The problem with “girlfriend mode”, according to a girlfriend

WARNING: This post contains opinions

August 15, 2012
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If you took a short interstellar vacation from the planet yesterday and missed it, Monday’s Big Controversial Thing was a comment from Gearbox’s John Hemingway, who described the Borderlands 2 Mechromancer’s “Best Friends Forever” skill tree as a “girlfriend mode”.

In an interview with Eurogamer, Hemingway said that, “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.”

The idea is to provide an instantly accessible, user-friendly gameplay experience for those people out there who might just be getting started with this gaming thing, or otherwise intimidated by the complex mechanics of a first-person shooter. That’s not a problem.

But “for lack of a better term”? That’s the problem, and for a number of reasons – most obviously that “easy mode” works just fine already, and doesn’t make questionable hypotheses about the player.

There’s an unambiguous implication that “girlfriends” are rubbish at games. Lots of people are rubbish at games, of course, but it’s not just “girlfriends” (and, by extension, women) – and, conversely, there are lots of girlfriends / women who aren’t rubbish at games. While the assumption that many gamers have significant others with whom they’d like to play games is a good one, the exclusively straight male-oriented subtext is not.

Statistically, of course, straight males do make up the majority of the gamer demographic, but “girlfriends” are also not the only minority percentage on the chart. What about a “gay mode”, or a “black mode”, or maybe a “Jew mode”? Most definitely not, so why is something as blatantly sexist as a “girlfriend mode” met with such resolutely bland indifference from so many gamers?

Because, let’s be totally clear about this, it is sexist. There’s a prevailing perception among people that sexism is a bitter, twisted bogeyman that lurks in the darkest and dankest alleys of public discourse, waiting for an opportunity to jump out and make inflammatory statements about sandwiches and driving ability (or whatever), but the reality is that it’s already so deeply entrenched in our culture that even the most casual language reveals it.

I’ve no doubt that Hemingway intended no offence whatsoever. I daresay it didn’t even occur to him, but that’s part of the problem. When women are consistently marginalised or ignored entirely, it’s like people – even women themselves – don’t realise it anymore. On its own, a “girlfriend mode” is just a thoughtless goof, but it also contributes to a much bigger issue.

Recently, the gaming industry has been subject to some serious criticism on the matter of sexism, and it’s important to recognise how even the most seemingly innocuous comments can reinforce those attitudes.

Gamers include men and women, straight and gay people, blacks and whites, and everybody in between. I’m sure no male gamer reading this ever liked being attached to the stereotype of a terminally single virgin living in mom’s basement – as a female gamer and a male gamer’s girlfriend, I’d love to actually, you know, exist at all.

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Tags: Borderlands 2, girlfriend mode, headline, sexism, video game sexism

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