I am probably going to get flamed for this. A lot. But hey, at least the most important person in the world is with me on this.
Recently, Gearbox got into a lot of trouble because one of the lead designers for Borderlands 2 said the new Mechromancer class would be like “girlfriend mode” for people who “suck at first-person shooters.” And people, including many self-proclaimed feminists, flipped out. It got so bad that Randy Pitchford, the president of Gearbox, had to come out and say that it was all a big mistake and tout the feminist qualities of the person who originally made the comment.
Borderlands 2’s Mecromancer: the face that launched a thousand blog posts.
OK, so the sucking at shooters comment went too far, since it equates women with being bad at shooters, but a lot of people are also finding issue with the term “girlfriend mode.” While there are certainly more gender-neutral ways to express such a mode (“Co-Star Mode” from Mario Galaxy springs to mind), I don’t find the term inherently distasteful, mainly because I can guess where it came from.
To work in the game industry for any long period of time, you have to be passionate about it. SUPER passionate. The only people I’ve seen who are able to overcome the excessive overtime and pressures are those with a real fire in their belly for games. So anyway, you’ve got a group of super passionate people working on a project, and there’s nothing passionate people love more than sharing their passion and things that they’ve worked on. Now let’s take into account that the game development workforce is overwhelmingly male. (I’m not one to comment on why that is, but I will say I look forward to the day when the ratio better reflects the general population.) Additionally, the majority of these men identify as straight, simply because demographic studies give us about 8% of the general population identifying as LGBT, and I think it’s safe to assume that similar numbers carry over into the game industry. Based on these statistics, I’m making a calculated guess that the design team for Borderlands 2 is mostly super passionate straight men and, as such, sharing their work/interests with their significant others, or “girlfriends” as they are known in some circles, is important to them. So they think about what mechanics could help their girlfriends, who may or may not be gamers or shooter-enthusiasts, to enjoy the game. And they dub their idea “girlfriend mode” within the team, because it’s an affectionate reminder of what they’re aiming for, and then before you know it, someone accidentally says the term in public, and everyone freaks out.
I’m not saying there aren’t issues with sexism in the gaming community. There definitely are, and they deserve serious attention, and everyone who can engage in respectful discourse should be invited to weigh in with their opinion. This, however, is not one of those issues. Call the guy out for the “suck at first-person shooters” comment, but try to see the use of the phrase “girlfriend mode” for what it is: something that a guy used to describe the part of the game that can be shared with others instead of excluding them. Let’s not all jump down the guy’s throat, because if the president of Gearbox is telling the truth (and ever since he let Ashley Burch punch him in the nuts, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that), he’s actually on our side.
At the end of it all, I find myself reminded of “Homer Badman,” the Simpsons episode where Homer is accused of sexual harassment and becomes the target of mass protests and media attention. Of course, he never tried to sexually harass anyone, but he made the mistake of plucking the much-prized Gummi Venus de Milo from the bottom of the baby-sitter he was driving home. Yes, Homer was stupid, but certainly not malicious or chauvinistic in his actions, and thankfully by the end of the episode the conflict is resolved and the angry protesters are reminded of Homer’s humanity. And that’s how I see the guy that made the original statement: a little dumb, but deserving a little human understanding and worth giving the benefit of the doubt.
Also, for the record, I am totally looking forward to that Mechromancer class. A giant robot pet AND I don’t have to worry about aiming? SCORE.