Do Video Games Need Their Own Bechdel Test?

What kind of gamer are you? To me, “you are what you play.” I identify myself as a feminist gamer, so I choose games that don’t insult me as a woman. This is a relatively simple concept which unfortunately seems to be well over the head of many developers. Despite numbers from the Entertainment Software Association that suggest over 40% of gamers are women, there are a shocking number of companies that consider women “a secondary market and more often an afterthought,” and any success in the female market “a happy accident” (ESA 2011; Jenkins, 2008). I find it difficult to pick out the few games that respect their sizable audience of women.

With movies, it’s easy: use the Bechdel Test. Named for the artist that popularized the rule, Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel test first appeared in print in 1985 in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For. The test consists of three qualifications:

  1. Two women appear.
  2. They have at least one conversation together.
  3. The conversation is not about a man.

With games I find the rule problematic. While films are a passive entertainment where your input ends around the time you pop in the DVD, games have an infinite number of choices for the player. The interactive element changes a game from a series of images to a feedback loop, a bildungsroman where the player does not just witness characters develop. He (or she) instigates it.

For example, Arkham City easily meets the Bechdel test should you unlock or purchase the Catwoman downloadable content. The player can initiate a fight or a conversation between Catwoman and fellow Batman villainess Poison Ivy. The event adds an element of depth to both characters and lets players see the two characters as women with lives outside of Batman.

However, Arkham City has been slammed for perceived sexism. Catwoman may be a powerful and confident female character, but the depiction can be problematic. Her character is programmed to walk in an unnatural, stylized manner designed to call attention to the character’s body instead of the titular city. Enemies overuse the term “bitch” to demean and threaten her. Even if the criminal element were to use the term realistically, being called a bitch by every single enemy that approaches calls to mind uncomfortable questions about how the developers themselves feel about strong female protagonists. There has been some effort to work on this perception with the new Wii U re-release, featuring Catwoman in body armor.

With the lessons Arkham City has taught me, I’ve decided to come up with a new Bechdel-like test. Since we’re trying to decide whether or not to purchase, we’ll have to make use of easily accessible information like box art, trailers and advertising.
Here’s my proposed test:

  1. If a game has a playable female character
  2. Who isn’t fetishized to attract sales
  3. And isn’t meant to be rescued at any point

Then you have a game worth trying.

There still may be problematic elements to uncover later, but as with the Bechdel test we are looking for a baseline, not a perfect game.

Here’s how the test works:

  1. Can you play as a female character at any point in game? If all games represent a hero’s journey, than playing even a portion of the journey as a woman will help players identify with her story. Notable historical examples include Samus Aran and Lara Croft. I’ve noticed a trend in gaming where female characters get a small playable role even where a traditional male protagonist takes most of the limelight. Catwoman’s playable levels are one such example.
  2. If the female character is on the cover or in an advertisement, is she posing like a sexual plaything?  You can usually tell if a game’s going to have unfortunate gender politics by looking at the cover. If the female character appears poised for battle or contemplative, there’s usually less chance she’ll end up a sexual prize or cardboard cutout.
  3. Is there any reference to saving princesses on the box or in the advertisements? I love Mario and Zelda games as much as anyone, but if your princess needs to be saved it’s very unlikely she’ll end up with character development or a personality. Look for goals like saving the world over “getting the girl.” If the threat is that enormous, it’s more likely women and men will join forces to fight it. Role playing games excel at this – most Final Fantasy games, for example, deal with a world-threatening catastrophe. They also tend to have a good range of well-developed female characters. Incidentally, one of Arkham City’s first missions is rescuing Catwoman.

If you feel the game can meet these goalposts, then purchase at your leisure. If not, consider what you are paying for: again, you are what you play.

Works Cited:

ESA Entertainment Software Association. 2011 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. Rep. ESA Entertainment Software Association, 5 June 2011. Web. 29 Dec. 2011. <http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_EF_2011.pdf>.

“Catwoman Gets Armor AND It Covers Skin!” Cyber Femmes. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. <http://cyberfemmefatale.com/2012/08/30/catwoman-gets-armor-and-it-covers-skin/>

“GODDAMMIT VIDEO GAMES: THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF ARKHAM CITY IS LOTS OF FUN, BUT SUPER-DUPER SEXIST.” FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Dec. 2011. <http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/goddammit-video-games-the-first-few-hours-of-arkham-city-is-lots-of-fun-but-super-duper-sexist/>.

Hamilton, Kirk. “Batman: Arkham City’s Weird “Bitch” Fixation.” Kotaku, the Gamer’s Guide. Gawker Network, 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Dec. 2011. <http://kotaku.com/5851358/batman-arkham-citys-weird-bitch-fixation>.

Hinkle, David. “Catwoman Unlocked in Batman: Arkham City through Online Pass.” Joystiq. 13 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Dec. 2011. <http://www.joystiq.com/2011/10/13/catwoman-unlocked-in-batman-arkham-city-through-online-pass/>.

Jenkins, Henry and Cassell, Justine (2008). “From Quake Grrls to Desperate Housewives: A Decade of Gender and Computer Games.” Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat : New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. Ed. Yasmin B. Kafai. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. 5-20.