January 9, 2014

Better Than Bechdel

Beyond: Two Souls

A few days ago I wrote an article about gaming’s equivalent of a Bechdel Test. Based on an adapted test from BechdelGamer.Wordpress.com and worked in to include interactivity as a base requirement, this is what I settled on as the best currently suggested Bechdel test for gaming.

In a game containing a recognizable narrative or characters:

1)     There are at least two female coded characters…

(a)   Of which both are either playable or a plot significant NPC (non-playable character)

2)     …who have at least one instances of sustained commutation (a conversation) with each other,

3)     About something other than a male coded character or characters.

4 )      A scene meeting these criteria is a unavoidable part of the game. It is impossible to beat the game without having a scene the passes the test, regardless of any choice you make as a gamer.

It’s not perfect, but it serves its purpose and, most importantly, is achievable even for games without a female playable protagonist (Beyond Good and Evil passes even if you ignore the existence of it’s lead character Jade). The problem however is that The Bechdel Test sucks. We need to be aiming higher than that.

Let me explain that in a little more depth. The Bechdel Test is a test of Quantity of female representation, it cares not for Quality. You can have a game that has a great quality of female representation like Thomas Was Alone fail the Bechdel test because the women in the story never take part in actual Dialogue and terribly misogynist games pass the test just by sheer brute force. Throw enough sexist stereotypes of women together and they’ll likely have a conversation that passes through by the pure law of averages. The Bechdel Test is a way to highlight how woefully inadequate representation in a medium is, it does nothing to help us compare and rank quality of representation, to tell us if a game is actually helping women to get closer to equal representation.

That’s where I hope to change things a little with Better Than Bechdel. I want to create some form of scoring system over time that we can use to give a ballpark figure as to how well women are represented within a given video game. There’s no way to make something this subjective perfect and these numerical scores that are produced will be largely debatable, but I want a way for us to be able to point to what a given game does well and does badly when it comes to representing women. I want a way to get dialogue opening up about representation of women in a framework that men and women alike can find common ground on.

Step one of this process was going to Twitter and getting suggestions for thew things that bother women most about their representation in video games. I combined that list with several of my own pet peeves and many suggestions made when I was working on the above Bechdel variant that I deemed too subjective or too high a barrier to such a base level test. The resulting list appears below and I’ll add to it in future any time someone suggests something that seems a good fit. These are all complaints that people have made to me, we will get to implementing these in a  form that can be scored later in the piece.

“Gamers shouldn’t have to refer to the character as Miss X or Fem Y (Miss Pacman, Fem Shep Ect).”

“They should fill an integral role to the plot, not just be there as a token character or eye candy. Did they need to exist at all?”

“They Shouldn’t always be the victim to be rescued or the healer to nurture. Would like to see them on the offensive, men taking those roles from time to time.”

“Female Characters should look like they might have conceivably picked their own outfit.”

“No more “Boob Sculpt Armour”. It would crack your ribs open on the lightest impact. Take your cues from Pacific Rim Female Armour which has extra room to accommodate breasts but is not sculpted to them with a rib cracking dip in the centre.”

“A female character should be playable at some point in the narrative, even if just for a couple of mins.”

“A Female playable lead who is visible in game and fires a gun that kills people gruesomely would be a welcome change to the norm.”

“Female Characters shouldn’t have to be pristine. We should be able to have women in games that could be described as grizzled, battle scared, flawed, manipulative, evil. Women shouldn’t have to be paragons of virtue, we could do with some female horrible anti heroes. Let’s see some games where you get to play as a “Bad Girl”.”

“Please avoid gendered identifiers. Don’t just stick a pink bow on Pac Man or Splosion Man and tell us it’s a cool female character. It’s not, it’s your male character with a big label on its head that says Female.”

“I’d love to see more games about women where the female character is pictured solo on the box cover looking powerful rather than chasing after the man you’ll undoubtedly play as.”

“If your game gives us the option to play as male or female, don’t automatically make Male the Default. I’m sick of seeing Male pop up and having to change it to Female. I’m sick of seeing only the male character in the adverts. I’m sick of Male being the default cover art and Female being the optional reverse art for those who want it. Don’t be afraid to make Women the ones you advertise and Men the option that isn’t immediately obvious but does exist for those who want it.”

“I’d love to see a woman in games who enjoys traditionally male pursuits, like Sam in Gone Home. However, please don’t feel they need to be gay to get to be into angry music and video games ect.”

“I want to see more women as enemies in video games. Not sexualised women, not trans women, just women that do horrible things and need to be stopped”.

“It’s all well and good having good women in games, but usually there stories are deeply intertwined with that of a male hero of some sort. Let’s see some women with stories of their own that are not about proving a man is strong enough to protect his new surrogate daughter or something like that”.

“I enjoy seeing games like Remember Me where the game is actually its own Female Lead IP, not a spin off or universe tie in from some existing male centric game universe or story”.

That’s the 15 complaints I got sent most frequently about the Quality of female representation in video games. From here I formed a list of points that will work as negatives for scoring the quality of a game. I’m also going to wrap some quantity of representation points into the list at this stage. Every game has a base score of 35 and the score drops accordingly.

