Girlfriend Mode and Casual Sexism in the Game Industry

An interview with Borderlands 2 lead designer John Hemingway posted on Eurogamer this morning showed off a new character class for people that are maybe new to shooters. It’s a punky female robot-tank summoner with a cyborg arm – the Mechromancer. The best part for FPS noobs? It comes with an entire skill tree tailored specifically for them. Shoot at the enemy and miss? No biggie – your bullets will ricochet off nearby walls and hit them anyway. This is honestly a terrific idea to get siblings, friends, your mom, really anyone unfamiliar with first-person shooters into the game with you. In fact, it’s called “Best Friends Forever” mode. Cute! I hope other games borrow this idea.

Unfortunately, Hemingway referred to it colloquially as “girlfriend mode.” You know, because girlfriends (and, by extension, girls in general) aren’t good at these hardcore shoot-y games, RIGHT?! Despite Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford’s assertions to the contrary,  it seems like that has been an internal nickname at Gearbox for quite a while. If your Lead Designer is spouting it off casually to members of the games press without a second thought, you can be pretty sure he never considered the implications.

On the one hand, what can we really expect from a company that made an official trailer for their universally panned Duke Nukem Forever featuring all the fun things you can do with feces? On the other hand… No. This sort of cavalier misogynist attitude and casual sexism has been a part of the entire video game industry for decades, and it’s only been in recent years that people of all genders have found the voice to speak up against these injustices, be it through feminist blogs like The Border House, getting called out on the now-defunct GameJournos, or even just the fact that an incredible 47% of gamers today are women. Every time this happens, it needs to be brought to the world’s attention, and the perpetrator needs to learn that you can’t bully the fairer sex any more.

You are not “more of a gamer” because you were born with a penis. The “girl gamer” stereotype that  licks PSPs and sells herself with sex is no longer a thing. Guys and gals are on near-equal footing now, but offhand comments like Hemingway’s prove time and time again that we still have a long, long way to go.

And it’s not just Gearbox’s John Hemingway, either. Remember way, wayyyy back (in September – almost a whole year!) when someone dug around in the Dead Island source code and found that “Feminist Whore” skill? That was fun. Because when someone calls someone a feminist whore, they’d only ever be referring to a male, right? WRONG. And sure, it may have been only in the unfinished version that was released on Steam accidentally, but that doesn’t keep it from being a thing that a game developer put into a game. Women finally have the respect they’ve been desiring for years! Nope.

Or how about just this last February when Eat Sleep Play head David Jaffe claimed that if you play Twisted Metal on split-screen with your girlfriend and let her win, she will literally give you a blowjob. She will take your unkempt, virgin gamer dong and stick it right in her mouth, moaning like a porn star the whole time because she’s clearly enjoying it, and swallow every drop of the gravy, if only you’d let her win at a game that was clearly designed for the sole purpose of getting you some unearned, unrequited fellatio. NOPE.

These comments aren’t innocuous. These comments aren’t cute. Don’t you want a girlfriend that will play games with you? Telling her you just bought a new game with an easy mode so she can play too isn’t the brightest idea. And we’d know this if we weren’t all dumb, typical men. Guys, am I right?! Always just thinking about boobs, car movies, football, and steak. Sigh. Breaking men down isn’t the answer either, though. Just treat females the way you’d treat males, on even footing. We’re all people.

Finally, using sexist comments as a joke to hide your disdain of women doesn’t work either. That’s like introducing someone as “your black friend” to show how cool and hip and non-racist you are. You know what? Just introduce your black friend as your friend. We can see he’s black. We don’t care, so why should you? Oh yeah, because you’re a racist piece of crap. It works the same with sexism. There aren’t girl gamers and guy gamers; we’re all just gamers. That’s all we’ve ever wanted to be, playing games all so happy together.

The worst part? The Mechromancer would have been a super cool class, very Mass Effect Engineer-y. Hemingway could have called it Easy Mode, or Noob Mode, or Hardcore-Lite, but no. He went with the one thing that would label him and Gearbox as a whole sexist jerks. As if Duke Nukem Forever didn’t accomplish that well enough by itself.

“Oh, hello, random internet person. Nice to meet you. You’re the Mechromancer, huh? You must be a girl! So… A/S/L? Wanna cam chat? … Hello?”

Some things never change. But only if good people stand by and do nothing.

