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.