A Bechdel Test For Games

I ran across this list of games that pass the Bechdel test earlier this week on Gameological Society, the gaming arm of the Onion AVClub. The Bechdel test, for anybody who doesn’t know, is a simplistic test of female representation in a fictional work that just wants you to find two female characters talking about something that isn’t a man. That’s it. If you have even one line of dialogue about that in your work of fiction you pass.

It’s an imperfect test that throws up the occasional false positive. Bad horror movies tend to pass if you don’t count “oh my God there is a hideous serial killer with a knife after us” as talking about a man. It also excludes some good feminist works. The Wire for instance, which I would argue is a fairly feminist show in philosophy, takes a remarkably long time to pass the test. But the test thrives because it’s so simple to apply and because it sets such a low bar that it’s amazing that SO MANY TV shows and films fail to pass.

What’s remarkable about the Gameological Society’s list is that so few of those examples really show remarkable female representation. While the Bechdel test was never perfect for any medium it seems to completely fall apart in games. Virtually every game that’s outraged feminist gamers in the past year passes the test.

The new Tomb Raider game that threatens Lara Croft with rape to “strengthen” her character passes. Lollipop Chainsaw, a game with a female protagonist in a cheerleader uniform killing zombies with a chainsaw, passes with flying colors. Virtually every fighting game passes thanks to after-round banter. Hell, Arkham City, a game that was widely derided for having random NPC thugs talk about how much they want to rape Catwoman pretty much constantly IS ON GAMEOLOGICAL SOCIETY’S LIST.

I’d argue that the test isn’t viable for games because because the addition of choice makes passing pretty much meaningless. To explain what I mean here are three different explanations of the issue

The problem is that the Bechdel Test worked off of agency. It was a simple way to see if women in this fictional world were allowed to do ANYTHING besides be baby making machines or aspire to making some babies. If no woman talks about something besides men at any point it’s a pretty safe bet they don’t have any agency.

Agency is denied to female characters in film and television with startling regularity. Assuming you can play as a female character however, it’s automatically granted to video games. The main character of Lollipop Chainsaw has more agency the moment you take control of her than most female protagonists in film and television ever receive. She can go in a hundred different directions and do a thousand different things and those choices all effect her outcomes.

Of course that example should also make it obvious that just because a female character has agency that doesn’t make the work automatically feminist. The first and most obvious problem is that the female character's agency is being controlled by the player. They’re still effectively a puppet and if a player wants to just use a female protagonist as an object there’s not really a way to stop them.

Let’s say for the sake of a thought experiment that we have a game with two layers of meta-data on top of every location in game. We will call these two layers Misogyny and Misandry.

The Misogyny layer is filled with horrible tags about how the building you’re passing by is important to the history of men’s rights and tags on women with terrible shit that follows them around that they can’t see. Meanwhile on the Misandry layer women are just chilling out and talking about whatever they want and thinking about how everybody that uses the Misogyny layer sucks. Since it’s a thought experiment we can even pretend like the Misandry layer is just as bad as the Misogyny one. Whatever. Point is, you can pop over and take a look at what’s going on with the other side of the service but you don’t have to see it if you don’t have to.

Is that service feminist or not? Should it pass the Bechdel Test considering you don’t have to ever look at any of the conversations that would pass it? How do you reconcile what a player can do with what a player actually does?

The problem is that the Bechdel Test worked off of the law of narrative efficiency. A well crafted TV show or movie goes as efficiently as possible from it’s beginning to its end. Every scene, every location, every character is there for a reason. This is why you can always tell the murderer is that one extra guy that seems to be hanging around for no reason but it’s also why the Bechdel test was so effective.

If a TV show or film took the time to show two female characters talking about something then that discussion has to be important and if it can’t bother to spend 5 seconds letting women talk about something besides men then you get a pretty good idea of where the story’s priorities are.

Video games don’t operate on the same kind of narrative logic however and when you try and use the Bechdel test on them the wires get crossed. Characters still tend to exist for a reason in games but that might not be a reason you ever discover depending on how you play through the game, in fact you might make choices that make it totally impossible for that character to ever do anything interesting.

Programers also have to be prepared for a wide variety of player behaviors which throws narrative efficiency out the window. If every single law and order extra had to have a few lines of dialogue prepared just in case Sam Waterston walked up to them to see if they had any important information you’d probably see that show passing the Bechdel test a lot more often.