38 Comments

Filed under Editorial

38 responses to “Girlfriend Mode and Casual Sexism in the Game Industry

  1. Mumbles is the reason you play more video games? I love that.

  2. Now that the communities that revolve around what one might call esports are seeing more popularity outside of game fanatics and their game’s competitive scene, this sort of criticism has become a bit more common. It’s a wonder that game developers are still thinking in such rigid stereotypes when they’re supposed to be making games for profit.

    How could they really expect to get away with marketing a ‘girlfriend mode’ co-op character that a child could mechanically master? If they were expecting Borderlands 2 to be the bonding experience that could introduce a non-videogame playing significant other into the fold, you’d think that Borderlands 2 wouldn’t be the crude non-serious take on extra-terrestrial scifi that it is.

    And I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t called ‘girlfriend mode’ internally, it just sounded like the perfect misdirection to the guy shooting his mouth off at Eurogamer about his cool, dynamic new shootergamerpg that is almost the same as the last one by the same name.

    • See it’s hard for me to imagine that if you wanted to get someone into video games, you’d start with Borderlands 2? Not something simpler? That’s a bit like someone’s first time playing Rock Band, then you start them off with Green Grass and High Tides on Expert.

      • You’re not wrong, there.

      • Alexander The 1st

        The only reason I’d not start with Borderlands 2 is because it’s a sequel.

        It’s like telling people to read the LOTR triology without reading the Hobbit first.

        As for the Rock Band analogy, I’d say it’s like playing Green Grass and High Tides, but putting them on Easy. At least, with the Mechromancer.

        Besides, if they’re a fan of the Outlaws, that would make perfect sense.

        If you like the sort of scifi and overkill that Borderlands is, then yeah – such a mode makes sense if you’re not good at the game.

        Dragon Age: Origins is notably a difficult game that becomes bearable on Easy difficulty because of all the combat, but I wouldn’t let that deter people who like the idea of being the last of a group of people capable of defeating the Blight.

  3. Mediocre Man

    good first post, I’m looking forward to reading more! :)

  4. I noticed Justin McElroy decided he’d rather call it Sidekick Mode, which is certainly valid. I thought of Apprentice Mode, which should appeal to people interested in unlimited power!

    But yeah, I agree that this sort of casual sexism isn’t exactly helping the industry. Especially if we aren’t even at the point where developers understand that this is the sort of shit they shouldn’t tell the press.

  5. Interesting post! “Casual sexism” is a great way to put it, as a lot of the talk is offhand, and people will backtrack (“I didn’t mean it like that,” or, “I didn’t mean YOU”) if confronted about it. But I really believe that language impacts the way we think… so to change the way we think, we need to change the words we use. I know a lot of people hate having to worry about being “politically correct” all the time, but it’s necessary and it’s only temporary, until new non-sexist terms replace the old. (Like the “Sidekick Mode” alternative that Varewulf mentioned above!)

    I also like what you said about there not being girl gamers or guy gamers — just gamers. That’s a great sentiment!

    • “I know a lot of people hate having to worry about being “politically correct” all the time, but it’s necessary and it’s only temporary, until new non-sexist terms replace the old.” Exactly this! :D

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  7. I know this is probably going to label me as at worst a misogynist or at best simply naive, but I disagree that this comment is sexist.
    The main logical jump in this argument that I disagree with is this one:
    \”girlfriends (and, by extension, girls in general)\”. That\’s a pretty important logical jump to simply be putting as an aside.

    He\’s saying nothing about girls in general here. He\’s not saying that girls don\’t play video games, girls shouldn\’t play video games, or that girls are bad at video games.
    He\’s simply recognizing that:
    1) Some guys who enjoy their games have girlfriends.
    2) Many of those girlfriends aren\’t as into shooters as their boyfriends are.
    3) Many of those girlfriends might still want to spend time with their boyfriends. (And, to state it the other way, many boyfriends might like being able to play the games they love with their girlfriends)

    I don\’t think any of those statements are controversial. It\’s not sexist to say that many girlfriends aren\’t interested in shooters, because I think it\’s pretty clearly true. It\’s not saying that that\’s \”good\” or \”right\”, or that it\’s because \”your penis makes you better at video games\”, it\’s just accurately describing the state of the industry.

