What should a Bechdel test for gaming look like?
The Bechdel test is a quick, lighthearted — and admittedly, imperfect — litmus test for determining whether a movie or other work of fiction treats female characters with the respect they deserve. It goes like this: "Does the movie contain two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man?" If so, the film passes.
This test — named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who featured the idea in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For — isn't the end-all-be-all for whether a movie deserves some kind of feminist stamp of approval. However, it's a good way to start thinking about how mainstream entertainment treats women. Are they depicted as autonomous people who have motivations of their own, or do they simply exist in service of and relation to men?
Gaming is another sector of entertainment whose infamous treatment of women deserves some inspection. Games are often developed for and marketed toward young, straight males. As a result, we get example after example of bland, male protagonists surrounded by hypersexualized female eye candy. Thankfully, there are many exceptions to this — Horizon Zero Dawn's Aloy comes to mind — but the disparity is still undeniable.
So, is there an equivalent of the Bechdel test we can apply to a game as a quick temperature read on how it treats women? It may be impossible to capture the infinite span of gaming genres, but a few people have already taken a stab at it. Let's take a look.
Previous ideas for a Bechdel test in gaming
Games writer and editor Laura Kate Dale said in 2014 that she liked the objective simplicity of the original Bechdel test, but added one major caveat that accounts for something unique to gaming — player agency. Here's her revision to the basic tenets of the Bechdel test:
A scene meeting these criteria [of the Bechdel test] is an unavoidable part of the game. It is impossible to beat the game without having a scene [that] passes the test, regardless of any choice you make as a gamer.
Because gaming is so different from film, perhaps evaluating a game's dialogue isn't quite enough. We might also look at the kinds of actions the player can take in relation to the game's female characters, like killing or robbing them for fun.
In 2011, UX designer Elsa Bartley proposed another idea that perfectly captured the tongue-in-cheek nature of the original Bechdel test while also making a poignant point about game representation as a whole. Here's her version:
(i)There must be a female character with whom you can interact, (ii) who doesn't need rescuing (iii) and [who] isn't a prostitute.
Since games almost universally depict characters in relation to the player's character, Bartley thought framing the rules in terms of interaction would more accurately convey how games function.
"I am less concerned about women talking to each other, but rather the actions performed to, with or by them," Bartley wrote. "It's through these actions that we experience the game."
Bartley acknowledged her test isn't perfect. For example, Grand Theft Auto V, a game frequently criticized for its malicious treatment of women, probably passes by simple virtue of its massive cast of characters. But that's why these tests are helpful: The questions themselves, even if they don't catch every flawed game in existence, are designed in such a way to constantly remind you of the roles into which women are so often shoehorned: helpless damsels, sexual objects or both. And therein lies their success.
The questions themselves, even if they don't catch every flawed game, are designed to constantly remind you of the roles into which women are so often shoehorned.
"I think it was important to remember the Bechdel test was a joke, just a poignant one," Bartley told Mic in an email. "I wanted to keep that tone. The challenge I remember having was wanting to point out how often [nonplayer character] women are prostitutes, but without slut-shaming."
Bartley's questions almost feel too specific to be applied broadly. In a 2014 NewStatesman piece, writer Helen Lewis made the salient point that the original Bechdel test emphasizes the ways women relate to one another independently of men — and that's something a gaming-centric Bechdel test should capture. But again, that's tough to do when almost everything in a game occurs through the eyes of a single and usually male protagonist.
A new Bechdel test for games — inspired by International Women's Day
Perhaps a Bechdel test for gaming should take some inspiration from A Day Without a Woman, the strike taking place on International Women's Day that emphasizes the important contributions women make in their workplaces and everyday lives.
For example: If the female characters in a game weren't there, what impact would that have on the overall narrative? Would it have any measurable impact at all? If it does have an impact, is it only that it would deprive a male protagonist of someone to save?
Again, while this isn't a perfect set of rules, it might challenge us to ask what roles women are actually playing within the context of a particular game. Is a game's writing team treating women as an integral part of our protagonist's emotional life, or are they simply objects players are meant to rescue or kill? Do women weigh as heavily as men in our protagonist's life? What does that disparity look like?
A Bechdel test for games: Which titles would pass?
This test would render Horizon Zero Dawn unplayable, since Aloy is the only playable hero and the Nora tribe revolves around a matriarchal political system.
However, an old-school Mario platformer — which typically focuses on rescuing a helpless Peach — would also be rendered useless without women, albeit for a very different reason. Without Princess Peach, most of these games don't work, but the reason why they don't work is what's important. She generally exists only as motivation for Mario. Her role as a helpless damsel is what these games revolve around. (As Mic's Brittany Vincent argued, Super Mario Run is a subtle exception.)
Zelda titles in which Zelda is a helpless kidnapping victim would probably fit in this category, too.
A game like Grand Theft Auto V, however, could function almost perfectly without any women — and that speaks volumes, too. None of the three playable characters are female, and there's still plenty to do in the sprawling open-world map even after you remove half its population.
So, unlike the original Bechdel test, there's no simple pass or fail, which admittedly takes away some of the fun.
But perhaps simplicity is just not an option.
What purpose does a Bechdel test for games really serve, anyway?
Regardless of what questions you think should or should not be included in a Bechdel test for games — or whether the one we've suggested is entirely useless — the end point remains the same. We need to be more critical of the ways our games depict and treat women. We need to understand what role they play in our entertainment, and we need to ask whether it's a symptom of something larger within our culture as a whole. (Spoiler alert: It's probably sexism.)
Because for all of its tongue-in-cheek humor, that's what the original Bechdel test was all about — encouraging viewers to be more critical of the things they consume. We need to demand more of the games we play and we need to take a more active role in criticizing and examining the way they function. Change doesn't happen overnight, but it certainly won't ever happen if we equate what's normal with what's acceptable.
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