From Representation to Simulation: A Videogame Translation of the Bechdel Test
by Robin Haislett — Texas Tech University
March 15, 2013 – 00:00
By Robin Haislett (Texas Tech University) and Robert Moses Peaslee (Texas Tech University)
The Bechdel Test for Movies critiques how women are represented in popular film, which is seldom as anything more than an auxiliary character.
The Bechdel Test asks, in a particular film, 1) is there more than one woman, 2) do they talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. Of course, as the video points out, a depressingly overwhelming majority of mainstream American films fail the test.
We propose a version of this test for video games. But applying the Bechdel Test as-is to video games is problematic since, as Gustavo Frasca (2003) has pointed out, that test is about representation, and video games are about simulation. The two are not coterminous, so what we must develop is a test for gender simulation.
We propose a test made up of the following three questions:
1) Does the game have at least one playable character that demonstrates a gender identity outside of normative masculinity?
2) Do(es) this/these character(s) have access to the same range and level of abilities, upgrades, weapons, and status improvements as other playable characters?
3) Can this/these character(s) pursue a goal beyond killing a foe or rescuing a female?
For question one, we move past the question of female representation and into one of gender simulations outside of normative masculinity, since many games offer non-human characters as well as characters of fluctuating gender characteristics.
Question two asks if such characters are relegated to a specific set of abilities (e.g. the trope of the physically weak but elementally strong female mage). This question approaches designers’ historical predisposition toward encoding into the game’s structure essentialist notions of gender (Frasca, 2003).
The final question asks about the goal of the game. Both sexes play games in almost equal proportions (ESA, 2012) but the industry is overwhelmingly ruled by the adage of “save the princess, save the world.” Can the player can do something other than defeat a foe or save a damsel? If so, what does that mean?
What the original Bechdel Test does not address is whether the film represents women in a positive or negative light; only that women have some form of agency. Films such as Sucker Punch pass the Bechdel Test, but do little to improve the portrayal of women. Our test bears the same caveat: does the rebooted Tomb Raider pass the test, and if so, does that mean it’s good for women?