Updating the Bechdel Test for video games

If you are not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it is a simple test to apply to films; (i) there must be at least two women in it, (ii) who talk to each other, (iii) about something besides a man.

Many films still fail this test, though it was made popular back in 1985. The test only goes as far to look at the visibility of women in film, and to examine that they are defined by more than their relationship to a man. It doesn’t examine how the women are portrayed and a film that passes the test may in no way be a feminist film. It’s simplicity is both it’s strength and it’s weakness.

I’m interested in how this could be applied to the context of video games. But in order for it to work I think there needs to be some changes. So here is my version:

(i)There must be a female character with whom you can interact, (ii) who doesn’t need rescuing, (iii) and isn’t a prostitute.

Such a test comes with the assumption that there are gendered characters within the game. Some games, such as Flow or Space Invaders, do not have any characters of gender.

Samus Aran from Metroid

Samus Aran from Metroid by Ivan Flores

Conversation vs. Interaction

In film, the story is conveyed to a passive audience primarily through the dialogue of the cast. But in gaming, the game is defined by interactions that the player controls. Whether it is shooting, fighting, flying, walking or talking, different games draw on different actions, but it is the the player that performs these actions.

So in creating a test suitable for video games, I am less concerned about women talking to each other, but rather the actions performed to, with or by them. As it’s through these actions that we experience the game.

In relation to a man

Bechdel also looks at women defined only by their relationship to a man, but this is harder to determine in a game. Games are a series of interactions, a collection of small one to one relationships with the player; X jumps over a log, X shoots Y, X lifts a box, X is killed by a ghost.

As a result if the player’s avatar is male then it is possible that most of the game is defined by its relationship to a single man.

So perhaps an even simpler test would be I can choose to play as a woman. But this is too simple and doesn’t reflect a strength of the Bechdel Test where it is actually surprising to realise what fails the test, thus encouraging you to examine more films you know.

With games we make the player an actor, literally, and it becomes about the actions as well as dialogue that define characters and gender. To examine if women are defined by their relationship to men we must look at how a male character and female characters interact and the actions associated with the gender as defined by game designers.

Helpless or horny

So when thinking about actions that define women in terms of men there are two that I see constantly in games. Firstly the helpless princesses who need rescuing, I’m looking at you Nintendo. Women who do little more than to offer the gamer the next quest, because they can’t do something and they need you. “Can you please find my lost chickens?” while I stand here looking worried. Her role is to give you an objective and in turn make you the hero.

The second is as an object of desire, which can fit with Bechdel’s idea of women being defined only by their relationship to a man. When sex is a commodity, a job, and a means by which we identify characters, it is a way to examine this. This test criteria isn’t without flaws, but it is surprising how many games have prostitute or stripper NPCs.

What doesn’t it test.

Its important to understand the limitations of a simple test.

It does not test the player. Some games don’t have characters of gender, and any gender these games are given are defined by social expectations of the player, not the game designer.

It doesn’t address games such as the Imagine series, where there is vast gender stereotyping going on. But having not played them it might be possible that the gender of the player while assumed is not defined and so a boy playing the game would turn such stereotypes on it’s head. It then comes back to the social expectations of the player, not the game.

I’m deliberately not examining what the women are wearing, it’s not about the clothes. You can write whole essays on this alone, but lets just say I don’t care what people are or are not wearing and at worst it’s a symptom. The male gaze is an issue in games as with other media, but this test it too simple to explore this concept in any depth, so certain volleyball games may still pass.

I’m not testing for misogyny. I haven’t created a test that would fail if the only women in the game were psychopathic killers. In order to keep it simple I decided that at least if you are fighting evil women they have some power, which you are trying to overcome. If this is the only depiction of women it definitely smacks of misogyny, but this wasn’t covered in the Bechdel test either. It also forgoes violence against women.

Tip of the iceberg

Women are not the only group poorly represented within games. Homosexuality, religion and race are all very poorly represented, and this is clearly due to a lack of diversity in the people making games. This test does nothing to address this other than look to raise awareness, it’s up to us to make games that change this.

7 thoughts on “Updating the Bechdel Test for video games

  1. Andrea Phillips

    I’m going “Hmmm” over the “And isn’t a prostitute” bit, because of the woman-as-romantic-object trope, and the whole class of dating sims out there. Maybe “with whom you cannot have a sexual or romantic relationship”? –Though that still lets in eg. dating sims where there is a horrible mother or teacher. Heh.

    Something like Dragon Age passes either way, simply because of the breadth of its female NPCs. Shadow of the Colossus wouldn’t — but it wouldn’t anyway, would it? Hmmm. Must think.

    I like this proposal a lot, though. It seems to get to the heart of the differences between games and film.

  2. Elsa

    Yeah it’s the part I think might need refining. Some prostitute NPCs don’t actually allow the player a sexual interaction e.g. Assassin’s Creed. So it seems like it more than just offering sex, but the way it’s objectified.
    I was trying to avoid making sex in games a bad thing, it’s just that it’s mostly done in a bad way at the moment.

  3. Andrea Phillips

    Hmmm. At least one significant interaction/scene/story beat in which the woman neither needs your help nor is sexually or romantically available?

    Thinking about Portal 2, in which GladOS does sometimes need your help; and the Dragon Age games, in which most of the party NPCs are romancable; but in neither case can their existence be reduced to “damsel in distress” or “love object.”

  4. Runbotrun

    I would argue that (ii) and (iii) are actually very close to each other, because they are both instances of objectification, whether as a mere game device (ii) or a as sexual decorum (iii).

  5. Haley Moore

    The only hole I see is that the original Bechdel test required the female characters to have lines. You might want to consider adding that to the game version, since any female sprite in a game could technically count as a “character” if you wanted to be as inclusive as possible.

    Re: Portal 2, I liked how the game designers were careful to make your motivations for helping GLaDOS ambiguous and complicated…they seemed to understand that Chell taking pity on her would have been out of character. Whether GLaDOS is even capable, in the end, of being “saved” is left open to interpretation.

  6. Elsa

    @Runbotrun I agree they are similar, but I was looking for simple mechanics to convey that. To reflect the way Bechdel had a simple test that was easy to get a result against. Once you start being abstract and talk about objectification it becomes difficult to test easily. It part of the flaw of the test, because the simplicity comes at a cost.

    @Andrea That’s interesting because my first draft was something similar, to exclude characters that make any offer of sex, but I decided I preferred the rule on prostitution, for two reasons. Once you start looking for them there are an amazing number of NPCs that are strippers or prostitutes or selling their sexuality in some way and often this is the only way in which they are defined, so it has the shock value of Bechdels test, where you think they must talk about something other than a man… surely?!
    The other reason is I really don’t want to define sex in games as objectifying. It’s not the sex, but the way you get to it, with gifts, money, flattery etc. that I take issue with. I mean even the relationships in Dragon Age do become quests of a sort, but the characters are more established than in other games.

    At this point I feel I should say this is just my personal feeling on the matter. It’s interesting to see where others feel the boundaries are and thanks for the feedback :)

  7. Elsa

    @Haley I decided I wanted an use interaction rather than dialogue, because while interaction could be quite vague and open ended, dialogue is not an essential game mechanic e.g. Pac-man. However I don’t think it’s enough for a woman to visibly appear in the game, there has to be an interaction of sorts for them to be part of the game.

    I love Portal 2 and I agree the ambiguity is cleverly done. Thanks for the feedback.

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