Opinion: Borderlands 2's 'Girlfriend Mode' and casual sexism

Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield examines the internet fury over a Borderlands 2 skill tree, unofficially dubbed "girlfriend mode." Is this an example of "casual sexism" in the game industry?
Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield examines the internet fury over a Borderlands 2 skill tree, unofficially dubbed "girlfriend mode." Is this an example of "casual sexism" in the game industry? It all started with a visit from Eurogamer to Gearbox's Dallas studio, to check out what was new in the upcoming sandbox shooter Borderlands 2. There was discussion of a new female character class, currently called the Mechromancer. Based on that interview, pundits around the internet have gotten up in arms about lead designer John Hemingway's assertion that one of the Mechromancer's skill trees, officially titled "Best Friends Forever," is a "girlfriend mode." Here's the original quote, from Eurogamer. "The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we've ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That's what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is." The mode is meant to allow those who aren't so great at the game a leg up, and a chance to support and help a better player, which is a great idea in general. But the problem people have is with his terminology. For example, David Wildgoose of PC Powerplay wrote, "The term 'girlfriend mode' says 'Hey, you're a girl so you must be terrible at playing games, so here's how we're going to help you.'" Kotaku's Stephen Totilo found the term lacking, and adds that it's pointless to gender-specify this mode. He writes; "Here's another angle to consider here: the phrase 'girlfriend mode' is unnecessary because someone - people at Nintendo - already came up with a better term: 'co-star mode.' Co-Star mode was introduced in 2007's Super Mario Galaxy with the intention of letting a second player assist the first." Others have gotten up in arms in the opposing direction, saying this backlash is political correctness gone wild. IGN's Colin Moriarty says, "Many people are tired of knee-jerk reactions that attempt to take people's words and spin them into something offensive when they were meant innocuously. And they're especially sick of being subjected to the vocal whims of a few people that feel like they need to be there to protect someone or something that never requested their help in the first place." He later adds, "any rational person already knows that the mention of 'girlfriend mode' doesn't make a person sexist." Gearbox president Randy Pitchford responded on Twitter, indicating that it was a personal anecdote, adding, "'boyfriend mode' or 'girlfriend mode' is an idea that suggests that a gamer's [significant other] isn't as hardcore as the gamer him/herself," and "It's not a thing. Just sensationalism. There's a TBD skill for a future DLC [character] that is helpful for noob co-op buddies. That's a good idea!"

Casual Sexism

I do believe that the mode is a good idea, and I also believe that Hemingway didn't mean any offense to women. Still, simply saying something is not sexist doesn't make it not sexist. I've addressed this problem before, but the issue I find worrisome is that "girlfriend mode" made it into Hemingway's lexicon at all. It's not an official mode name, but it rolled off the tongue so easily. Developers don't head into press meetups completely unprepared - he must have thought of this term before. It was said without malice, but also without really thinking about what it might mean to some people. It was unconscious. Let's break down the statement, keeping mind the idea that one of the most important things about it is that it was said offhand. First, it says that the character has a cute design, which should indicate girls want to play it. Second, by calling it "girlfriend mode," even casually, it says the game is most likely going to be played by heterosexual males, shutting out female core players from his thought process. (As I mentioned on Twitter, even the statement was meant to include hardcore female players, they don't all have girlfriends.) It also implies that that male's girlfriend will likely not be as good at playing games as the male, because that is what the mode is designed for, and he mentioned it's for people who "suck at it." Then there's the "for lack of a better term" part of this statement. As Totilo pointed out, there is a better term already. Lastly, let's consider again that this was said casually, without malice, and without thought that it could be construed negatively. Hemingway may not have been aware of it, but "girlfriend mode" makes a very specific statement, not about Borderlands 2, not about Gearbox, nor even particularly about Hemingway himself. It says something about our continuing growing pains as an industry. After all, how likely would Hemingway have been to call it a "boyfriend mode?" Hemingway, while I'm sure a perfectly lovely gentleman, is unconsciously perpetuating the casual sexism that has permeated traditional game development. People simply don't think about women that much in the triple-A game industry, and when they do, it's often as an afterthought, as we see here.

The Digital Women's Movement

The backlash against articles about sexism toward women keeps getting stronger, as people get more frustrated with the increasing cries of inequality in articles like this one I've just written. Why is this issue looming so large these days, you might wonder? And why are people getting so upset when these missteps are pointed out? I believe it's simply growing pains. Women represent 42 percent of the game market as of 2011, according to the ESA. These women are finding a voice, and realizing how many games are made today that don't keep them in mind. It's fine to make a game for a specific audience, but if part of a large audience feels they aren't being represented - or worse, feels they're represented improperly, you will hear about it. Any time a group finds themselves to be on newly-equal footing in a space, be it film criticism, game media, or voting, there will be some dissent as that group asserts their right to be there, and those who previously dominated find that they no longer dominate quite so much. This is where the reactions of Moriarty and others come from, I believe. He says that simply calling it "girlfriend mode" doesn't necessarily make anyone a sexist, but I'm afraid it does in this context. It is certainly not overt sexism, like the classic "shut up and make me a sandwich" line. No, this is an insidious sort of sexism that has simply permeated game development culture. It's all the more dangerous because the perpetrator will most likely not realize it him/herself unless it's pointed out. We all profile people sometimes. It's easier to put people into categories when we think of them, especially when designing a product for the masses. These profiles can come across in our language, as it has with Hemingway. Women are not a small minority or an afterthought in games anymore, they're nearly half the market. But they're not even close to half the people making games - women are about 10 percent of the industry according to the 2011 Salary Survey in Game Developer magazine. There are simply going to be growing pains as we males, who are used to saying what we please in the industry, continue to realize that we have a large, growing contingent of intelligent people buying our products who are not male - people we should be treating as potential customers. Again, I'm sure that Hemingway didn't mean to offend anyone. But I do hope he realizes that he has, in fact. Issues like these tend to get swept under the table, which is why I'm glad it's being spoken about. These are good things to think about in a consumer-facing industry, even if you disagree with my conclusion. Pitchford says that the anger surrounding "girlfriend mode" is "just sensationalism." But Hemingway actually said something rather sensational, and that should be acknowledged. To tweet that it's "boyfriend mode" or "girlfriend mode," as he did, is a bit revisionist. He didn't say "boyfriend mode," he said "girlfriend mode," and those statements are loaded in very different ways. Our industry is still young, and developers don't always think through every part of every statement. Journalists, likewise, aren't always perfectly equipped to deal with these issues when they come up. To subvert a Frank Zappa quote, "Game journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read." We make games, not speeches. But in a growing and increasingly public industry, we have to start thinking more about the meaning of our words. I'm not calling for developers to micro-analyze everything they say, but it's simple enough to think "this game could be for everyone," isn't it? Eventually, with enough blowups like these, we may eventually not need to have them as often. There is something of a digital women's movement happening in games, as more voices cry for better representation in our favorite medium. People who think we're making mountains of molehills haven't seen how moles can tear up your yard. That is to say, sometimes there's something deeper behind something that initially appears innocuous. At the very least, this discussion assures that no game worth its salt will ever have something called a "girlfriend mode."

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