Over the course of July, I finally decided to put forth my idea for adapting the Bechdel Test to games. I’ve tossed it around privately for awhile, and I’m hoping community feedback will help shape it into something useful. Now that it’s out in the world, it might be worth talking a little more about it here. First, the videos: one lays out the theory, while the other attempts to apply it to games.
One thing I knew going into this project was that I wanted The Path to pass. It would fail the traditional Bechdel Test based on the lack of dialogue, but if there were ever a game about women’s stories, The Path was it. So the question became how to account for representation in a medium where dialogue isn’t inherent. Likewise, was it necessarily a bad thing when there was only one woman on screen? In the case of something like Metroid, the woman was the only character on screen. It doesn’t make sense to dismiss games based on criteria nonessential to the medium.
The necessary change between a Bechdel Test for games and one for films, then, had to be the relationship being tested. Instead of looking exclusively at how women interact on screen–since other characters on screen are not essential to most games–it looks at the relationship between the woman playing the game and the woman performing the actions on screen. While I knew early on that something like The Path would be a model game I’d want to pass, the idea of shifting the parameters to include the audience was actually inspired by Mia Consalvo’s reading of Final Fantasy IX in The Video Game Theory Reader. The chapter is largely about sexuality in videogames, and what struck me was how she interprets the relationship between the hero Zidane, the heroine Princess Garnet, and the presumed straight male player. She argues, in part, that the relationship between the playable man, straight male player, and the woman narrative lead/romantic interest mirrors the erotic triangle seen in many films about male friendships. Where on film the woman desired by two male friends reconciles the men’s close relationship with heterosexual norms (think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), for Consalvo, Garnet does the same for Zidane and the player. In this application of the theory, the woman reconciles the player’s desire for and identification with the male avatar, something she sees as especially pertinent giving Zidane’s feminine appearance. This, of course, doesn’t take translation into account–the fact that Zidane originates in a culture where the boundaries of masculine and feminine are different–but it stuck with me nevertheless.
The problem I’ve found in adapting the Bechdel Test to be between player and avatar is that there are a lot of different filters through which that interaction is measured. In our Push to Smart episode, we discussed basic techniques that are borrowed from other narrative mediums–like the gaze of the camera or written dialogue–and it’s necessary not to fall into the trap of equating games with films. Achievements are another easy way for identifying objectification in action, but even they are not universal. For the most part, I’ve found that if a game has gendered its avatar, then it probably has enough narrative trappings to hang these easy identifiers of sexism on, but it’s definitely not as straight forward as the Bechdel Test’s yes or no questions: Are there two women? Do they speak to each other? Yes? Done.
For our test, we occasionally ran into a grey area. For instance, many games feature another character that gives the player/protagonist diegetic directions; how much help is too much help? When does it infringe on the lead character’s agency? If there’s any doubt, should that qualify as an automatic failure? Similarly, do we have some kind of imaginary penalty box for games that pass for most of their 20 hours but have one questionable shot of the main character’s ass? What about ridiculous, gendered animations (looking at you, Dragon Age 2)? These are all questions for which I don’t have definitive answers.
It’s tempting to give otherwise compelling characters a pass given the status quo, but I think we need to be stricter in order to truly bring attention to the disparity in how women and men are typically portrayed. The videos still have comments open, and I’m hoping we can iron out the theory’s kinks.
Recommended games that might pass
In the second video, we talk about Child of Light as a passing game. Unfortunately, it’s also terrible game that I can’t recommend to anyone in good conscious. So, let’s end with some games that pass and are actually good.
- The Path
- Monument Valley
- The Walking Dead: Season 2 (I love playing as Clementine.)
- Parasite Eve
- Metroid Prime
- Portal/Portal 2
- Final Fantasy VI
- Tomb Raider (2013)
- Beyond Good & Evil
- Assassin’s Creed: Liberation
- Gone Home (one of my 2013 GOTY!)
Some questionable honorable mentions: Space Chanel 5: Part 2 (passes the traditional Bechdel Test but has a weird, throwaway tentacle porn joke. However, Ulala doesn’t seem unaware unlike, say, Juliet in Lollipop Chainsaw), and Dragon Age 2 (those gendered running animations…).
I have high hopes for games like Broken Age that are still on my backlog, and I’d love to hear any suggestions!