Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their Own Bechdel Test

November 19, 2013 - Jon Hochschartner

In our latest Letters to the Editor, freelance writer Jon Hochschartner posits that animal rights activists need their own "Bechdel test" to evaluate the mistreatment of animals in video games.

Animal activists need their own rubric to assess anthropocentrism in fictional work that's similar to the Bechdel test employed by feminists to gauge gender bias.

Named for its popularizer, the Bechdel test has three requirements an artistic piece must meet in order to pass. First, it has to include at least two women. Second, they have to speak to each other. Third, they have to speak to each other about something other than a man. Despite its limitations, this simple test has proven effective at highlighting sexism in films and other works of fiction.

Animal activists would benefit from something similar. I'd like to put forward what might be the basis for such a test. The standard would be simple. To pass, any work with unnecessary violence by humans against animals would have to include some kind of editorial signal that the practice is wrong. Now what exactly does that mean? Because I write about video games, I will use examples from that medium, but the test could easily apply to others.

To begin, the categories of humans and other animals would not be limited to their existing forms. For instance, the creatures of the "Pokémon" series, who are captured in the wild and trained to fight, are clearly analogous to animals. Similarly, despite looking feline, the Khajiit of "The Elder Scrolls" series, who ride horses and practice religion, have far more in common with humans than other real-life species.

Let's clarify some more terms. What's unnecessary violence against animals? An example can be found in "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," in which Link can catch fish with a rod. The fish pose no immediate, unavoidable threat to Link, and there's no indication he's incapable of surviving on plant-based foods. This is unnecessary violence against animals. In contrast, in 2013's "Tomb Raider," Lara Croft need not seek out wolves for them to pursue her and cause her lethal damage if she doesn't kill them first. Though wolves don't actually behave this way in life, within the game this violence against animals is much more necessary.

But artists often want their work to reflect the reality of today or the past. And those realities unfortunately include a lot of unnecessary violence by humans against animals. The test would make room for the depiction of these, so long as the work includes editorial signals the practice is wrong.

Some readers may rankle at the idea that games should take a position, however subtly, on anything, let alone unnecessary violence against animals. But like it or not, games transmit value systems. Even games that are infamous for their supposed nihilism, like the "Grand Theft Auto" series, do. While the criminal franchise revels vicariously in the wrongness of its protagonists actions against other humans, it's generally clear their actions are wrong. In contrast, unnecessary violence against animals in video games typically isn't portrayed as problematic. Unlike, say, shooting pedestrians in "Grand Theft Auto," unnecessary violence against animals in video games generally isn't a knowing transgression of moral boundaries. This needs to change.

Editorial signals that unnecessary violence against animals is wrong can be communicated in a number of different ways. Some games, such as the "Fallout" series, include a morality meter, which, based on a player's in-game actions, will assign players an ethical status that will affect how their character is treated. More often though, value systems are transmitted through plot, dialogue, character development, and other methods. Most obviously, one knows the villain's actions are wrong because of his or her role in the story. Editorial signals, however subtle, that unnecessary violence against animals is wrong are limited in form only by artists' imaginations.

That would be the test in a nutshell. To pass, any work that features unnecessary violence against animals would have to include some kind of editorial signal the practice was wrong. Further, unnecessary violence against animals does not include defense against an immediate, unavoidable threat. Editorial signals can be conveyed in a variety of ways. But some additional factors must be added that have so far been left out for the sake of simplicity.

For the test's purposes, the definition of violence would need to be expanded to include confinement and involuntary labor. Otherwise, for instance, the "Zoo Tycoon" series, which centers on unnecessary confinement of animals, could potentially pass so long as, within the context of confinement, minimal welfare needs are met.

Some animal activists might believe the depictions of unnecessary violence against animals requiring negative editorial signals should include not just the actions themselves, but the human-desired results of these actions, such as meat, leather or eggs. Ideally, this would be the case. But my initial thought is that, given our society's current anthropocentrism, passing the test would be seen as unattainable and artists would not attempt to do so.

If adopted, hopefully this test would help identify the ubiquity of speciesism in fictional works in much the same way as the Bechdel test does for sexism.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. You can check out his most recent work at Salon.com.


Comments

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their Own ...

I understand where they're going with the argument, but then, humans are animals and there's tons of unnecessary violence against them. Also, just my opinion but no one needs a Bechdel test for anything. All it does is poorly attempt to shame content creators for making the content they want. It isn't a measure of anything useful.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their Own ...

