Thursday, August 23, 2012

Borderlands 2's "Girlfriend Mode" & Feckless Journalists

Working up to the mid-September release of Borderlands 2, Gearbox Software has been in full on PR blitz mode. It has all the earmarks of a smash hit. The original was a fast, funny and addicting mix of first person shooter and Diablo-style loot farming. Everything they've released about the sequel so far makes it seem as though they've worked on their weaknesses and expanded on their strengths. I don't think I'm jumping the gun by saying that it's going to be an excellent game. Unfortunately, gender politics in gaming has been picking up speed (as well as pageviews) this year and Gearbox has had to deal with a few mini-crises as a result.

First there was the release of Duke Nuke'em Forever, which was a terrible game by anyone's estimation and really missed the mark on everything, including some creepy scenes involving Duke's bimbo hangers-on. Not kitschy, tongue-in-cheek, exploitation stuff either but legitimately mean and unfunny crap better left unused. Gearbox mostly scooted past criticism because the game was mostly done when they bought it from the defunct company who had previously been developing it. It was a Gearbox game in name only.

Then, a couple of months ago, Gearbox decided that they weren't going to add female Marines into the Aliens: Colonial Marines multiplayer that's due out next year. The assets were there in the single player but for as-yet-undefined reasons, they won't be included in the multiplayer. Women are fundamental to the Alien mythology, both thematically and in characters like Ripley and Vasquez, so their absence was curious. You can get skins of Aliens characters like Hudson and Apone as a pre-order bonus from GameStop, but no Ellen Ripley? A dedicated fan started a petition to have women added that went well beyond expectations (and garnered articles about it on most of the major gaming news sites) but Gearbox is still silent about the issue.

Most recently, in an interview by Eurogamer, lead designer John Hemingway referred to a skill tree for the Borderlands 2 DLC character class, The Mechromancer, as "girlfriend mode" for it's ability to essentially dumb down gameplay for beginners. Because... haha... girls are pretty bad at games. Am I right, guys? Right? Up top! Yeah! Crack a brewski!

It's pretty clear in the interview that Eurogamer was not needlessly sensationalizing Hemingway's comments but merely reporting exactly what he said. At no point did they editorialize, they just printed his quotes. It didn't stop Gearbox head Randy Pitchford from taking to Twitter to defend Hemingway, referring to his use of the "girlfriend mode" phrase as a "personal anecdote" and doing some old fashioned "blame the messenger" PR moves.

To be fair, on the continuum of sexism, Hemingway's comments rank somewhere alongside your average issue of Maxim magazine. As a guy, it seems like a fairly standard dudebro thing to say and I'm not particularly offended by it. The sticking point seemed to be his lunkheaded insistence on repeating the phrase several more times in an attempt to sell the non-joke. Fine. Poor choice of words, questionable judgement, no big deal. A good opportunity to continue the discussion of women in gaming but not all that dire of a situation.

However, if you look at the same article on other sites, the "Girlfriend Mode" comments were completely removed. They just wrote around it. Some sites reported the kerfuffle others, predictably, went the other direction and decried the evils of political correctness that are presenting a clear and present gamer to the future of gamizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. For instance, the typically facepalm-able defense from IGN's Colin Moriarty. (Because it wouldn't be IGN if they didn't find some way to blame the fans for the industry's problems.)

Just as a sidenote: How about we wait until women are better represented in games before we jump straight to the apoplectic shrieks of political correctness killing gaming? Women now represent around half of all gamers but there's no way you'd know that from the games come out every week. The fact that people like Moriarty overreact to even the notion of discussing sexism in games is a pretty clear sign that we're on the right track. It means that the section of people who reflexively fear change are getting worried. That's a good sign and, if nothing else, the precursor to a lot of primo schadenfreude at their expense.

Since I started this blog, my two biggest fascinations have been sexism in the gaming industry and the failures of gaming journalism to accurately represent the fans. This "Girlfriend Mode" issue is a good example of both. Developers and publishers have a reputation for being astonishingly petty and defensive. Give a bad review or bad press and you can kiss your previews, exclusives, review copies, and ad buys goodbye. They can ostensibly hold you hostage for telling the truth. That means that dissenting opinions happen mostly on smaller sites where they are open to smirking accusations of pandering for pageviews. (For a recent example, see Gamefront and the Forbes bloggers in the wake of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy.)

