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.