Don’t play on hard mode, girlfriend

Just for a moment, try to imagine what it’s like (if you don’t know from personal experience) to go into a computer shop or a gaming shop with a male friend and have the shop assistant ignore everything you say and do because they just want to speak to your companion. Like, even when you are asking sensible techy questions, they’ll give the answers to the man you are with. It won’t take long before you feel the urge to throttle them and yell “I made Elite on Elite before you were even born!! I collected all 151 pokemons in Pokemon Yellow! I built my own PC!  I am a gamer too, dammit!” (Incidentally, no one should really need to justify why they are in a gaming shop looking at games.)

And maybe you’ll see why female gamers in particular get wound up when the gaming industry often seems to do the exact same thing. I’m sure other people find it annoying too that so many devs are only interested in ‘engaging’ with straight male gamers between 18-35. Certainly it feels sometimes that they are the target audience and everyone else is chopped liver. More than that, it often feels that devs would prefer you just don’t play their games so that they can keep that exclusive brofest atmosphere.

Does anyone really doubt that it would be better to find ways to engage your core audience which don’t automatically push away anyone else?

The saga of ‘girlfriend mode’ and Borderlands 2

I’ve seen a lot of reaction this week in blogs and the gaming media to a comment that one of the Borderlands 2 designers made about a new DLC character class. It takes the shape of a cute steampunk chick and has talent trees based around being a support class with easy mode targeting – ie. it’s designed for inexperienced FPS players who have someone else to play with. They called the support talent tree BFF (Best Friends Forever) – a phrase that in my mind is inevitably linked with Paris Hilton – and the dev comment was that he described this as ‘girlfriend mode’. So basically they have identified part of their core playerbase that is made up of guys who want to play the game with their less skilled female partners and so on and so forth.

If you are either one of those male players or one of those female partners, you will probably think “Fair enough” or “Hey, that guy read my mind and made EXACTLY what me and my partner want.” I am quite sure that Borderlands 2 will not suffer at all financially from the press coverage – in fact chances are that more people will hear about their ‘girlfriend mode’ comment and be more likely to buy the game rather than less. Sure, maybe they pick up a reputation for casual sexism but that’s probably a bonus to their target audience anyway. “Yay free casual sexism included! Bros welcome!”

So why did the ‘girlfriend mode’ comment get people wound up? Much of it is because female gamers are tired of being treated as though they don’t exist unless as a sidekick to a gaming boyfriend, and that in the latter case, they probably suck. It’s the continual stereotyping that wears people down. Also, sexism in gaming is an increasingly hot topic.

Brandon Sheffield at Gamasutra pretty much sums up my thoughts. He also discusses why the backlash against casual sexism (and this honestly is pretty minor in the general scale of things) is getting louder.

I do believe that the mode is a good idea, and I also believe that Hemingway didn’t mean any offense to women. Still, simply saying something is not sexist doesn’t make it not sexist.

I’ve addressed this problem before, but the issue I find worrisome is that “girlfriend mode” made it into Hemingway’s lexicon at all. It’s not an official mode name, but it rolled off the tongue so easily. Developers don’t head into press meetups completely unprepared – he must have thought of this term before. It was said without malice, but also without really thinking about what it might mean to some people. It was unconscious.

Now, in my field of work, being rude, derogatory, or sexist/racist about clients in the office would very likely lead to disciplinary proceedings. It’s unprofessional, disrespectful, and more importantly if you are getting into that mindset in private, it WILL be expressed in how you behave towards clients in public. So good management come down on that sort of thing.

There are also plenty of games which manage to include easy modes without labelling them as girly, and hence avoid this minefield completely. I’ve played a bit of MW3 with friends and whilst I am terrible at shooters, I could at least run around, shoot stuff, and find it vaguely fun on the easiest mode. I felt that if I was motivated, I could spend more time with the game and get better at it, and meanwhile it would still be fun.

Gunthera1 writes in Borderhouse about why variable difficulty modes are great, but using gendered terms for them is not.

But instead of using a term that doesn’t alienate women and paint them as the lesser players, some gamers and the industry itself continue to use “Girlfriend Mode”. Every time it is used we are putting out a sign on the clubhouse door that says “No Girls Allowed”. It is one of many subtle indicators that video games are made ONLY FOR men. If women play games they are viewed as interlopers. They are the girlfriends dragged to the media by their partners. They are not there because of their own desires and interests. They are deemed Girlfriends, not Gamers.

That this story made The Guardian is a pretty good sign that sexism in gaming is becoming a topic of more general interest. Mary Hamilton comments (in The Guardian) that Borderlands has a good history of strong female characters and feels the Eurogamer reporter should have asked for more clarification during the interview:

Eurogamer compounded the issue by using a partial quote in their headline and failing to ask or report a follow-up question. Hemingway’s words change depending on their context: whether this is a widely used internal nickname or his own word; whether he was speaking generally, about all girlfriends, or specifically about his own. It would have been ideal to see that clarified at the time, not dissected afterwards, especially in the light of the franchise’s interesting female characters and approach to bad-ass women in their games.

But none of this would warrant much reaction if game culture wasn’t currently primed to go off like a field of fireworks at the merest hint of sexism.

My other thought is that it’s pretty disrespectful to men who are inexperienced with shooters to provide an easy mode but make it obvious that it’s only targeted at ‘girlfriends’.

Easy modes in MMOs

In these days of ‘bring the player, not the character’ it is easy to forget that MMOs have also toyed with having some classes being easier to play than others, with the aim of making it easier for groups of mixed skill to  play together.

The Theurgist in DaoC was a great example of this, because it had incredibly powerful passive buffs. To the extent that if you were grinding xp with a group and had to leave, the group would ask you to leave your character logged in. So it was a great class for people who had hardcore friends or partners and wanted to group with them without it being frustrating for anyone, anyone who liked ultra laid back play styles, or for anyone who liked to chat or watch TV while gaming.

In WoW, paladins were originally designed to be the ‘easy to play’ class. (It’s hard for me to find the actual dev quotes from Vanilla era WoW but I am pretty sure they actually said this at one point.) They have changed a lot since, but that was one of the original design goals.

Another MMO cliche is the male player who gets his female partner to play as a healer. Imagine for a moment if we called healing “girlfriend mode.”