I Play Halo on Legendary

14 Aug

Yesterday a Border House article popped up on my twitter feed that sent me into fits. Gunthera1 from Border House reported on the new announcement that Borderlands 2 will have a casual mode for inexperienced players, followed up this morning by a second Border House post by Cuppycake. The story was repeated on gameranx. Great. What does this have to do with my ability to play Halo on Legendary? Because the lead designer, John Hemingway, said the following:

“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 presumption of the idea that “Easy” or “Casual” mode in a game is “Girlfriend Mode” is not only misogynistic, but both insulting and personally offensive. As a gamer – and a female – I should have the ability to choose my level of difficulty without being condemned for doing so. As a woman, I should not be relegated to the role of “girlfriend” or “wife” for playing on casual. Also, the idea that I’m not capable of playing at “Normal” or “Difficult” or “Legendary” (which, yes, I have done) is demeaning and sexist.

I have plenty of male friends who “suck” at gaming. I have plenty of female friends who also “suck” at gaming. I also have friends of both genders who do not. In fact, the group I play with most often is a set of four of us, two men, two women, and the woman I play with is perhaps more bloodthirsty than the rest of us. But that’s neither here nor there.

As Gunthera1 says,

So he used a phrase similar to Girlfriend Mode in the interview because of a ‘lack of a better term’? I disagree with Hemingway on this point. This phrase implies that women don’t play video games and therefore the easiest modes in a game exist so that they can play a game with their boyfriends or significant others. It is heteronormative and sexist in its roots. The industry keeps using the term as if its prevalence makes it okay. Whether it is used one or one thousand times, it is problematic.

She suggests “New Player mode.” Fine. There’s also “Casual,” which is common, or Deus X‘s “Tell me a story” mode. There are innumerable ways to say what they need to say without bringing in a pejorative slight on women who game. Maybe Hemingway isn’t actually sexist, but his use of “girlfriend mode” is. The fact that his term is being defended says something more about the community and the industry – it may not even realize the degree to which it is actively hostile to women (and other marginalized groups). The language, the images, the terms they use alienate us and make us feel unwelcome, even by members of the community who have no active issue with women being gamers.

In essence, we need to think about how we use our terms. Calling it “girlfriend mode,” gameranx‘s Ian Miles Cheong suggests, is both offensive and counterproductive: “The ironic thing about “girlfriend mode” is that it’s designed to make games more accessible to non-gamers. Instead, the term alienates.” Gunthera1 says:

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.

In short, we need to reevaluate the way we talk about games and gamers. We need to consider the sexist, racist, and homophobic terms and images we use in games and think about the atmosphere that those things create. Cheong made use of an excellent metaphor: “when terms like those go unaddressed, it allows sexist stereotypes to blossom like big smelly rafflesia flowers, stinking up the place. Have you ever smelt a rafflesia? They’re called corpse flowers, and for good reason.”

If we expected Hemingway to apologize, or his company to apologize and say “Gee, we’re sorry, that was thoughtless,” we were apparently wrong. In fact, IGN‘s Colin Moriarty published a piece decrying objections to “girlfriend mode.” Why?

Remember, Mr. Hemingway didn’t actually say anything offensive. People wanting to be offended are simply looking for anything to jump on, consequences for anyone and anything be damned. So expect to hear a lot less from developers in the future because of episodes like this, and a lot more canned responses from PR as a result.

All because Mr. Hemingway dared say “girlfriend mode.” The horror.

Mr. Moriarty, I beg to differ. The reason people are offended is because Hemingway most certainly did say something offensive. In the grand scheme of things, there are many things that are much more offensive, yes, but it was still offensive. It was also a public declaration that the industry doesn’t think about women as gamers, but as “girlfriends of gamers.” Does that mean he’s a sexist pig? Almost certainly not. But if it isn’t called “girlfriend mode” (it isn’t), then don’t call it that, especially not in public where people will be offended by it.

Mr. Moriarty, we don’t use certain terms and phrases not simply because they aren’t politically correct, but because they are demeaning. To insinuate that because I am female I must not be good at shooters (your girlfriend is not all people’s girlfriend, and yes, I managed to both obtain a PhD and become good at shooters at the same time) is a product of the same ideology that says that because I am female I must spend my life in a kitchen, not use power tools, and enjoy pink and frills. The words we use can be hurtful, but even when they aren’t (as even I would not suggest that “girlfriend mode” is “hurtful,” exactly), they can still be dangerous when they perpetuate an outmoded ideal that marginalizes or diminishes someone due to their genetics or gender.

Edit: And Brandon Sheffield from Gamasutra agrees:

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 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 it might mean to some people. It was unconscious.

Sheffield goes on to point out that women make up at least 42% of gamers (as of a 2011 ESA survey) and therefore deserve to get more credit than they’re receiving because they make up almost half of the gaming community, and much less than half its voice, and only 10% of the industry creating it. But he also says that “the digital women’s movement” is making progress, and “growing pains” like this one are a part of that progress. Maybe so. But we still need to make sure that we don’t allow comments like Hemingway’s to be swept aside, “growing pains” or not. They’re important because they need to be recognized for what they are. /Edit

Words and images are far more important than we give them credit for most of the time. They are the foundation of our cultural understanding of people – and when we allow terms and images that are demeaning to others, we hurt our culture and society as a whole. When we use “girlfriend mode” we diminish women as inept. When our videogames contain women who wear little to no practical clothing, we assume that women’s value is based on their sex appeal. When we suggest that “rape” is akin to defeat in a game, we minimize the traumatic impact it has on a person’s life. When we call something we don’t like “gay,” we demean the LGBTQ community as deviant and shameful. Words and images matter, and it’s important to take the time to choose them carefully so that they reflect the kind of community we want to form and the society we want to become.