I agree with the concept, but...

I hunt, in real-life. I do not need too, as I can go to the store and buy my meat there, but I choose to as a form of recreation and because I get satisfaction from gathering my own food. Like a gardener, they do not 'need' to garden but choose too.

I even take a very, "Native American" view of hunting where I use the most of the animal I can. I can sell much of the hids/feathers/bones to artisans and hobbies who make various items.

 

Off-topic: I just remembered, I need to renew my rabbit flu vaccine. Rabbit meat is good, and their fur is very warm and soft.

I may be crazy, but I am not insane.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their Own ...

Well, I think the concept, at least in the medium term, is to get people thinking about their ethical choices rather then just going with the dominant norm.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their Own ...

I remember getting bitched at by Rose and the Colonel for shooting too many seagulls in MGS2.  Good times...  :)

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

I can't wait to see the counter point GP will offer up next.  Or is this it? 

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

If someone sends in a thoughtful counter point, we'll publish it.

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

Come on, man.  With a name like that, just go ahead and call it the "Hochschartner test."

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

What's unnecessary violence against animals? An example can be found in "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," in which Link can catch fish with a rod. The fish pose no immediate, unavoidable threat to Link, and there's no indication he's incapable of surviving on plant-based foods. This is unnecessary violence against animals.

I like the piece over all, but this statement I just can't wrap my hand around. We as humans have long subsisted on an omnivorous diet. I see no problem with including such mechanics in a game in which humans or human-like characters require food. To say that gathering such food is not only unnecessary but also violent seems to detract from the main point.

I will admit that there can be issues in a game like Pokemon where animals are exploited as mere fighting instruments or a game like Monster hunter where sport is the primary motivation, but hunting specifically for food seems to be an odd detraction from that.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

But Pokemon does take an editorial stand.

http://brawlinthefamily.keenspot.com/2010/09/27/275-hyper-beam/

 

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

I have the same problem here.  Also this is a missapplication of the Bechdel test in a manner of speaking.

 

The Bechdel test does not inherently assume wrongdoing on the part of the fiction analyzed under it.  Look at its factors:

2 women

2 women speak to each other

That talk is not about a man

 

First I'm not going to get into the fact that that test is flawed by that third factor (shoudl be narrowed down to romantic interests - becausee Harry Potter films fail on the grounds of women talking about Voldemort who is the major villain and I belive the context betrays the meaning of the test.

 

This test however starts with looking at "unecessary violence" towards an animal.  This has two problems.

 

1.  It immediately ASSUMES that violence against an animal is unnecessary, this is now how you begin an objective test.  If anything it should be looking at "violence against an animal" to me this shows too much bias as is evidenced by the denotation that fishing is unnecessary because the character isn't shown incapable of living off of plants.

 

2.  What is "unnecessarily" is entirely subjective and subject to other controlling factors.  The author just assumes all violence that isnt a result of the player's continued survival is unecessary.  But let's take the new Assassin's Creed for example, that game contains whaling and hunting.  Generally the animals in the game do not pose a threat to you (there are exceptions like gators).  BUT, the historical context of this period makes it not necessary but a part of the world and environment resulting in authenticity to the world Ubisoft was attempting to create.  Ths would however fail the test.  Necessity changes in context - in GTA you have no need to kill animals so that would be unecessary.  But in Red Dead Redemption one of the earliest missions is to shoot some rabbits on a farm - now, I love rabbits, I have a pet one, but I totally understand why the act of shooting rabbits on a farm in the wild west was necessary because otherwise they ate both your livelihood and food supply - yet they pose no threat to the player.

 

At core this is my problem with this entire proposal - it starts with a very narrow view of what is right and wrong and doesn't supply context to anything.  The Bechdel test (albeit for one error as discussed supra) is a critical lens with which to view a medium, it does not assume wrongdoing and doesn't tell anybody how to craft their medium, just now to restrict the female characters to one type of existence - this test however just assumes that if the player isn't threatened then the act is wrong and needs a warning.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

Well, keep in mind the Bechdel test is not intended to be very nuanced.  Much of its utility comes from applying both it and its inverse to any particular story.  For instance within the Harry Potter movies the inverse test, where you have more then 2 (named) male characters talking about something other then a female, quite easily.  Even removing dialog centered around the two major (male) characters and you still have plenty of such conversation.

