Don’t Patronize Me With Your Video Game’s “Girlfriend Mode"

“Girlfriend Mode?” You ask. “That can’t possibly be as offensive as it sounds?” Oh, but it can. Oh, but it is.
Publish date:
August 16, 2012
sexism, video games, issues

You’d think that by 2012, game designers would have stopped insulting our intelligence by giving us female characters with gigantic conical boobs and tiny there’s-no-way-she-has-any-internal-organs waists. You’d think they would have created some virtual woman we can get behind. You’d especially think that since it’s been shown female gamers outnumber male gamers, designers would respect their audience and do everything in their power not to alienate us.

Well, of course you’d be wrong.

In a recent interview with website Eurogamer, John Hemingway, lead game designer of popular first-person shooter Borderlands 2, revealed his studio Gearbox was developing a new female character for B2 with a very … unusual skill tree.

What’s a skill tree, the less-nerdy of you ask? At the beginning of role playing video games, players choose from a list of different skills you can develop as your character earns experience points. To give you an example, if you choose the “Sharp Shooter” skill tree, as you earn points you can, in essence, buy skills related to shooting, like expert aim or extra ammo.

This new character in Borderlands 2, a yet unnamed “Mechromancer,” will have a skill tree called “Best Friends Forever” that Hemingway referred to in the interview as -- wait for it! -- “girlfriend mode.”

“Girlfriend Mode?” You ask. “That can’t possibly be as offensive as it sounds?” Oh, but it can. Oh, but it is.

Because “Best Friends Forever” (aka Girlfriend Mode) was designed to make game play significantly easier. As Hemingway explained:

“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?’”

In one of the first skills earned in the tree -- the one condescendingly named “Close Enough” -- your bullets magically find their way to your target without you actually needing to, you know, aim.

After Hemingway’s rather spectacular gaffe, Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford quickly took to Twitter saying, “Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode,” adding “Anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir up something that isn’t there. 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.”

OK, fair enough. One designer said something stupid and the media is just trying to spin it to make the game seem sexist.

OH, WAIT, except it’s still sexist! The “Girlfriend Mode” moniker aside, this easy skill tree is being given to a female character -- a character Hemingway also referred to as “the cutest we’ve ever had.” So they’re giving the cute girl character easy mode and they’re calling the skill tree “Best Friends Forever,” the same phrase you find on heart shaped lockets around tween girls’ necks at Justin Bieber concerts. How could we possibly read that as sexist, she asked sarcastically?

Hemingway said he was thinking of making a more difficult skill tree for the Mechromancer to counter balance “Best Friends Forever,” but why do you have to give her the easy one at all? Gearbox say they’re trying to help “noobs” of any gender get into the game … but do they really think a guy is going to pick a cute girl as his avatar? No, he’s going to pick the tough-looking dude with tattoos and a snake-shaped scar. “Best Friends Forever” is obviously intended for women. Anyone who says different can suck my left trigger.

Come on, game designers. Is this really the best you can do? When video games were first developed, many female characters needed to be rescued, like the Princess in “Mario Brothers” and “The Legend of Zelda.” Then game programmers started to include a single female character (Chun-Li in “Street Fighter,” Sonya Blade in “Mortal Combat”) you could choose from among a host of male characters. Us female gamers politely ignored the obvious fact that we were being thrown a bone, that these female characters were uber-sexualized, and that when they attacked sparkles and rainbows flew out of their hands. (At least you could kick butt without feeling any gender confusion!)

My hope is for the video game industry would be to get with the program. It’s 2012. There are women -- and men -- who are less-than-impressed with your offerings.

How cool would it be to have a strong female character that you didn’t feel dirty for playing? Give us more Jane Shepards, more Jennifer Tates, just more women that don’t actively embarrass our sex. Please consider the message you are making us swallow with every click of our controllers.

Reprinted with permission from The Frisky. Want more?

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