Game stories do not operate on narrative efficiency they operate on narrative choice. That makes games that still somehow fail the Bechdel test an even more spectacular failure but it also means that games that pass it might be getting off scott free for a random, innocuous interaction that has nothing to do with the core of the game.

The problem is that the Bechdel Test worked off of a single stable reading. The author may be dead but TV and Film still had dominant interpretations and anybody who wanted to have an alternate reading had to grapple with the dominant interpretation to some degree. That’s already less true of a lot of video games and it’s only going to become less common over time.

I spent about a half-hour this morning discussing with my World of Warcraft guild leader if WoW itself passes the test and after a number of tweets and some help from other twitter users we determined two interactions that firmly pass the test with another half dozen possible contenders. So there are about 9 examples of Bechdel-ready moments out of thousands of NPC interactions in the game.

As this WoW Insider post points out there is exactly one female NPC in the Warcraft universe that is not directly attached to a man, and that’s because the guy she was dating became an undead Hitler and we had to kill him two expansions back. She’s also about to star in a book where she and a handsome male mage go on adventures together.

The point is that the World of Warcraft is, canonically, a terrible space for women in lore. Chat channels and random groups are also filled with horribly misogynist jerks. All of which makes it pretty difficult to imagine the World of Warcraft is a place any woman would want to hang out. Except, Blizzard has provided enough tools for women to carve out their own section of that world. A space where they wander around and talk about things they care about that don’t involve men ALL THE DAMN TIME. They shut off all the terrible chat channels, avoid random assholes as best they can and play characters that are as bored by the women in Warcraft lore as they are.

If you count player characters it probably took WoW about 20 seconds to pass the Bechdel Test. If not, you have to play the game for days on end before you level high enough to see two NPCs talking to each other about something other than men. Which of those numbers should count? How do you consider the community that’s formed around a game when you consider a game feminist or not? And can the Bechdel Test really be useful when you’re asking those kinds of questions?

So what have we learned over the past 404 329 404 words? We’ve learned that the things that make the Bechdel Test so powerful for TV and movies fall apart for games because player choice adds too many variables to the equation to reliably say what any conversation between women really means in context. In order to create a Bechdel Test for games we need something stable in the game that lets us judge how the game represents women.

Now I’m just a random straight dude who’s been thinking about this stuff for the better part of a day so I’ve got no suggestions that are nearly as elegant or useful as the original but I do have a general idea for a direction a new Bechdel Test should take.

It needs to focus on moments when control is taken away from the player.

There are always going to be limits on player freedom placed there by developers. It's impossible to program for every possible player action and even if it wasn't developers would still need to direct player behavior to tell a story.

Still, games are about making choices and developers will often do anything in their power to minimize taking control from players. The best commentary on this I’ve seen is still Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw talking about a concept they call Story Delta and the making of Portal. Here’s a slideshow and an interview where they talk about it. Since it's such an important distinction the moments when that control is taken away serve as indicators that something is both important to the developer and indicative of their intentions.

So here is my first suggestion, feel free to tell me on twitter or by e-mail how you’d streamline or completely change it.

A game fails the interactive Bechdel Test when it takes control away from a player specifically to sexualize a female character.

Any time the game gives you a cutscene or otherwise removes your control of a character for NO REASON but to sexualize a woman it fails.

I don’t think that this is a perfect test. Depending on how you define some of your terms the bar here is way too high or way too low and unlike the Bechdel Test it’s something you fail rather than pass.

This also completely ignores the issue of the user’s behavior because that’s both a simpler and harder problem to solve. It’s simpler to test for certainly (new Bechdel Test, if you go out of your way to turn a female character that isn’t sexualized in a game into a sex object for you you’re kind of a creep!) but it’s much harder to actually confront once you’ve tested it and it gets into the kind of issues Leigh Alexander discusses over here. Basically I think it opens up a whole other, equally important can of worms that doesn’t have as much to do with female representation.

For these and many other reasons I doubt my test will ever catch on very widely but I hope I’ve at least shown that some kind of new test would be beneficial. The problem with games isn’t that women aren’t talking to each other. Games are a medium where dialogue isn’t nearly as important as action. What we need is some way to figure out if the actions of female characters empower them as simply and brilliantly as the Bechdel Test does for their dialogue. It turns out that’s pretty hard.