I'm cynical enough at this point to know that it's not going to change anytime soon. Until developers and publishers start thickening their skin (and stop pretending that they don't know when they're releasing sub par products) and journalists start toughening up and ignoring comments sections trolls and Twitter threats and write for the silent majority, your best bet is supporting the smaller, hungrier people whose sense of self-preservation hasn't kicked in yet. Or making sure you support places like Eurogamer when they refuse to back down for doing their job right. Those big sites aren't going anywhere.

The ball is already rolling in regards to treating women better in games and it will only pick up steam as it goes. The real turning point will happen when enough women join the industry that the casual misogyny that comes with working in a male dominated industry becomes untenable. (And you can believe that guys like Moriarty will be dramatically shaking their fists at the sky the entire time.) This is still a very young industry in a society that still has a bad habit of treating women as weaker or lesser than.

Likewise, the gaming press has a hard route to travel trying to balance staying in the good graces of tetchy developers with being honest with their very mercurial readers. The industry already has a very bad habit of blaming fans to cover for their own fragile egos. It's an easy excuse and usually disingenuous bullshit. In that respect, fans aren't the only ones who need to grow up a little. The difference is that a lot of the worst offenders amongst the angry fans are young enough to possibly learn better. One article with one developer's loose tongue doesn't matter much one way or the other but it's still a conversation worth having, however inconvenient it might be.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Walking The Room

New Media has been pretty awesome for comedians in the last few years. Twitter has proven to be a meritocracy where people like Megan Amram and Rob Delaney can build followings out of one liners. Podcasts have gone from a substitute for terrestrial radio (The Adam Carolla Show), an opportunity to do some long form improv (Comedy Bang Bang) to career rehab (WTF With Marc Maron) and career kickstarters (You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes). Now it's being used as a cheap way for comedians to hone their talent and hang with friends while also, if you play your cards right, being a testing ground for TV show pilots. Comedy Bang Bang is already running on IFC with pilots by guys like Paul F. Thompkins, Jimmy Pardo, Pete Holmes and Marc Maron in various stages of development. Adam fucking Carolla is in the Guinness Book Of World Records because of his podcast.

And then there's Walking The Room.

Y'know what? No. Fuck it. Too easy. I'm going to be that special kind of asshole who talks about comedy seriously. (I'm expecting to write for The Onion A/V Club any day now.) The term "walking the room" is comedic shorthand for bombing so badly that people walk out on you. Cuddlahs, the nickname for hardcore WTR listeners, know all the lingo but I need to ease you in. If I just start blathering about how I'm clown from the neck down and I saw a hobotang shoving oranges into his meat pockets screaming "You got friiiiien'" while wearing Grip-'Em-Ups you're going to think I'm a fucking idiot.


Walking The Room is a comedy podcast starring Greg Behrendt and Dave Anthony. They've been friends and stand-up comedians off and on for (and I have no intention of looking this up to make sure it's accurate) I'm going to say about two decades. It's crass and sweet in almost equal measure. More than most podcasts, they talk almost about their lives. This isn't an interview show or an excuse to do long form improv. This is two (sometimes three) funny people sitting in a closet making each other laugh.

About a year ago, I was looking for some new podcasts. After listening to Adam Carolla every day at work for more than a year, I was getting worn out. He used to talk a lot about how friends and family tuned him out after awhile and I found myself doing that exact the same thing. He had a finite number of stories and repeated themselves regularly so I was looking to jump off. All I had known about Greg Behrendt at the time was that he was the He's Just Not That Into You Guy and that he did Loveline with Adam once and allegedly wasn't funny. However, after seeing Greg on Jimmy Pardo's Never Not Funny be very goddamn funny thanks, I reconsidered. Then I heard about Patton Oswalt's tweets about the show and that pushed me over the edge.

With the first episode I listened to, #56, all it took was sitting at my desk and work and listening to them joke about not being mad at Greg's wife for possibly leaving him because she would be "jumping out of the toilet mid-flush" and I was sold. Then, after making Greg laugh so hard he couldn't speak, Dave started shouting "Are you dying? YES! DIE! FINALLY!" I had to run and hide in a bathroom stall for five minutes because I was laughing so hard that people were popping their heads out of their cubicle to stare at me. That was it. I dived in completely. At a rate of about four episodes a day. Which, in retrospect, may not have been either healthy or wise.

