From Representation to Simulation: A Videogame Translation of the Bechdel Test

Curator's Note

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?

Comments

Agnes Trzak's picture

Gender Ambiguity in Games and Improved Portrayal of Women

Thank you for this creative adaptation of the Bechdel test!

Especially the first category makes a lot of sense this way, as, like you said, there are many amorphous and androgynous characters. Yet, I can’t help thinking that it has to be as broad as it is, including all non-masculinities because otherwise, narrowing the category down to exclusively female characters would fail most games (except perhaps for fighting games). Although, from a feminist perspective, I do think that non-masculine gender characteristics in all forms should be represented in all media. Perhaps this is something that other media can learn from video games.

The last paragraph also raises an interesting issue and it makes me wonder whether it is possible to make a demand for ‘improving’ the portrayal of women. What we definitely need, is the representation of more differently gendered characters in the media, which will give a variety of identities a voice. But we need to define closer what it means to ‘improve’ the portrayal of women (or any other non-male persons), as we must not neglect the variety of manifestations of women, their bodies and their personality traits. What I’m trying to say is that it is hard to say that this and that is a negative portrayal of a woman, because of e.g. what she is wearing, what she is saying, what shape her body has or who she interacts with. I think for example HBO’s Girls incorporated a good variety of female characters that in their dynamic interactions are definitely improving the portrayal of women. But if you singled them out, most of them would probably not be regarded in this way. But I can’t think of any video games that would show a variety of female characters.

Robin Haislett's picture

Appearance and interaction in games

I have to agree with you that our conceptualization of this test is not without vague definitions. The primary reason Rob Peaslee and I approach games in this was is exactly for the variety of playable characters that show no gender (e.g. the Wayfarer of “Journey”).

The first game I think of that represents a variety of female characters is Final Fantasy X-2. *quick summary* In the previous iteration, the female protagonist, Yuna, loses her love interest at the end of the story and this game centers around her and a band of two other female companions seeking him, and other answers, out. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_X-2

There are multiple perspectives one can take from this story: One is that a band of strong females overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in a world that does little to encourage them in their collaborative quest. Another is that it is a group of women in search of a love interest (save the prince?) and other coinciding` goals using “dresspheres” to determine their combative abilities (a summoner would have a different outfit than a warrior, back mage, white mage, etc.).

It brings up another element of female protagonists in games of how they look determining what they can do. In Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, the African American/French female, Aveline, you play as has three appearances, a “lady”, a “slave” and “Assassin.” If we were to determine the definition of a “good/strong” female in games as appearing in the same amount of armor as other playable characters, then this game would fall flat on its face. Though her abilities and what areas of the map are accessible are determined by her appearance, Aveline is by all means a well-trained combatant and sharp-witted character.http://assassinscreed.ubi.com/ac3/en-us/games/assassins-creed-3-liberation/index.aspx

I absolutely agree that trying to take certain elements out of a series like HBO’s Girls and examining them exclusively would be problematic as the interaction is one of the primary elements of any story.

In the same instance, I feel that there topic areas that could be focused on during the interactions that would promote women being viewed as more than eye candy. In this iteration of Tomb Raider, I was actually surprised as to how much her image was not discussed by any character, including the Solarii antagonists. She is still appealing - at least to the people who post on YouTube comments and other message boards - but even as her clothes become more tattered, extra pieces of cloth are underneath or wrapped around her limbs and still there are no derogatory comments about her femaleness (as discussed in Linzi Juliano’s post http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2013/03/14/crafting-croft-avatars-identity-representation).

Lastly, I think its important to note that we are not trying to remove femininity from this medium, but we are trying to highlight female characteristics in a more progressive and empowering light.

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