In a game containing a recognizable narrative or characters:

Gamers commonly refer to a female character in a way that highlights they are a female variant of a male character. If there is no named female character, these points are still lost.(-2)

The most prominent Female Character in the game wasn’t important to the plot. The plot could have happened without them. (-1)

Prominent Female Characters in the game are primarily there as kidnap victims, general victims, prizes to be won or healers/ non combatants in combat games. (-2)

Female Characters don’t feel like they might have believably picked out their own outfit. To clarify, skimpy outfits are still okay as long as it fits in a narrative context and seems easily justifiable. (Example: a woman going undercover as a prostitute would likely choose a revealing outfit of her own accord). (-2)

Women Wearing “Boob Sclupted Armour”. These points are lost in a non Armour game if women are wearing needlessly sexualised outfits without narrative purpose. (-3)

A) Female is a never selectable playable character option. (-3)


B) Female is a secondary playable character option (-1)


C) Every playthrough requires you to play as a female character at some point, but the vast majority of the game you play as a male character. (-1)

The game fails the above Bechdel Test. (-2)

A female playable lead is restricted to traditionally non lethal weapons if they take part in combat. If men take part in combat but women do not, these points are also lost. (-2)

No female character can be described using words that are antonyms to Pristine. (grizzled, battle scared, flawed, manipulative, evil ect). Basically this requires them to be a flawed character, without relying on stereotypical female flaws (Vulnerable, emotional ect). (-3)

Uses Gendered Identifiers prominently to denote Female Character(s) (-2)

A Female Protagonist is not prominently featured on the game box art (specifically the front cover). (-2)

In a game where you choose your protagonist gender, Male is the Default. Side note, you also loose these three points if you have no choice but to play the whole game male.(-3)

No Female character, portrayed as straight and Cisgender, enjoys a stereotypically Male pursuit or, if they do, it’s made into a big deal. (-2)

A Cisgender Woman does not at any point appear as an enemy/ villain . If they are an enemy or villain, it’s for reasons related to their gender or the actions of a man. (-2)

The most prominent female character’s story is highly dependent on that of the most prominent male character. (-2)

The game is a spin off from a series that features primarily Male protagonists. (-2)

Each of the above ideas I have tried to weigh against each other. I initially had some points phrased as positive points but this meant that games that didn’t have Armour in them were automatically loosing out on points irrelevantly and other similar cases. I got around this by starting all games at a max score and punishing negative representation rather than trying to reward specifics.  A game could score anything between a high of 35 and a low of 0 on this scale.

Let’s take a look at some games and see how they would comparatively score on this scale. First up, Tomb Raider 2013 would get a score of around 30 out of 35. The points it lost were due to Lara as a protagonist not having any negative flawed traits that were not gendered stereotypes and there not being any female villains or enemies to face.

While I mentioned earlier that Thomas Was Alone would fail the above Bechdel Test due to it’s monologue nature, it would still get a score of 29 out of 35. It lost points for using gender markers (the pink character being female), failing the Bechdel test and not featuring any female villains.

My go to example for female representation in games, Beyond Good and Evil, would score 31 out of 35. Points were lost because she is limited largely to melee attacks with a staff in combat and there are no identifiable female enemies or villains in the game.

This is not a final test, but rather something of a work in progress. I highly encourage feedback either in the comments or on Twitter at @LauraKBuzz. I want advice on how to improve this, how to refine it. What should I add, what should I remove? What do you think? Are these good criteria to judge positive female representation on? Is it possible to create a mark scheme that works for all games? Let me know your thoughts and I will continue to work on this.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Hey Laura, really loving the work that’s gone into this, I think you’re onto a winner here, especially with the scoring system, it’s great to numerically chart how games fare up against each other.

    I’ve been having a think and I wanted to give you some thoughts:
    1) Female variants of male characters – It’s interesting because this rule negates really positive games like Mass Effect or Skyrim that let players (regardless of gender) be the hero of their story. This test/scoring system can’t judge a game by what “Gamers” refer to characters by, Mrs Pac Man, sure, is just a sexist renaming, not to mention the depiction, but Femshep is a fan-term that took hold. Canonically, she should be “Jane Shepard” and “John Shepard” as those are the default names for the genders.
    In later checks, you make the point of wanting playable characters for both genders, but were a game to strive for 100% on this test, it would only achieve this by producing completely different character playthroughs for each gender. RPGs in particular empower players to make their own character for scratch, it would be close to impossible to make every one of those combinations unique in terms of their playthrough and if you start making exceptions for gender, do you also make exceptions for race? The character of Shepard (as an example) exists as genderless as possible and I think that’s a good thing for the depiction of women in games. I would argue that the ‘Femshep’ issue is more a gaming community issue rather than a problem with the game (although I’ll come back to it in a bit)

    Points 4 + 5 seem to be the same point. Over sexualised outfits appearing in games would fail both of these, it probably makes sense to merge them, and also include overly sexualised proportions and performances from the voice actors. Even if Arkham City’s catwoman was zipped up, the camera lingers and makes no uncertain leers that she is as much there for titillation.

