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.”

20 thoughts on “Don’t play on hard mode, girlfriend

  1. This is all 100% spot on. And it’s so disheartening how many voices of “stop looking for things to be offended by!” were raised in defense of the Girlfriend Mode comment. The Gamasutra post was a welcome exception.

  2. You are theoretically right, but surprisingly “girlfriend mode” is maybe a good thing to get females involved. I mean it is derogatory to female gamers but most females are not gamers and they not even think of being one. THEY think that games are not for them, that they will hopelessly suck or them playing would be “gay”, like a man who plays with Barbie.

    Creating and promoting “girlfriend mode”, focusing this not as “easy” but as “supportive” they might consider playing and also their partner might suggest them playing. A dedicated “girlfriend mode” would be a good first computer game for them.

    I understand that this is ridiculous or even offensive to emancipated females. But think of the Saudi female athletes. They were wearing ridiculous outfit and they sucked. Yet they were celebrated as heroes because of what their presence can mean for the women in Muslim countries.

    • This is what I was thinking when I commented that I didn’t think it would harm sales at all; for some couples, this kind of mode is going to be perfect.

      And in a way, the reason why this kind of matters (aside from my bruised ego 🙂 ) is because if some of those women DO get started into gaming by their partners, find they like it, and get more into gaming — so maybe next time they look around themselves to find upcoming games they might like — it would be nice if they weren’t immediately confronted with dev assumptions about being poor players.

      The idea of the support or beginner or sidekick mode is really good though and I hope studios continue to experiment with it. Just also that they remember that they have to address their whole audience, and think about their assumptions. I’m sure there are better ways to name these things, and maybe then give examples like ‘This is the mode I play with my girlfriend,” or “… with my dad,” or so on.

  3. I agree entirely about not using gendered terms, especially with regards to difficulty mode. ‘Easy’ mode already has enough loss of gamer cred ramifications in and of itself.

    In support of your other thought, here’s an anecdote: I have a friend, who is male, but fairly hopeless at FPSes. He also likes to play support in MMOs. When he tried out TF2 at the egging of another friend, who is female, and plays nearly exclusively FPSes (so you can imagine her skill level), he found it much more enjoyable playing the Medic support class and function. If you called it “girlfriend” mode, goodness knows if his ego could take it.

    I do have to add that I wish more female gamers would break the stereotypes by example though. I’ve met a few of them in real life, and they all cheerfully tell me they play WoW and they love playing a healer. Ditto on blogs. And many get hysterically emotional and drama-queeny.

    I’ve encountered more stereotype breaking female gamers in older, more niche games – a couple highly aggressive, hardcore ones on the old MUD (what was it they say about the female of the species? :)) and in ATITD, a competent tank in Age of Conan, etc.

    • @Jeromai

      This part of your comment really bothers me:

      ” I’ve met a few of them in real life, and they all cheerfully tell me they play WoW and they love playing a healer. Ditto on blogs.”

      So a lot of women prefer a role that involves fine detail, rapid decision making and multi-tasking over a role that involves mindlessly hitting the same sequence of buttons over and over again. How exactly does that make us not “highly aggressive, hardcore”?

      Maybe healing isn’t as in-your-face as playing FPS games, or hack-n-slash, but healers are every bit as disciplined, competitive and driven as other types of players. Yeah, we have the added complexity of necessary cooperation, but trust me, healers are just as cutthroat as everyone else.

  4. Leaving aside the “hysterically emotional and drama-queeny” comment, which I don’t wish to touch with a ten-foot pole, please consider that you’ve probably encountered more female gamers – hardcore or otherwise – than you realise. Many many female gamers choose not to identify themselves as female because of the abuse and harrassment it inevitably invites.

  5. @Siha: I am quite aware that there are plenty of female gamers who choose not to identify themselves publicly as female. It is entirely within their rights to do so.

    I’m just commenting about those who choose to publicly identify as female, then proceed to confirm a lot of gender stereotypes with their behavior. (Which is of course not everybody who publicly identifies as female, nor does Spinks fall under the above, else I would not be commenting here. I greatly enjoyed her post, which was measured, rational and persuasive, without hysteria or name-calling.)

    • I’m mostly just glad that quite a lot of women do play the games I like and enjoy them, although I think you probably notice the drama-attracting look-at-me people more than the others. One of the issues female gamers have, as a minority, is that if a guy acts like a ‘drama queen’ then people tend to write it off as ‘oh it’s just that guy.’ If a woman does, suddenly ‘all girls are drama queens.’

