The Problem With A Videogame’s "Girlfriend Mode"

Sexism in videogames is about more than terminology: It’s about developers marginalizing their players and their games.

A trailer for Borderlands 2, the game in question. youtube.com

In a recent presentation to a room full of journalists, the lead designer for Gearbox Studios’ Borderlands 2 described a character track which would emphasize support skills — a lower difficulty setting for the game, basically — as “girlfriend mode.”

During a studio tour of Gearbox’s Dallas offices, the developer showed us a work in progress build of the Mechromancer, planned to launch around 60 days after the game releases in September. Currently, the Mechromancer uses assets lifted from Maya, the Siren, for her arms. But her design and one out of three skill trees is complete.

The skill tree is called Best Friends Forever, what lead designer John Hemingway dubbed the “girlfriend mode.”

“The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we’ve ever had. 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? That’s what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is.”

The term “girlfriend mode,” which is an internal nickname, is getting most of the press because of how incendiary it is, but the planned external name for the setting is set to be “Best Friends Forever” which, while not as overtly sexist, is still gendered and slighting. In particular, it seems clear that the term “BFF” is deployed with some irony.

The problem isn’t frank honesty, as Polygon editor Justin McElroy puts it; this isn’t just some gaffe. The problem is developer mentality. Girlfriend mode might be called something else now, but the kernel of the idea, and the sexist thought process that led to it being called that internally, are still the same. Which Courtney Stanton, a videogame project manager in Boston, calls out.

Naturally Randy Pitchford, the president of Gearbox Software, jumped in to defend the game it’s developing and its lead designer, John Hemingway, who initially made the comments about Borderlands 2’s “girlfriend mode.”

I understand Randy Pitchford, the president of the company, wanting to defend John Hemingway, the lead designer of their new game, but to deny even the possibility of sexism makes him look out of touch and closed minded (such denials are not unusual).

In attempting to defend his studio and employee, Pitchford reinforces that the root problem isn’t with detractors capitalizing on a gaffe but on institutional obtuseness at best and internalized sexism at worst. If Pitchford didn’t even know that “girlfriend mode” was the nickname his lead designer was using, he can’t credibly say “there’s no universe” where the designer, and by extension Pitchford’s studio and game, is sexist. Then again, this is a studio that has previously held a press conference in a strip club.

Sonic and Tails might be best friends forever, but I don’t think the developers of that series would marganize Tails and people who’d play him by creating a girlfriend mode. That’s best left to fanfic.

Sarah Pavis is an engineer, writer and avid overthinker.

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