I want to talk about Alison Bechdel for a moment. Those who are into film and comics (and quite possibly, one or the other) will know her name if only by association with the much-discussed Bechdel Test, named after Alison herself after its appearance as part of the narrative of her comic strip series, Dykes To Watch Out For.
The test is a simple, three-part analysis of character interactions in a given fiction:
The test isn’t actually a qualitative measure, as some truly brilliant works actually fail to meet these three simple requirements; the point is that they are incredibly simple, and that the way women are represented in such media often even fails to meet such easily-achieved goals speaks a lot about that representation.
The point is not to assess quality in any way (indeed, a film such as Sin City passes, with its blatantly-sexualised prostitutes of Old Town; to name but one example), but to get people talking and understanding representation more.
In conversation, I have often argued that video games are not as readily-subjected to the Bechdel Test as other media by virtue of the fact that characters, narrative and dialogue are not as automatically apparent as the other media.
That games can be abstract is a strength of theirs that allows them to perhaps, if only in theory, transcend problems in gender representation inherited from other media should be considered when assessing the medium in any way. And so, today I devised a simple test for games — one that is in no way an equivalent of its inspiration, but arguably of equal importance for the form.
- (if a game has characters) two named characters…
- …on opposing sides (good versus evil, red versus blue, etc)…
- …are able to solve conflict without a fight.
As stated, this isn’t equivalent to the Bechdel Test — I have purposely not focused on gender, as is my personal modus operandi. It isn’t about gender politics in any way and designed to serve more as a partner to Bechdel’s method of analysis instead of compete with it.
It is worth nothing here that I am using the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word ‘fight’: to “take part in a violent struggle involving the exchange of physical blows or the use of weapons”.
Though gender isn’t the focus, in-game ‘verbs’ are. Attributed commonly to Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh, verbs are the in-game actions; the things a player will be doing in the game, that their time in the game world will be spent on. “Shoot” is a verb, as is “punch” or even indeed “kill”. That such things are incredibly common in games may give those not familiar with the form a tainted view of the medium:
“I would love to play video games but i don’t want to go around shooting people and ripping off their heads, it’s just gross” states pop-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, some time before her work on Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Any self-proclaimed ‘gamer’ can tell you that games aren’t just about that, but the fact of the matter is, they’re gamers. They already know this, and those who are not gamers do not.
It isn’t a large leap of the imagination for someone who perceives video games as exclusively violent may actually then think “to whom is this violence directed?” and even “is this violence directed to women?” before undertaking research on this very question. And though such research can’t ever be described as anything but socially-relevant and even important, it does come from a short-sighted perspective informed by a very limited portion of the sphere of that which games encapsulate.
And so, my quick grammar test. I am in no way decrying violent games in which the primary ‘verb’ is a combative one, but to have gamers demonstrate to themselves the limited vocabulary that many games possess. Games often present their audience with conflict/resolution situations, but how often does the resolution take the form of a non-combative verb such as “talk” or “guide” or “educate”? Not often, but it does happen.
And what would the harm be if those who create the games just tried to make it happen more?