      Also, I think there’s a point where you have to step back and ask ‘do you call male players out also when they run to gender stereotypes?’ I mean, there are entire genres around playing big bald military dudes/space marines shooting the crap out of each other.

      Zellriven was commenting about a thread on mmo-champion about why some hardcore guilds (still!) don’t take women, and while he was annoyed by the inevitable attention seekers who post about how awful female players are etc, I was struck by how the majority of posters were just commenting on having played in hardcore guilds with women, or with female raid leaders, and that they were fine and it wasn’t an issue.

      So I think that’s a big up to all the female gamers and all the guilds that welcome them, because that thread to me is a sign that things are changing and “Yeah, she’s a girl, so what?” is becoming the more normal reaction. (Which I think is good.)

  6. Just wait until y’all get to a certain age than you will no longer be considered “girlfriends” but “mothers” looking to buy gifts for your SON (never daughter) at the local game shop.

    I wonder if there is a mother mode.

    I am annoyed by the sexist assumptions that woman don’t or can’t play games. But right now, I’m more angry by the fact that games hamstring female avatars (and by proxy real female gamers) by dressing the avatars in Hooters castaway uniforms. The bikini wear is a like a scarlet letter of stupid for the whole game world to see.

  7. I had no intention to purchase Borderlands 2, but apparently I get a copy for free with the new graphics card I was going to purchase anyway. Ironically, the described tree sounds like it might be fun to play, but would that make my male self a “girlfriend”?

  8. I guess hubby and I don’t fit the stereotype at all… I got him into the game and we co-tank our ten man raid [with me taking the single tank fights as I dislike dps and he doesn’t mind it].

    Our guildies have repeatedly marveled at never having seen a tank couple before [usually dps/dps or tank/healer].

    Ironically when I started tanking, our previous GM in our previous guild tried to push me out of it because in his estimation, women should not be allowed to tank.

    I have tried some fps games and while I don’t enjoy them as much, with practice I can do alright.

    Random anecdotes are random.

  9. at this point pretty much all my closer female friends – are gamers. life is too short and I’m too old to spend my time with people i don’t have shared interests with. I’m one of the few of them that plays on easy mode. several of them are huge shooter fans, there are quite a few left4dead2 versus games going on within my circle of friends and acquaintances. I also know multiple male gamers who are basically like me – playing on easiest mode available for variety of reasons.
    while i’m always happy when games include easy mode – calling it a “girlfriend mode” is annoying. I’m still going to buy Borderlands 2, eventually. I loved the first one. i just have too many other games to finish right now, to preorder (so most likely, I’ll just wait for game of the year edition) but I just really wish they didn’t contribute to gender bias with comments like that :/ and the saddest thing is… they probably don’t even realize how demeaning it sounds.
    I don’t want to be specifically catered to. but at the same time, i don’t want to feel like redheaded stepchild either (I’m looking at you recent bioware games (ME3 and SWTOR) and your very jarring split of romances/their outcomes when it comes to male characters vs female characters. ) just… a little bit of equality would be nice.
    /random sorta on topic rant

  10. And this is why I hesitate to mention that my boyfriend and I game together when talking to other gamers. Since we play TOGETHER, it is automatically assumed that he introduced me to whatever game we’re playing, that he’s better at it, and that I am only playing to support his hobbies.

    The fact is, we join most of our games at the same time. Since I have more free time than he does, I typically become more skilled at the game faster and am “the better one.” Most nights I’M the one who pressures him to play — or play one more before bed, please! — instead of the other way around.

    But since I’m the girlfriend of a gamer who also plays games, I must be some noob who needs “girlfriend mode” to become interested in a particular game.

    What bullshit.

  11. Couple of things I feel should be pointed out here: The new class has one tree that makes gaming easier (the bff tree), also, the whole ‘girlfriend mode’ was the developer using a personal anecdote.
    If they meant “easy mode for womens, because womens cant game lol”. I think they would have called it ‘Chickmode’ or something similarly horrible.

    …Why didn’t anyone yell at mario for the wii, when it had a mode everyone referred to as girlfriend mode? (for reference

    I had honestly expected more than a jumping on bandwagons here.