    5 (a/b/c)) This could do with clarifying a bit. Not all games have multiple selectable characters. It becomes quite arrogant to have as a condition of a game being 100% in its depiction of women in the narrative to be selectable and playable. If things were reversed and men were playing a Buffy game where only Buffy was playable, it wouldn’t need to be marked down for its depiction of men in the narrative because I can’t play as a man.
    That said, I think you could quantify this point that if the player can select from multiple characters.
    I worry that this checklist runs the risk of asking writers/designers to compromise the design of a game. Some puzzle games that feature a single character throughout would be compromised by requiring a forced character swap. Again, does enforcing a character swap to the opposite gender improve the depiction of women in the game narrative?

    (As a side note, I worry that this list is trying to serve two very noble masters: one is to improve the depiction of women in videogames. The other is to get more games with women in them. While both are great, I think this checklist should focus on the former, gauging games that exist or will exist, by the work they’ve done. Whilst it would be great to feature women as playable characters in games wherever possible, it has to be right for the game.)

    8) This check seems quite awkward, are you trying to make sure the character has a developed personality? It reads with too many double negatives I got confused. It also seems like a personal preference. You want all your female characters to have flaws? Lots of characters, male and female don’t have flaws that are pertinent to the story. They are weak characters but it’s not a dealbreaker. The quality of game writing needs to improve but it gets presumptuous to make requests about ensuring every female character has complex flaws. Maybe it should be conditional that if a female character has flaws and traits they are scored against for playing to stereotype?

    9) What does this mean?

    10) What if no characters are featured on the boxart? Sometimes the villain is on the boxart, or, in Gone Home’s case, a house. This could do with clarifying that should other protagonist(s) feature on the boxart, the primary female character should as well. This is interesting in terms of Mass Effect 3, since the covers are reversible. Of course this means that there needs to be a default and therefore an assumption that one is “right” and the other is the genderswapped “wrong” version. Truthfully, though, you can’t not have a default. It seems like if there is a swappable cover, it was produced in good faith and should be accounted for. I like that the front cover is a dealbreaker though, the story of moving The Last of Us’ Ellie to the back cover would and should have lost it marks.

    11) Firstly, didn’t you already score games down for the side note in check 5? I’d consider reconciling them. Secondly, I assume for this to pass, there needs to be no gender and players need to pick one from a blank slate, rather than have a “male” default already filled in? It’s arguably equally sexist if a female gender is defaulted, I’m not sure but it would make sense for the language to reflect any gender being the default, not just Male.

    12) Again, this point starts with “No” so I can’t tell if this is a double negative. Are you saying that if a straight cisgendered character isn’t enjoying a stereotypically male pursuit they loose marks? what if the situation never arises? Maybe this should be reworded so that it’s clear that “if a straight cisgendered female character enjoys a stereotypically male pursuit it’s not made into a big deal”. That said, if the game itself is exploring the attitudes of those who are giving her a hard time, it should get a pass, so maybe add “unless in service of the story”?

    13) The first sentence either reads like you don’t want women characters as villains or you’ll mark the game down unless one of the villains is a woman. I can’t tell. The second part is spot on, though. Too many “rape” or “sexual assault” or other deeds performed by a man in backstories for one lifetime. I would consider expanding this a little, though as I’ve heard stories of good guy women who are equally motivated to bring the villains down because of the same reasons. It might be simpler to suggest that any strong/powerful women should not be motivated by reasons relating to their gender or the actions of a man”? unless you see these issues as distinctly different. I’m thinking back to the controversy about the Lara Croft reboot, and the concern at one point that the story implied she was only tough and a “survivor” because she is a sexual assault survivor.

    14) I’m not sure what this one means, sorry. I took a guess but I figured that if a female and male protagonist are after the same goal, working together, that their stories would be dependent on each other? Have I read that wrong? Again I’m assuming here, but if the story is about the lead male character and the lead female character is helping him accomplish this goal, it seems inescapable. I don’t think a game should be penalised because of this.

    15) Personally, I don’t think this should be in this test; you’re delivering the sins of the father upon the son a bit, here. Regardless of the franchise history, the game and its story should stand on its own two feet. Different writers, development team and audiences all work to a completely different kind of game. There’s nothing stopping a game based on the James Bond franchise or the Die Hard franchise from 100%ing this test if they wanted to, but this last check, like the first check, gauges something completely out of the development team’s hands.

    as an addition, talking to one of my friends about your test, she was very positive and supportive too. One she mentioned that I don’t know if you received on twitter, was that when playing Arkham City, as Batman she overheard goons talking about “look out, batman, lets scram” but when she was playing as Catwoman she heard “I’d sure like a piece of that ass” etc. even reaching the level of desiring to sexually assault her. It would be great if something that concerned the language/dialogue used in relation to female characters was included (if possible). Maybe that’s what check 9 was, I’m not sure.

    Overall, I think it would be also easier to read if you stuck to the same way of structuring all the points, some of the double negatives read like “no doing this, if so negative points” and I’m lost.

    Anyway, that’s just my thoughts. I know it’s a work in progress and I look forward to seeing what you think and also what everyone else has been saying too.
    Good luck with it all.

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