Today we take a stab at adapting the Bechdel Test for games. Dialogue doesn’t carry the same weight in games that it does in films, so what’s the best way to measure gender representation? Let’s try to find out.
Transcript below the cut.
With Ubisoft making headlines for its inability to render women, gender representation is once again at the forefront of the gaming discourse. Previously, we talked about our favorite female protagonists, and now we’re going to turn our lens to the games themselves and see how they treat the women we’ve come to love seeing and being. For this, we’re going to adapt the Bechdel Test for games.
The Bechdel Test is named for comic artist Alison Bechdel, whose 1985 comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” inspired it. In the strip, a character explains that she has one rule for choosing which films to see: the film must, a) have two named women in it who then must b) speak to each other about c) something other than a man. This is the heart of the Bechdel Test–it isn’t a measure of quality, nor is it especially scientific, but it is useful in bringing attention to inequalities in gender representation.
Some games pass the traditional Bechdel Test, but many don’t–partially because many games are overwhelmingly male-centric, but also because games are fundamentally different than films. You can have a game with a female lead and no dialogue, nor any other characters to speak of or to. With representation still a hot issue for games worth discussing, we’re proposing an alternative to the Bechdel Test that can be applied to games.
Our premise is simple: what if instead of grading the interactions between two women on screen, we re-position the relationship to be between a woman playable character and the woman playing the game. In other words, instead of evaluating the interactions between two women on screen, we’re evaluating the relationship between the avatar and the player. With the biggest hurdle of the traditional Bechdel Test being whether or not the women’s interaction centers around a man, we’ll also carry that into our test.
Put in terms of the Bechdel Test, this new test might look something like this: In order to pass, a game must a) have a playable female character whose b) actions are not filtered by the desires of a man–either on screen or in the presumed audience.
With this in mind, we have to ask ourselves how these actions are filtered and framed for the perceived player’s pleasure.
Is the action framed through a presumed male lens? This question is mostly visual–is our female character introduced with dismembering shots of sexualized body parts. If so, given the status quo of gaming, then the player is probably assumed to be a heterosexual male, placing an inevitably masculine filter between the woman playing and the playable woman.
How about the other characters. Are there other characters on screen? Are they male? How do they treat or our female protagonist? Do they treat her derisively and sexualize her like in The 3rd Birthday? Or do they respect her as an equal–or hey, even a hero. Remember how surprising it was to hear Alex declare Lara Croft as his hero after an intense scene in Tomb Raider? Alex calling Lara his hero is surprising because it is a rare example of a female protagonist being called what she is–a heroic subject. In other words, is the woman player allowed to share the glory or is she constantly reminded in dialogue that her character–and, by proxy, she–is an object to be desired before she is an agent of action?
Similarly, how are we spurred to action? Is it intrinsic, or does a male voice tell us exactly what to do. Is the female lead (and player) allowed to figure this out for herself? Think about the difference between the calm, disembodied voice leading a helpless and disoriented Nilin into a literal coffin in Remember Me’s opening moments versus how Burial at Sea uses Booker’s voice to enable Elizabeth. While later plot developments add some nuance to Nilin’s guide, in that opening section, he tells her exactly where to go and how, situating a male buffer between player and player-character. By contrast, Elizabeth’s father-guide provides a diegetic reason for her to inform us, the player, of her knowledge and objectives. A few wrenches to the head notwithstanding, Elizabeth is ultimately in control.
Achievements and trophies also serve to inspire action. What kind of actions do they encourage? Do they suggest a presumably straight male player treat the playable character like a sexual object? Such is the case with Lollipop Chainsaw’s “I swear! I did it by mistake!” achievement that encourages players to maneuver the camera to peek up player-character Juliet’s skirt–despite her in-game demands not to. It’s implicit directions like these that also inform the text and the player’s perceived relationship to the player-character. In the case of Juliet and Lollipop Chainsaw, it re-enforces the idea that Juliet is ultimately something to look at, not someone to take action to a female player.
These are just some of the ways action in games is usually framed. Can you think of any others?
Just as with the original Bechdel Test, this isn’t a measure of whether a game is good or bad. It doesn’t determine whether or not you will find a protagonist compelling, nor is it an end-all measure of representation. However, it might be useful in addressing the lack of meaningful women’s stories in games, and help us hold developers responsible. What sort of rules would you propose for a gaming version of the Bechdel Test? Let us know in the comments, and join us back here in two weeks when we put some games to the test.