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Borderlands 2, Casual Sexism, And Girlfriend Mode -- A Drama

borderlands-2-mecromancer-concept.jpg

By now, dear readers, you have probably heard about the Eurogamer interview yesterday with Gearbox about Borderlands 2 and what happened with their lead designer, John Hemingway. If you haven't, well, it got a bit sexist. Literally, just a bit. A single implication turned the internet into another storm of controversy concerning the role of women in gaming.

When talking about the Mecromancer, a DLC class to be added to the game after release, Hemingway described a skill tree called Best Friends Forever, which uses an array of abilities such as ricocheting bullets to help players that "suck." It's supposed to help newbies get a grasp on the mechanics of first person shooters and bring them into the genre, which can, admittedly, be daunting to the uninitiated.

Unfortunately, he described it as "Girlfriend Mode." It didn't go over well.

"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."

Normally, such a slight and casual example of sexism would not be enough to set off my prejudice alarms, and this was no exception. I was much more interested in a major FPS release going the extra mile to make their game more casual-player accessible without sacrificing difficulty (though, it is via DLC, so it's not that much more accessible).

But that's just me, and writers much more diligent and talented than I raised their digital pens and said, "Hey, not cool." Gearbox has done some apologizing and the drama has essentially subsided. The beauty of it, however, has yet to be fully realized.

It's not okay to be sexist in video games anymore. We all know that. The fallout from the Tomb Raider and Hitman trailers this summer proved that large, blunt depictions of tired sexist tropes and threats of rape do not sit right with this community. And today we saw that small, offhand remarks are not okay either.

The comment was probably relatively innocent and few people really think John Hemingway is a secret misogynist trying to bring down the status of women. It was just an easy way to get his point across, right?. But that's the point of this internet drama.

Even tiny comments do bring others down and reinforce outdated stereotypes. They have an annoying tendency to push into people's subconsciousness and covertly spread prejudice. Basically, it wouldn't have made any sense calling a gameplay style designed for people that suck "Girlfriend Mode" if we didn't already think on some level that girlfriends suck at games.

Of course, today's "Girlfriend Mode" was a relatively small incident and no one expects misogynists to suddenly question their morals and decide to change before going to sleep tonight. No one's calling for any resignations or anything absurd like that. A small crime deserves a small punishment, and I certainly think Mr. Hemingway and Gearbox have had theirs.

But if we can keep the dialogue open and continue root out these easy-to-miss incidents, real change is possible.

12 Comments

kateri said:

Kinda surprised that this site wouldn't mention the fact it's not just sexist, it's heterocentric as all get-out!

Ash said:

The immediate "controversy" was handled well-- guy not trained in PR said something stupidly sexist, people noticed and said, "hey, you're cool and all, but that thing you said? Not cool." But then there was an idiotic IGN post (http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=9037 for more on that) that makes a small consciousness-raising opportunity into a big 'ol storm of ignorance. Very frustrating!

Anjin Anhut said:

Thanks for the plug. :)

Today was a good day i think. With all the fear-biters coming out of the woodwork, bashing back at charges of sexism, there was also a lot of well-spoken support and healthy debate. It got pretty obvious that the heteromalewhite-armor is starting to get serious chinks.

Cheers.

Branovices said:

This will be a perfect "boyfriend-mode" for my sweetie. He loves Borderlands but he's just not terribly good at it, hehe.

Charlie said:

I know it seems like such a small slip but he's basically saying that when dreaming up an entire talent tree designed for FPS players who "suck" he had women whose reason to game is to play with their boyfriend in mind.

That's going to leave a lot of lady gamers pretty uncomfortable which is unfortunate because Borderlands was popular among female players (that's an anecdotal statement I have no numbers to back it up).

Nexus said:

@Anjin Anhut

You know, labeling your 'opposition' in such a way probably alienates people from that group who might agree with you.
There are bigots in all groups and using heteromalewhite as some kind of general term for people against equality is just fostering more bigotry.
What's more, just calling anyone who disagrees with you in a debate bashers and fear-biters doesn't sound exactly unbiased either.

Anjin Anhut said:

@Nexus

Great points. My statement was in fact to general and I see how it can easily be read that way. So an attempt at clearing things up:

"heteromalewhite-armor" contains problematic connotations and was way to shorthanded. What I was trying to say was:
people who feel comfortable with a culture, which treats a male caucasian hetero archetype as a superior kind of person or a person deserving of more rights and privileges. ... and then the attempts at defending this status (hence armor).

I also would never refer to people who disagree with me as bashers or fear-biters. I only referred to people who bash and fear-bite as bashers and fear-biters, so that label was actually used as intended. Though I understand, that the two derogatory terms could be read as shorthand for people I disagree with.

Anyway, I apologize for the confusion and my careless phrasing. Cheers.

The best thing to do when issues like this come about is to have an open dialogue on why people were offended and what could be done differently in the future to not alienate people. The worst thing to do is get caught up in declaring people to be "sexists" or not.

Case in point is the response from Gearbox that John Hemingway is not a sexist because "if he were, all the women working at Gearbox would beat him up". The comment was sexist, and that should be the focus. Perfectly reasonable people make offensive comments without intending offense, and I hope that the dialog stays there.

My wife is a capable gamer, but generally doesn't play action games. She likes it when cool games have what she calls "baby mode". Bayonetta in particular appealed to her because the lowest difficulty amounts to "press X, watch bad guys die".

I can see how the term "girlfriend mode" would offend female gamers, but think of it this way: 10 years ago he would have called it "girl mode". At least he was clearly aiming the comment at significant others. Slow but steady progress is being made, and I'm an optimist :)

Junko said:

LOL @ misogynist crybabies. You people are the same who are blindly misandrious.

3 cheers for putting women in their place, as second-tier characters not even worthy of being supporting bitches

g_whiz said:

Far and away articles like this is where gaygamer.net really stands out from the pack. Thoughtful and pretty much right on tone.

Jack said:

I love the focus on this, but I can't help but think it's all VERY blown out of proportion.

I do hope we move forward to eliminate bigoted stereotypes someday, but the guy DOES say "for lack of a better term". I just think this is something else for everyone with a "cause" to get up in arms about something.

Honestly all the guy deserves is a disapproving look or two.

Dan B said:

This really seems like a tempest in a teapot. As I read it, "girlfriend skill tree" was not referencing women as a class, but rather "people-whose-gaming-experience-comes-secondhand-through-their-significant-other-who's-a-hardcore-gamer" as a class. In which case, the offender is not Hemingway and his comment, but our current language, which lacks a shorter, gender-neutral substitute for the massive, six-syllable juggernaut "significant other." Would anyone even understand what he was talking about if he called it the "significant other skill tree?"

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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Dan B on Borderlands 2, Casual Sexism, And Girlfriend Mode -- A Drama: This really seems like a tempest in a teapot. As I read it, "girlfriend skill tree" was not referencing women...

Jack on Borderlands 2, Casual Sexism, And Girlfriend Mode -- A Drama: I love the focus on this, but I can't help but think it's all VERY blown out of proportion. I...

g_whiz on Borderlands 2, Casual Sexism, And Girlfriend Mode -- A Drama: Far and away articles like this is where gaygamer.net really stands out from the pack. Thoughtful and pretty much right...

Junko on Borderlands 2, Casual Sexism, And Girlfriend Mode -- A Drama: LOL @ misogynist crybabies. You people are the same who are blindly misandrious. 3 cheers for putting women in their...

David Greenwood on Borderlands 2, Casual Sexism, And Girlfriend Mode -- A Drama: The best thing to do when issues like this come about is to have an open dialogue on why people...

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