    (Now, let me, say that this is not denying that there is plenty of sexism in the industry, in fact, enough that there\’s plenty to go around without needing to dig up every little bit.

    • The thing is that “girlfriend” is still a sex-based generalization. It *only* includes girls, and for that matter only girls who have boyfriends (yet another qualifier making their mere existence dependent on the presence of a male). It’s like saying that, if boyfriends didn’t FORCE females to play video games, they would never play them of their own volition.

      Girls game by themselves, even ones without boyfriends. If Hemingway had went with Co-Star Mode, of Sidekick Mode, or Easy/Noob Mode, then the second player will still obviously be seen as the one with less gaming experience, who’s not as good at games. Using “girl” anywhere in the title just shows that, despite how “objectively true” statements like “more boys play shooters than girls” is, we still have a long way to go if we actually want females to FEEL like equals in this gaming world.

      • Err… “a qualifier that makes their existence dependent on a presense of a male”. Yes. “Girls who are only playing because there is a male who is playing” is -exactly the target audience of this feature-. So yes. By definition their “existence is dependent on a male”. That’s the whole point.

        Yes, it’s LIKE saying “girls only play video games when boyfriends force them to”, in the sense that, he moves his lips and words come out. But what he actually said was nothing of the sort, and that’s a huge monumental leap from what he actually said to there.

        If you’re a girl gamer already, that’s great, this feature isn’t marketed towards you. But I think the term he used does a good job communicating the target audience (girlfriends who -wouldn’t otherwise be playing-), in a way that a term like “co-star mode” wouldn’t. (Cause what the heck is a co-star)

        If you just take his words at face value, yes, I can see where you can make some logical jumps and make it a sexist comment. But I think it’s reasonable to expect people to do some critical thinking about what someone says before deciding that it’s sexist.

  8. LunaticFringe

    I was fairly certain that the term ‘girlfriend mode’ was actually coined by fans of Mario Galaxy to refer to the ‘co-star’ mode for some reason. Hemingway, in the interview clarifies his statement with ‘for lack of a better term’, leading me to believe this is more just a somewhat course slang term borrowed from forums rather then outright sexism. Poor form and definitely something that Hemingway should apologize for, but I feel it’s less an outright sexist remark about female gamers and more based on the contextual relationships of players.

  9. Quman

    Honestly, I didn’t get the impression that he was using ‘girl’ as shorthand for ‘person who is bad at video games.’ I got the impression that he was using ‘girlfriend’ as shorthand for ‘non-gaming loved one that I would like to game with.’ My impression wasn’t that he implied that girls can’t play games. My impression was that he implied that between siblings, friends, moms, girlfriends, and etc. that the girlfriend is the non-gamer a gamer would be most interested in gaming with. Sure this implies that most gamers are male, but the implication that girls are inherently bad at games isn’t there.

    I must say though, I find it rather amusing that the first actual example of “casual sexism” in this article is the listing of moms under the category of people BFF mode would be good for. You imply that moms, unlike their male counterparts, would be in need of an easy mode, but then get angry about somebody else using similar terminology. Way to go.

    • By making “girlfriend mode” so easy that you don’t even have to shoot the enemy to hit them, the implication that girlfriends are bad at games IS there.

      And if we called it “mom mode,” we could be having this same discussion. Mom Gamers are the focus of the casual game market, but even a lady that has played 1,700 hours of Bejeweled might have a hard time picking up a first-person shooter.

      • Olia

        This is true, but then taking the point of implication that women might not experienced with tropes of a game like Borderlands doesn’t even warrant being called an insult. Way more important things to worry about.

      • Quman

        It’s not called “girlfriend mode.” Girlfriend mode was a phrase he used off the cuff that was intended to clarify how the mode could be used. The implication is that he thinks gamers would want to share their hobby with their girlfriends, so he used girlfriend as a stand in for “non-gamer I want to share my gaming experience with.”

        This does not imply that all girls are bad at video games. It just implies that girls who are bad at video games are the people gamers would be most excited about having the opportunity to share their gaming experience with.

  10. Olia

    To be honest, I find this sort of hypersensitive white knighting to be way more sexist and offensive than a comment about a girlfriend mode. Really, it’s just depressing.

