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The gaming industry lives in a curious place right now. It’s male dominated — sometimes to a smugly elitist degree — and hypersensitive to its own undercurrent of sexism. So when John Hemingway, lead designer on Borderlands 2, told Eurogamer that the sequel to Gearbox Software’s surprise 2009 hit would include an easier-to-play character featuring, "for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree,” he essentially charged face-first into a buzzsaw of controversy.
In fairness, this came right on the heels of several egregious examples of abusive behavior directed at women. That’s on top of the harassment girl gamers put up with on a daily basis. Now “girlfriend mode” seemingly announced to the world how the ladies just aren’t good enough to play video games without a lot of coddling.
Except that’s not what Hemingway said, and that’s not what “girlfriend mode” is for.
I’ve met a legion of female players who could cheerfully take me apart in any game of my choosing, and I’m here to tell you that a “girlfriend mode” addresses a real use-case scenario, one the industry must understand better and should cater to in every co-op game. And that is neither sexist nor elitist. Quite the opposite, actually.
With an estimated 72 million male gamers in the United States alone, it’s no shocker how a lot of them try to bring their ladies into the gaming fold early in the dating process. This little hobby takes up a significant amount of time…better to share it together than spend it in different rooms. I know a few game journalists who eased their girlfriends into gaming — one even used Borderlands as the last step in his master plan [editor's note: That's me! -Shoe] — and a few who broke up in part because they couldn’t.
Meanwhile, developers struggle to make hardcore games that appeal to women…a colossal demographic they largely miss out on.
I actually had this discussion with my wife a few weeks back. She has a very narrow window when it comes to games that interest her. Must be co-op — she doesn't play solo. No complex control schemes or leveling systems. Preferably not too gory. Best if she plays as someone she can either identify with or ignore completely. On her scale, Halo's Master Chief works just fine. She took a stab at Gears of War, but a testosterone-fueld dudebro like Dom (the co-op character) didn't fit.
And by her own admission, she's not an especially talented player. Good enough to have fun, but she prefers to think of herself in support roles, doing her part while I take care of major threats.
The Mechromancer is Gearbox’s answer to those problems. Borderlands 2 ties its “girlfriend skill tree” to this single character type, a female cyberpunk with a softcore leveling curve and special perks designed to let a less-experienced player advance at the same speed as an expert.
The developers basically handicap the players to level the playing field. That's an idea with a lot of merit, even if the official name — Best Friends Forever — fails to impress any more than the unofficial "girlfriend" label.
But here's what really separates "girlfriend mode" from the real and staggeringly ugly sexism in the industry. When Aris Bakhtanians, the coach of team Tekken on the Capcom-sponsored reality show Cross Assault, verbally abused teammate Miranda Pakozdi because he deemed it his God-given right, or when a coward hiding behind the handle "Bendilin" created a Flash game depicting the physical abuse of game journalist Anita Sarkeesian (ironically in response to her Kickstarter drive for a series on sexism in video games), the express purpose was to intimidate and exclude women.
"Girlfriend mode," on the other hand, is by its very nature inclusive. It doesn't tell anyone to shut up and go away. It's designed to bring people in, make them comfortable, and make it easier to participate. Nobody's required to play a Mechromancer. It's not for gamers, male or female. It's for people who want to play with gamers.
So while "girlfriend" might frequently be accurate, it's far too limiting. This mode works for anyone who's new to gaming and everyone who doesn't possess the skill set but still wants to play. That could be fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, roommates, wives, and yes, boyfriends. Hemmingway did say the "girlfriend" phrase stuck "for lack of a better term," so let's give it a better term. Sidekick mode. Wingman. Support. Co-pilot.
And while we're at it, don't stick this feature on one character type and pat everyone on the back. Make it a toggle for every character class, or it still comes with a slight stigma. Inclusiveness means handing out the all-access pass.
If you want to get serious about sexism in games, let’s talk about barring Bakhtanians from competing in professional tournaments for the next three years. No lie, John Hemingway didn't do himself any favors by throwing out a gender-inflected nickname in a time of heightened awareness, but the ideas behind it are sound. Laudable, even. It should absolutely become an industry standard across the board. If it does, whatever "it" is called, I don't doubt for an instant it'll prove invaluable to a great many girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, family, and friends, allowing unequal players to enjoy games on equal terms.
And really, you'll never find a better answer to sexism and bigotry than equality.