Which is where I agree this animal test kinda fails.  The Bechdel test is useful because of its simplicity, its incredibly low bar, and the ease at which it can contrast its own inverse.  This animal one is complex and subjective, as is its inverse, and I am not sure it is all that low of a bar esp in fantasy games.

I am not sure what would make a better simple test, but I think the author did touch on something with a glimmer of possibility when they were talking about GTA and how the game handles consequences for the same mechanic differently depending on if the subject is human or not.  Setting aside GTA's specific context, some test that compares the animal violence to, say, against children, and how the mechanics differ for those, might be more useful or at least concrete.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

I imagine what he's getting at is in the context of that specific game, Link is fishing for no other reason than for trophies.

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

If that was the case, why the whole "they could live off plant matter" stuff?

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

Because Link being incapable of living off plant matter would imply he was fishing for food, making the violence against the fish not unnecessary (if you'll excuse the double negative).

At least, that's my take on what he was getting at.

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

The inclusion of Ocarina of Time would have made sense had his argument been about fishing for sport/trophies. But to try to turn it into a pro-vegetarian/vegan argument was a poor choice given his overall theme.

I have no problems discussing the morality of sport hunting/fishing.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

This was my reading as well and a large part of my problem with the article in that it illustrates the subjectivity as a flaw to this overall "test" as it is being used to convey a particular political message rather than to improve the video game industry.

The Bechdel test is striving for better written and less stereotypical women in games, this test alternatively seems to aim to try to get people to think critically about their mistreatment of animals and that mistreatment is highly subjective but here the author ideally wants the nigh abolishment of animals (eggs are a problem and even beasts of burden).

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

Hmm, I'll have to give it another read 'cause that's not what I got out of it.

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

His basis for calling fishing in Ocarina of Time "unnecessary violence" against animals was because 1) the fish were not an immediate threat and 2) he could have lived on a plant-based diet.

I can see how the first argument could meet his point and he could have even included the chickens for that as it is mechanically possible to abuse chickens in the game even though they are immortal and retaliate. However, I don't see how hunting/fishing for food would be any indicator that the violence used is "unnecessary".

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

"However, I don't see how hunting/fishing for food would be any indicator that the violence used is "unnecessary"."

Unless I overlooked something when I read the editorial, it's not.  If Link were fishing for food, it would be fine.  But he's not.  So, the violence against the fish is unnecessary.

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

But that is not Jon's argument. Jon's argument is that Link could eat things other than fish, so therefore the act of fishing is unnecessary violence. 

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

"The fish pose no immediate, unavoidable threat to Link, and there's no indication he's incapable of surviving on plant-based foods. This is unnecessary violence against animals."

Ooh, I see what you're saying.  In other words, even if Link did eat the fish he caught, that's still unnecessary violence because there are other alternatives.

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

Exactly.

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

Hrm.   While I agree that such a mechanic is appropriate for the context, I think going through the process of examining it to decide if it is necessary and if it is violent is in and of itself a good thing.

I can recall a show I watched a while back, where the main character was looking at the ethics of hunting to feed herself vs hunting to feed some starving humans.  In the end she hunted and provided meat, but it still got the watcher to think a little about it.

Even when it is necessary, there is still room to play with it.  Take for instance the old plot element of a vampire needing blood to survive.  It is necessary, but usually not portrayed as good and there is backlash from prey.  When working in a mythological game one can include all sorts of potential consequences from patron deities or protectors... which could lead to some interesting mechanical tradeoffs.. "do I dig up some tubers and roast them, or do I risk pissing off the local naiad and get some fish?"

Re: Letters to the Editor: Animal Activists Need Their own ...

The risk there is now the test would be affecting the core element of any game - the gameplay.  I don't think you can inherently restrict a game's fundamentals in order to fit a particular mold for narration.  Movies and TV I understand because at the core of that is the story - but games rely on more than story and even can survive perfectly fine without one if the core gameplay is good enough.  But to effectively risk punishing a player for participating in core game design is problematic if not considered based on the ramifications it can have on the overall game.

 

Additionally, punishing someone based of of a choice is not a choice and will result in them always choosing the other option and will not even consequently have the desired effect the author is suggesting.  If I create a game with a food harvesting mechanic, and I provide no disincentive to survive on plants but punish the player for harvesting meat (or even eggs) then player behavior will shift over to the vegetarian option because the other option provides no real benefits but instead contains a penalty.  The consequence will not result in critical thinking about the activity amongst players but instead they'll just choose the easier route and question why the other exists because it is being judged based on gameplay and not any greater societal construct.

 
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