Do videogames need their own version of the Bechdel test?

Virginia Woolf wrote that the most striking sentence she read in literature was "Chloe liked Olivia". In games, what would the equivalent be?

The Bechdel Test, proposed by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, is a pretty simple way of looking at female representation in films and television. In the strip, a character says she has three criteria to judge whether she will watch a film:

1. It has to have at least two women in it,

2. who talk to each other,

3. about something besides a man.

Earlier on Twitter, I saw a suggestion for an updating of the test to videogames:

Bartley has previously explored the idea in a blogpost, where she considers other possibilities for a videogames test. Should we look at the point of view - how many games allow you to play as a female character? Or should we look at what roles there are for women in games (Bartley says that she included the second two criteria because female characters are often a "helpless princess" or "object of desire")?

Games writer Laura Kate Dale also proposed an update:

Both of these are interesting starting points, although neither quite captures the spirit of the original - that "click" when you realise that in TV and films, the main character is usually male, and usually at the centre of a web of relationships with him. Women don't get to be at the centre of the web very often, and so end up being mothers, daughters, sisters, love interests. The idea that women might have an independent existence is still utterly alien.

Nonetheless, I wondered idly which of last year's bestselling games would past the two tests proposed above.

1. Hahahahahahaha. Although I suppose that Franklin's aunt and her friend talk about their exercise regime a fair bit. And there was a woman in the ads - in a bikini, sucking a lollipop. Empowerment.

2. This is Call Of Duty: Ghosts, in case the deeply generic palette and scenario confused you. It is, unsurprisingly, something of a man's world.

3. I haven't played Fifa, but I'm guessing there probably aren't that many female characters in it. Just guessing.

In fairness, things aren't so manly all the way down the rest of the top ten list (Pokemon X&Y; Assassin's Creed Black Flag; The Last of Us; Animal Crossing New Leaf; Tomb Raider; Monster Hunter IV; Bioshock Infinite) although I'm racking my brains for a conversation between Elizabeth and Daisy Fitzroy in Bioshock Infinite, or indeed Elizabeth and any other woman. Unsurprisingly, Tomb Raider does well on whatever measure you use: the new Lara Croft is a dab hand with a bow, and there are other female characters on the expedition with her. 

One of the problems with applying the test to games is that they are so diverse: the medium takes in Solitaire (a hotbed of misogyny, obviously - why is the King worth more than the Queen, eh?) and Candy Crush (riven with stereotypes about sweets, not to mention fat-shaming)*. Some games don't have characters at all; others have non-humans (although, from the voice actors used, I think all the dragons in Skyrim are male; no wonder they died out).

For me, the perfect games Bechdel test would go some way towards capturing the spirit of the original by being about relationships between women. It won't be relevant for lots of games, both indie and commercial, and that's fine. But there are enough games now with well developed characters, storylines and dialogues for the right test to say something meaningful. 

Bechdel has recently written that she believes the idea originally came from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, where the author registers surprise at reading the sentence "Chloe liked Olivia". 

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so! As it is, I thought, letting my mind, I am afraid, wander a little from Life’s Adventure, the whole thing is simplified, conventionalised, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more.

But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men…

Also, I continued, looking down at the page again, it is becoming evident that women, like men, have other interests besides the perennial interests of domesticity. “Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together…” I read on and discovered that these two young women were engaged in mincing liver, which is, it seems, a cure for pernicious anaemia: although one of them was married and had—I think I am right in stating—two small children. Now all that, of course, has had to be left out, and thus the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous. Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them: how literature would suffer!”

This focus on relationships between women is vital, because a rising number of female roles doesn't necessarily equate to better female roles. (I wrote about this in relation to Star Trek here: give me an impulsive female spaceship captain and her coldly analytical female first officer!) Recently, I've been watching Elementary, the CBS version of the Sherlock Holmes story, where Holmes is played by Johnny Lee Miller and Dr Joan Watson by Lucy Liu. 

Liu's Dr Watson is a former surgeon, who lost a patient, and then her medical licence. She now works as a "sober companion", and is assigned to look after the recovering heroin addict Holmes. At the end of the first series, she has a properly crackling interaction with a female villain, who is trying to do the whole Black Widow vamp thing (complete with updo and killer stilettos) and allude darkly to how she could kiiiiill her in a crowded restaurant. And Watson just looks at her, unimpressed. Yeah, whatever. Course you could. Is that the dessert menu?

It's an interaction that wouldn't have the same fizz if the two characters weren't both female. More than that, Watson's deep loyalty to Holmes feels fresh because she's his friend . . . not her prospective boyfriend, or her unrequited love. Just her friend. (Seriously, there is less sexual tension between them than between Cumberbatch and Freeman in the BBC's version. After the Bones Hook-Up That Shall Not Be Mentioned, that's bizarrely refreshing.)

So, anyway, that's what I want from a Videogames Bechdel Test. A sense of women with independent lives, talking to other women. Maybe then shooting them in the face, or running away from zombie hordes hand in hand. Or just even keeping a really, really well maintained vegetable plot together.

How many games out now would pass that kind of test? 

 

 

* I am really looking forward to angry comments from people who don't get that this is a joke.

Fan art imagining Team Fortress, with women.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era