    And the fact that this story made the Guardian (imo) has more to do about old media wanting to make games look bad, because that story sells: games are sexist, rascist, fascist violent ect ect

    • “Girlfriend mode” is just as upsetting as “chick mode” because it diminishes women who game with their partners. Not to mention it’s hetero-normative as well as sexist, as it ignores the presence of LGBT gamers.

      The fact that this guy used the term in a presentation…it doesn’t matter to me that he’s taking a term used from another game by the gaming community and that he points out the fact that he lacks a better term. He still used it. And as Spinks quoted from one of the articles addressing this issue, there’s a distinct possibility that the term was thrown around during brainstorming sessions, meaning this kind of sexism ISN’T merely relegated to word-vomit press guys, but is coming from inside the organization.

      I don’t know how you can call Spinks’ post, or the comments above ours, “jumping on bandwagons” when it’s all women relating their experiences in the gaming community. We’re all pissed. And contrary to what the guy says in that video, feminists ARE responding to this controversy. Spinks just did.

      We’re not jumping on a bandwagon of criticism. It’s not just blogging about something controversial for the sake of doing so. The male authors that Spinks quoted in her blog are every bit as feminist as the women commenting here. Remember, you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist. So the fellow in the video you linked who implied that there is no actual feminist response to this controversy, merely feminist sentiment being drawn up by regular folks? Yeah, he’s wrong.

      I have a hard time taking his video seriously though, considering that he is obviously an anti-feminist or MRA who has made videos attacking Anita Sarkeesian immediately after the Kickstarter controversy and deriding the Jennifer Hepler controversy as “fake outrage.” I mean, I will watch them and listen to what he has to say, but it seems like he’s already coming from a place of closed-mindedness.

    • ” I think they would have called it ‘Chickmode’ or something similarly horrible.”

      Something like BFF maybe 😉 (Like I said above, I always associate that phrase with Paris Hilton, it IS girly.) And The Guardian article is I think at least as critical of the Eurogamer interviewer as it is of the developer. I found it quite objective.

      As far as bandwagons go, I often comment on gaming news if I think I have something to add. But the main reason I decided to write this was after reading an article in The Escapist which basically says ‘we’ should be past the point of getting offended about casual sexism and should instead try to ‘engage with developers.’ I get confused with how exactly I personally am supposed to engage with the individual developer and why it’s somehow wrong to state politely how their comments make me feel, so hence … post. I’m also going to quote from the same article:

      I was reminded of the way the situation was handled when David Jaffe made a sexist comment back in February during a GameTrailers interview from an event in San Francisco:

      “…if you have a lady friend and she really wants to know the best game ever, and she will give you a fucking blowjob, if you play this game. If you let her win Twisted Metal split screen, she will suck your dick.”

      The article writer later describes that quote as ” an unfortunately-phrased quip about blowjobs” — to me, describing female gamers with the expectation that they will offer sexual favours if you ‘let her win’ goes WAY beyond ‘unfortunately phrased quip’. It is fucking outrageous. So I’m thinking the article writer doesn’t really give a shit about sexism and that’s one of the reasons I want to keep writing about it. Ultimately, there are forces in the gaming industry and media who would honestly prefer if we don’t say when we are upset.

      They can go fuck themselves.

      (Yeah, in some ways that upsets me more than the sexism 🙂 )

      • “Something like BFF maybe ” Hehe, point taken.

        I think *think*, that the point I tried to make, was that with so many horrible things being done in gaming against equality (gender or race or whatever), this is imo the wrong target to get mad at.
        The qoute was taken very much out of context (at least that was how I read his tweets after the fact), and it was – like I said – a personal anectdote.

        Having played the siren for something like 100 hours in borderlands 1, I feel very confident in saying that this is not the gaming series you are looking to attack. They actually managed to portray a female PC as just as messed up as the male ones, and for the first time in a very very long time of gaming, she was neither “I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR” nor a “imma just as masculine as you men are *snort-spit*”. But a genuine believeable (as anything in that game) character.

        So taking a twisted qoute from one interview, and talking about boycutting the woman-hating gearbox (not you, I know, but i’ve read that some many other places…) is just saddening to me.

      • Escapist posts drivel like that now? This makes me more angry than the girlfriend mode. I think it’s important that us female gamers respond to things like this and make it clear that we will not put up with this. Gaming culture is a frightening place at times.

  12. Pfft. Getting Elite on the Amiga doesn’t count.

    It has missions that effect your rating rather than relying on piracy and shooting the PoPo.

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