Greg and Dave's willingness to talk about their lives, their foibles, neuroses, and career worries is part of what makes the show unique. Greg achieved success with a couple of best selling books (one of which got turned into a movie) and a daytime talk show that spun out of something that wasn't really part of his forte: self-help. He'd been a professional stand-up for over a decade by that point but when he achieved popularity, it wasn't for the things he'd been working at for so long. He could have probably rode the self-help thing into the ground but instead he's been focusing in his surf/ska band, The Reigning Monarchs, and fashion. Trying to find some kind of balance in his post-self-help guy career between comedy and other pursuits is a regular source of content.

Dave, on the other hand, had a lot of promise as a young stand-up but also a penchant for anger and self-sabotage that kept dragging him down. (For a more detailed explanation, you can listen to his episode of Paul Gilmartin's excellent Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast.) He's since course corrected and now has a wife and son and finds work as a writer, stand-up and occasionally a commercial actor. There's also the L.A. Podcast Festival he co-founded that starts in October. He's also an absolute beast on Twitter. Always more the aggressive of the pair and less willing to take shit from people, they get a lot of material out of Dave reacting to other people's stupidity. (It rarely ends well for them.)

When you put them together, the result is a pretty classic comedy dynamic... provided you can take it. The twisted stories that Dave opens most episodes with are designed to weed out the weak and easily offended. Chances are, you'll know in the first five minutes if the show is for you. Compared to shows like Comedy Bang Bang or The Nerdist which, by virtue of their format, keep you at arms length and away from the personal lives of their hosts, WTR gets you uncomfortably close. Their family lives are usually a prominent feature. As you'd expect from comedians who've known each other for so long, their ability to annoy each other is unparallelled. (Listening to Greg get under Dave's skin by merely making a noise is always a joy.) There's also precious little Rogan/Carolla-style macho chestbeating. As you'd expect from a show recorded by two grown men in a closet, there's a lot of aggressive male energy but it's never misogynist or homophobic. Guests like Jen Kirkman, Karen Kilgariff and Nikki Glaser more than hold their own.

One of the most endearing traits about the show is how they don't seem to put themselves above or separate from their fans. You're right there in the clown car with them. Insulting Greg and/or Dave as a joke is practically an initiation ritual. They're accessible via their forums The Hot Dog Thunderdome and The Hot Dog Thunderforum. They're both on Twitter and Facebook. Bonding through failure and sadness is what the podcuddle is all about. There's a lot of other podcasts out there that are just a couple of dudes talking, but the pedigree of Walking The Room and the frankness with which they talk puts them well above the rest. This is mandatory listening for all comedy fans.

Walking The Room - The homepage which features updates, a webstore and a handy glossary for catching up with all of the in-jokes and short hand that's popped up over the course of over a hundred episodes.

The Walking The Room Tumblr page

The Walking The Room YouTube Channel

The Walking The Room Libsyn page - Direct downloads for those who don't want to subscribe via iTunes.

Suggested listening:
#22: Hobo Orange Thieves - WTR's greatest contribution to the English language, "hobotang," begins here.

#24: Candy Insanity & No Snitching Ellen - Probably the best episode to start with and the easiest way to figure out if the show is for you.

#44: Brian "Piranha" Posehn & Hobotang Skin Pockets / #50: Patton Oswalt / #81: Patton Oswalt & Drop Some Bass: Three more good choices for beginners who need the safety of more popular comedians to help ease them in. Pussies.

#43: Wheelchwitz & The Heckler

#56: Mid Flush Jump & Elephon

#59: A Lift To Babytown & Get Off At Murder

#86: Junk Pics & Napalm Dixon - One of my favorite Greg bits: "He's good, he's good, he's good, he's dead."

#114: Wood Master Paul Gilmartin - In which Dave asks the single worst question of all time.

Live Cuddle #2: What Can Brown Do For You? - A live show for $2 on their website where guest Dave Holmes tells possibly the best shit story of all time.

Get into it, Cuddlah!