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The mixed blessing of 'Girlfriend Mode'

With the help of a new study, Leigh Alexander looks at how Borderlands 2's so-called "Girlfriend Mode" would be received in the wild if marketed by that name -- with some surprising results.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

September 20, 2012

5 Min Read

In the recent furor about Gearbox's apparent suggestion of a "girlfriend mode" for Borderlands 2, I've been refraining from comment. This is partially because I don't like, as a woman writer on games, when I am conscripted to act as an authority on every gender-oriented debate. Mostly, though, it was because I privately felt it was a case of some problematic wording of an otherwise-good idea. I'm glad people felt outraged about an AAA studio's easy reliance on stereotypes in conversation, but I think the studio's John Hemingway, who made the infamous comments to Eurogamer, deserves a little bit of a break. Even he admitted that the title "girlfriend skill tree" existed "for lack of a better term," and it was the press that latched onto the pat "girlfriend mode" to describe a scenario where a more hardcore player could enjoy being accompanied by a less-acclimated one. Of course we have to be careful about the insinuation that women are somehow by nature not going to be as skillful as men at core games, and we can't use language that perpetuates that idea, because ideas promote the reality. I've often felt there's nothing fundamental to core games that prohibits or alienates women, and that it's the culture in media that continues to present a world where console games are something your boyfriend does, not you. Yet that culture exists, and in order to surmount it we need a way to make women feel like games are something they can join in on without an intimidating entry barrier. Maybe the scenario where a guy wants to encourage his girlfriend to play Borderlands is not the only one where a less-experienced player would join one who is moreso -- but I think the culture clash wouldn't exist to begin with if it weren't at least a fairly common one. Yes, it's a bad way of calling it, because I don't have a girlfriend, but I have a lot of girl friends, and they don't play video games, and I hope having a comfortable co-op skill tree might entice them to play along with me. My best friend is actually often actively off-put by video games (she has only ever liked L.A. Noire), and I wish that weren't the case. Fortunately, "Best Friends Forever," not "girlfriend mode," was Gearbox's own formal designation of the skill tree in question, so we're covered. I mean, if I were good at Borderlands and my dude friends weren't, I'd hope they took the friend-position to learn the game with me. But the fact is many more of my dude friends play video games, or at the very least have never received the social message about how they're not supposed to want to. I'm going to assume that in describing that feature Hemingway went for the most obvious "for example," rather than intending to be reductive. The scenario by which someone would use a friend mode to welcome their girlfriend into the game with them is certainly not the only scenario where this kind of skill tree would be a nice feature, but it's probably a common one that loads of people might like to have, so long as it's not titled in an insulting way. And now I don't have to keep that opinion to myself, because behavioral research consultancy Simple Usability has done a recent study that supports it. The study looked at how feature descriptions influence user interest, and how including a "Girlfriend Mode," with that title, would affect perceptions of Borderlands 2. It recruited four male and four female participants over the age of 18 who regularly play video games, and asked them to look at modified listings on versions of online shopping pages like UK's Amazon, GAME and Play.com. Initially the study -- which included eye-tracking as users browsed the ads -- found that seeing "Girlfriend Mode" prominently billed as a game feature captured curiosity and interest. It also quizzed another set of eight adult gamers, where seven were women, about their reactions to the feature. Six of those eight felt negatively about the wording. "I don't particularly like it when people call it 'girlfriend mode,'" reported one participant, "I find it patronizing... playing on that girls are not so good at games as boys." However, the study found that even offended participants, like me, had a comprehension of the ultimate goal of the feature, that it was geared toward less-experienced players in general, not actually women or girlfriends in specific. "Despite a negative response overall to its description as 'Girlfriend mode,' users responded positively to the idea of having extra assists enabled for less-experienced co-op partners," said the study. "Users thought the feature would allow the less-experienced players to contribute more meaningfully to the in-game experience, which they felt was a positive outcome of the mode." The "Girlfriend Mode" label on the online listing attracted much interest, though, with both male and female participants expressing interest: "Loads of girls play on Xbox with their boyfriends... It'd be good for me, I've only started playing a year ago, they've been playing years whereas I've not," said one. Ultimately, the study found people think "assisted co-operative play would be beneficial, but that it should be described in a more appropriate way." However, there's an unpleasant lesson here for marketers. When the study offered advertisements that removed the controversial wording and simply billed it as a "play with friends" co-op feature, users reacted less strongly to the ads in general. And those that were offended by the wording of "Girlfriend Mode" were not deterred from their interest in the product by that offense. Disappointing but predictable conclusion: Buzz-worthy marketing that plays on gamers' sense of justice to incite their curiosity about features that turn out to be pretty grounded? It works. When we all got upset about "girlfriend mode," it made many -- clearly, myself included -- take a closer look at the role of assisted play. Now we know Borderlands 2 may be especially suited for us to play with our friends and partners. You're welcome, Gearbox?

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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