Because it’s not the start of a new week in the video game industry without a scandal, Gearbox has unwittingly found themselves suddenly in the headlights of the media and community ire this week when the lead designer for Borderlands 2, John Hemingway, referred to a handicap in Borderlands 2 as the “girlfriend skill tree”. And because the only thing gamers seem to like more than playing as female characters for the view is complaining about injustices against females, the term backfired in record time.
Massive heaps of credit should go to Gearbox CEO and Human Megaphone Randy Pitchford for extinguishing the flames (and then stomping the ground until all huffs were puffed) before they could be properly kindled on his Twitter page. “Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode. Anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir up something that isn’t there,” he says, wagging his fist at the vastless expanse of the internet known as the Audience. “The future DLC Mechromancer class has a skill tree that makes it easier for less skilled coop partners (any gender!) to play and be useful.” As of yet, Pitchford still has not outright said that Hemingway misspoke or that his choice of words was in poor taste. He’s simply tackling the fact that it is a unique skilltree for a DLC character and there is nothing outright called “girlfriend mode”.
His grandiose claim to misappropriation and sensationalism didn’t stop the naysayers though. “It’s what your lead designer ‘dubbed it’, the official name of the tree is irrelevant. It’s right there,” says one person who read Nineteen Eight-Four and thought the Thought Police bit was a great idea. “Words matter, @DuvalMagic. Go look at how people are using ‘girlfriend mode’ in a hateful way, and then tell me it’s just sensationalism,” says another who does not realize that the only people using it negatively are the ones blasting Hemingway for saying it. “Ask some of the awesome women how they would have described Mechro’s skill set, I’m sure not a single one would call it GF Mode,” says another who clearly has not been paying attention to anything they can’t get angry over, even if it directly contradicts their statement.
If there’s something to take away from all this, it’s that everyone is wrong and jumping the gun. Firstly, John Hemingway really should have known better than to publicly relate a clear handicap to gender. It’s been 15 years since Michael took on Mia, John. Gender domination is officially over. They can do anything better than us.
Pitchford did the right thing by trying to ameliorate the situation as quickly as possible. The story was barely out of the gate before he came running behind, twirling a lasso in one hand and throwing a net with the other. The problem is that neither were the right tool. It’s a clear case of bad judgement on Hemingway’s part but Pitchford absolutely refused to acknowledge it, even when directly asked. Nobody is asking for Hemingway’s testicles on a plate here, just a mea culpa. There is absolutely no downside for either Pitchford or Hemingway to sheepishly apologize and say “Whoops,” yet all we get is explanations like “Meanwhile ‘boyfriend mode’ or ‘girlfriend mode’ is an idea that suggests that a gamers SO isn’t as hardcore as the gamer him/herself.” Gee, thanks. That totally clears up any irritation there might be about it being called “girlfriend mode” in the first place.
It really doesn’t help that the original context for the statement was this: “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.” For lack of a better term? There’s really no better term than “girlfriend skill tree”? Really? How about “Best Friends Forever skill tree”? You know, the name you guys officially used for it? Your best explanation for the “Best Friends Forever skill tree” is “It’s a girlfriend skill tree”? I’m sure John Hemingway is a good guy who meant well but holy crap, dude. The implications of that description for that content is fairly offensive and probably something you should not let slip out in public, and especially not in a press interview. We are vultures. We will grasp onto whatever we can if we can churn out headlines and convert it into hits, even if that means throwing you and your organization under the bus.
In fact, that’s pretty much what Eurogamer did. Take a look at that article. It’s an article that’s actually about the Mechromancer (in all its etymological horror), how far it is in development and two completed skill trees. Reading that article, Hemingway is clearly much more excited to talk about a character he clearly loves a lot. There’s actual passion oozing out of those quotations of his. Yet he misspoke and it’s taken precedence. Eurogamer were clearly excited that Hemingway alluded to gender though. It’s not clear if Hemingway ever actually said the phrase “girlfriend mode” as opposed to “girlfriend skill tree” but that did not stop Eurogamer from referring to the new mode as such, instead of its official name that was said in the same breath. In fact, Eurogamer went so far as to call it the “Best Friends Forever ‘girlfriend mode’” despite that name being redundant, like “ATM machine” or “bad Army Men game”. It’s even the sole point of focus in the headline for the article. I wonder how many people know about the Mechromancer’s other skills, as outlined in half the article.
Twitter’s short character limit seems to correlate with the thought behind some comments on there sometimes, and this is no exception. It did not take long for accusations of sexism to fly against Gearbox and Hemingway, despite spending much more time gushing about the female character he was creating. Let’s be clear on this: the moniker of “girlfriend mode” is based on an increasingly untrue stereotype that girls don’t play video games and, when they do, they aren’t very good, but his is not actually a stereotype based on sex. It’s based on basic statistics and observation: the ratio of men to women who play games like Borderlands is extremely disproportionate in the men’s favour. The stereotype that females are bad at video games will not die out anytime soon as a result, unfortunately. So, yes, this moniker is offensive and, yes, Hemingway should not have used it. But it is not outright sexism. Nobody was being singled out based on their gender or sex. It’s just a case of reinforcing stereotypes and should not have happened.
Just to make sure I’m not surprisingly sexist and that this is not as big of a deal as some Twitter folk would have you believe, I asked the female members of PikiGeek for their opinions. Resident Female Interests Group, Johanna, said “Well, at least they assume a girlfriend would even try to play…. instead of just complaining…” Emma, verbose as always, said that “The skill tree would be called, you suck and you should learn to play before you pick a stupid skill like that. I’m hung up on the fact the build doesn’t make sense but the name is insulting.” Ryan, meanwhile, said “Meh.”
So what we have here is the case of a lead designer who misspoke, a news outlet that exploited it, a CEO who tried to diffuse the situation, and a bunch of Twitter overreactions that are waving the SEXISM flag for no real reason than because they can. If anyone wants a true case of sexism in similar situations, I’d like to refer you to the Dead Island snafu of yesteryear.