Since it’s Women’s Month, let’s take a look at the Bechdel test and how it applies to games. The Bechdel test is a deceptively simple question that people have been using to critique media for years: does this piece of media contain two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man?
Popularised by Alison Bechdel in 1985, with the inspiration credited to Liz Wallace and Virginia Woolf, it’s been long discussed and many spinoff tests have been created. It does not, by itself, celebrate or condemn a piece of media. Rather it is designed to highlight the lack of female characters by pointing out how much of media fails the test despite its simplicity.
I would feel comfortable assuming that more games fail the Bechdel test than movies (of which about 50% pass), books, or TV shows. There are some games that pass well, like Life is Strange (bonus: it includes women who love women, which is what Alison Bechdel was originally bemoaning the lack of), but many do not. Sometimes these failings are because there are no, or few, female characters, but often there are other factors, such as in Portal where both main characters (Chell and GLaDOS) are female (or at least female coded) but where Chell refuses to reply to anything GLaDOS says, or where there is no dialogue at all.
Moreover, when it comes to applying the Bechdel test to gaming, there are other complexities that are not a problem for other forms of media. Primarily these come down to player choice. In many games, such as Fallout: New Vegas, dialogue centres on the protagonist and so the Bechdel test will only be passed if the player chooses to play as a female character. Similarly, the Bechdel test may only be passed in optional side quests meaning that different players will experience passes or fails in different runs of the same game. This means that when it comes to gaming, it’s even more important to remember that the Bechdel test is a general discussion of the failings of media rather than any particular piece’s level of sexism.
This does not, however, reduce its usefulness overall. As such, people have been trying to adapt the Bechdel test to better work in analysing video games for years. There’s the Maggie Test, which states that the game must have a female character who is available to play right away and not as a special bonus feature. This has its merits – locking away diverse characters behind microtransactions is certainly a problem – but it equally has its issues just as the Bechdel test does. It implies that female NPCs don’t count as representation or can’t be part of a great narrative and doesn’t take into account the fact that the female playable character’s arc may revolve entirely around a man. Thus this test does not fulfil the same need as the Bechdel test.
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Then there is this video by Push to Smart.
The test goes thusly:
“A game must have a playable female character whose actions are not filtered by the actions of a man.”
Games that fail this test are those that assume that the player is a heterosexual male, and sexualise their female protagonist, or those that have male characters that don’t respect the female protagonist as an equal or who are actually in control and tell the female character – and player – exactly what to do. To quote the video: “in other words, is the woman player allowed to share the glory or is she constantly reminded…that her character, and by proxy she, is an object to be desired rather than an agent of action.”
This test is a good one for discussing the lack of meaningful stories for female characters in games. However, the main difference between this and the Bechdel test is outlined in the video itself: “instead of evaluating the relationships between two women on screen, we’re evaluating the relationship between the avatar and the player.” This is not the same need filled by the traditional Bechdel test, but it is an interesting and important thing to consider in gaming. As a highly interactive medium, relationships between the player and the character are more important than they are in other mediums. By using this test in conjunction with the Bechdel test, both relationships with characters and relationships between characters can be discussed.
Personally I think that the best version of the traditional Bechdel test as applied to gaming I’ve seen is known as “Bechdel 2.1,” proposed by Daniel Feit. (I found out about it here, but the link to the original post is dead and sadly I couldn’t find an alternative). It goes as follows:
- have two (named) female characters, one of which must be either a playable character or a character present in the world for at least 50% of the game,
- who interact with each other in a relevant fashion.
What exactly a “relevant fashion” means depends on the on the genre and mood of the game. In an RPG they may advance the plot or develop the world; in a fighting game they may stand off against one another; in a visual novel they would more likely speak to each other in the classic Bechdel fashion. This test again does not take into account the “something other than a man” requirement of the Bechdel test, but it’s something that could be added into the consideration with relative ease.
The Bechdel test is a useful tool for discussion and applying it to and adapting it for games is an interesting exercise as part of a wider consideration of how games treat women. At the most basic level, since most games easily have two men interacting with one another, they should also have two women doing the same. Sometimes great games, and games with great representation, will still fail, but when used effectively simple tests like these show us how far we have to go to make games inclusive on an extremely basic level.