  11. While I agree that referring to it as \’Girlfriend Mode\’ wasn\’t the most politically correct way to do it, and I hate that term, I don\’t think he\’s as discriminatory as you make him out to be.
    You say that 47% of gamers are girls, and that is awesome. But just because so many of gamers are girls doesn\’t necessarily mean that so many of girls are gamers. To be honest, compared to the rest of the population gamers–also depending on how you define the term–are in a fairly small minority. Given this, I would say that it is a fair assumption to make that if you have a girlfriend, chances are that she\’s probably not a gamer, in which case she probably wouldn\’t be very good at FPSes. Hence, statistically speaking, he probably wouldn\’t be wrong at inferring that your girlfriend could use the extra help.
    Of course, you might also be meaning that because of the fact that 47% of gamers are girls most of them won\’t have girlfriends, which is a valid point, in which case it could also be called \’Boyfriend mode\’ for the reasons listed above, except that since girls are in the lesser 50 percentile of gamers the majority is usually used as the basis for generalizations.

    • “Gamers” are the only people that will read this blog or have a valid opinion on this subject, so saying that girl gamers are a small amount of actual girls is like saying that boy gamers are a small amount of actual boys. We aren’t concerned with the rest of the world in this case. The game industry in general needs to learn to toe the line a bit better when they spout off gender-based generalizations if they ever want 47%(!) of their consumer demographic to feel accepted as equals.

      The problem is right now: males dominate both game writing and game development, so even if lady gamers outnumber guy gamers 2:1, they’d still be represented as/made to feel like the worth-less minority.

      • Olia

        Eleco makes a good point, since there are many angles that we can look at this from statistically. 47% of gamers might be women, but that doesn’t really tell us anything because the statistic is too crude. What constitutes a videogame? Does it count that my mom plays Scrabble against the computer every day? How often do you have to play videogames to count?

        We can also look at things from the other angle, which is how many men play videogames? For any male demographic up to age 30, this is probably in the range of 80-90%. But for female demographics, even though quite a few girls do play videogames, it’s nowhere near that high.

        I’d like to see some real informative statistics rather than just undifferentiated “all videogames.” As much as it might be “unfair,” there’s quite a big difference between the gaming demographic that plays a videogame like Borderlands and a gaming demographic that plays games on Facebook, or plays “Casual” (whatever that means) games.

        The reality for a game like Borderlands is the vast majority of people who bought that game are men, and the vast majority of people who are going to buy the second game (regardless of dumb comments which only people who already are planning on buying it will hear) are people who liked the first one and want more excruciatingly boring fetch quests and Excel-spreadsheet comparison of gunz.

  12. Deadpool

    To be fair… I don’t think he meant it maliciously.

    Ways I see it, this was developed by guys whose girlfriends DON’T play many video games and they thought this would be a neat way to get them into it. To them, it’s girlfriend mode because it is their personal intended purpose.

    Oh the other hand… I agree it is RIDICULOUS for Hemingway to say this in PUBLIC and not expect people to take offense to it. That was definitely a snaffu…

  13. Ciennas

    I think Shamus Young handled this topic as well, and I liked the succinct way he phrased it.

    He was noting that the default armor for a male character was actual armor, while the female standard armor was essentially a powered belly shirt/shorts/combat boots combo, exposing belly button, arms, and knees.

    If the player base chose to dress their avatars that way, then we really could say something interesting (especially after we figure out how many guys are playing as the half dressed girls)

    But since the developer foisted that dress code….

    They were of course, surprised when they found that their game had limited appeal outside of the 18-24 male demographic.

    So the real thing that bothers me with sexism in video games, is instead the wierd differences between men and women dress codes. Even without mods, I found it interesting how in Oblivion, the chainmail armor for a male is a fully kitted out shirt, while the girls got an armored jersey.

    Any thoughts on that element?

    • Ciennas

      Of course, I am not coming near the dress mods for oblivion with a 10 foot pole.

      What I’m saying is, I’d like to play one of those games and not have to hurriedly say it’s the gameplay I like, and not the female dress.

    • Olia

      Female power is generally communicated visually through sex appeal.

      There’s also the point to be made that artists generally want their characters to be recognizable at a glance. Full plate armor with built in “support” is silly, but it’s generally better design to have a female character be identifiable as female from her silhouette than not (unless you’re going for some kind of Eowyn reveal).

      • Ciennas

        I think a good middle ground was in ODST. Veronica was clearly female, but she was also fully equipped to take hits as well as the boys, until her helmet got plot’d off of her.

