäger’s autism in-game. According to Ducharme, narrative opportunities in Siege are largely focused on new characters and storylines with new seasons. “As creatives, we have to stay on the lookout so Jäger’s inclusion is organic.”

Though Jäger’s diagnosis hasn’t been confirmed in-game, and confirmation of it doesn’t affect the Defender’s gameplay or the writers’ approach to his character, Ducharme says it’s still important to recognize that the fans see Jäger as autistic and that the developers see it as canon. “Every element of a fictional world or story is a choice,” says Ducharme. “If we looked at Jäger, looked at the autistic traits he displays, looked at how the community has embraced him, and then said ‘You know what? Let’s not bother,’ what would the message be behind that choice?”

Talking About Autism

For Manuel and Hobby, talking about their diagnoses has helped them find community both within the workplace and outside of it, and both recognize the importance of being open about autism diagnoses while respecting employees’ right to privacy.

“When I found out, after a couple days, I put it on Facebook so my friends and family would know. I’ve got it, my son’s got it, and I refused to be ashamed of this,” says Manuel. “It’s been really helpful to learn about it for myself. It’s also a case-by-case basis, because there could be people who don’t feel comfortable saying it to their employer.”

“The whole Neurodiversity ERG [employee resource group] community has been incredible,” says Hobby. “It’s this little hub I can go to if I need an answer or if I’m lost, and there’s always somebody there who’s had a similar experience and can talk it out.”

Ubisoft’s Neurodiversity ERG first launched in 2021, and has grown to support hundreds of neurodiverse employees, including many on the autism spectrum. In addition to the team chats Hobby referenced, the group organizes different events that celebrate and educate about neurodivergences. Additionally, the ERG is creating tools and resources for neurotypical employees to use to better educate themselves about their colleagues.

When discussing neurodiverse representation in games, all developers interviewed for this article agreed that it’s done best when coming from a place of authenticity, focusing on the character as a person instead of a diagnosis.

“There is no one way to do representation correctly,” says Ducharme. “Progress is never perfect, and every step is an opportunity to improve the way we do things, especially in identifying what works and what doesn’t.”

“The gaming industry is so valuable because there’s so many cool things we can make,” says Hobby. “There’s no limit on who can join and be a part of it.”

Today, the Global Talent Team launched its new dedicated website for its Neurodiversity Talent Program, an initiative designed to harness the unique strengths and perspectives of individuals with neurodivergent profiles. The Talent Program offers training for managers and HR, awareness sessions for all employees, and is developing tools to help collaborators adopt neuro-inclusive good practices.

Ubisoft is committed to building a more inclusive workplace, as exemplified by its support of the Neurodiversity ERG, as well as the Black Employees of Ubisoft, Women and Non-binary, Asian & Pacific Islander, and Salaam ERGs. Most recently, Ubisoft’s VP of Editorial, Fawzi Mesmar, was honored with the Ambassador Award at the Game Developer’s Choice Awards.

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