        Interestingly, the combat armor of fallout 3 was pretty well done on that front too. They were sleeveless for both genders for some harebrained reason, but they also made gender easily knowable without playing up zomgboobz or whatever.

        But I dunno. If sex appeal is the only way to show off female power, wouldn’t that imply sexism is necessary? I don’t think I like where that logic leads. Besides, then that would mean that males should have to get in on the act too. Imagine marcus fenix going into battle equipped with his chainsaw gun and armored with Ivy from Soul Caliber’s outfit.

        Then I’d buy it.

      • Olia

        Apparently this thing can only thread replies like 3 deep.

        @Ciennas:

        I don’t think it implies sexism is necessary, I think it implies an understanding of differences between the sexes is innate. (I hesitate to call that “sexism” since doing so implies nature has some ideological agenda.)

        As for “That would mean that males should have to get in on the act too” — Men have always been in on the act. But male power is not (usually) demonstrated through “sexy appearance,” male power is demonstrated through high status (e.g. ability to beat other people up, to earn adoration for heroics, etc).

      • Ciennas

        That’s why it’s deemed sexist, even if it cuts both ways.

        Men are treated sexistly if they’re for whatever reason dengrated as not a ‘real’ man, which seems to be based on actions rather than how they look.

        Wondering why this is could be a rewarding tack to pursue.

        But women… ye gods, women. They talk about objectifying (accurately, judging from the seemingly required female outfits,) and you’d think fantasy realms completely built from the ground up would be able and even willing to explore things from a female perspective, or cater to them specifically, but no. Nothing more involved then dress up barbie.

        If you know a game that does cater to women, or both sexes equally, you’d have to color me intrigued.

  14. Olia

    @Ciennas:

    Huh? What’s why what is deemed sexist? I don’t even…

    Honestly I have a hard time making sense of your reply here. What is a “female perspective” and how can it be catered to?

    You allege that this should be possible to do in fictional worlds, but fictional worlds are always experienced by real human minds. A fictional world that we can’t relate to our own experience is unlikely to be very appealing.

    I think the real problem with videogames is that videogames suck at presenting things other than physical conflict. But that isn’t going to be overcome without big advances in technology.

  15. Badger49

    It’s Gearbox. What more can you really say after that horrible mess they made out of Duke Nukem (which I perceive as being even more misogynistic as I remember him already being way back when).

    Oh, I know, how about: they’re the ones who need their own fanbase to start a petition to put playable female marines into their Aliens: Colonial Marines game. I mean, it’s Aliens, how was this not in from the very start? Why is this even a point that needs to be addressed in a petition?

    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/include-playable-females-in-aliens-colonial/

    Pvt. Vasquez (J. Goldstein) signed this with ” ¡Pendejo jerk-offs!”
    I’d put those player characters in post haste…
    But then, I’d have put them in from the start.
    I’d love to know why they didn’t even think of putting those in. Probably because they didn’t think that ‘girlfriends’ want to run around with a smartgun, shooting screeching acid-for-blood monsters to mush. Right.
    *sigh*

  16. Ronixis

    Since this discussion was directed here from the Spoiler Warning episode, I figured I should ask about it here: Hepler said that? I’d like to see a source, because it doesn’t really sound like something I would expect either Hepler to say. Particularly given that there was already a name (Story Mode) in ME3.

    • To my knowledge, Jennifer Hepler, of Bioware, did not say “girlfriend mode.” Hepler was (to my mind, unjustly) pilloried a few months ago for suggesting there might be value in more games having a mode like ME3s Story Mode, where the combat is minimized or outright skippable in favor of conversations and character interaction.

      John Hemingway, of Gearbox, who was quoted far more recently as saying that the above character class was, essentially, Borderlands 2′s “Girlfriend mode” because it was designed to cater to people who are unfamiliar with, or bad at, FPS mechanics.

      They’re two different quotes, about similar things. I think the Spoiler Warning crew just misspoke.

  17. I’m not entirely sure how relevant this is, but…I’m actually really interested in Mechromancer. I love the idea of a pet class for Borderlands that doesn’t suck (sorry, Mordecai!), and I’m a sucker for playing cyborgs in general.

    “Girlfriend Mode” makes me want to bang my head against the keyboard, though. That’s just…ugh. So easy to avoid, and so casually offensive.

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