John Hemingway, a Gearbox developer working on Borderlands 2, referred to the Mechromancer’s “Best Friends Forever” skill tree, one aimed towards casual inclusion, as the “girlfriend skill tree” when speaking with Eurogamer. People took this quote, changed it slightly—all the reaction, and the trending twitter phrase, refers to “girlfriend mode,” which suggests something different—and ran with it. It’s not hard to see why, especially considering the story that most were getting second or third-hand: “Borderlands 2 has a girlfriend mode, because they think women suck at video games!”
Gearbox was quick to distance itself from this. On twitter, Gearbox president Randy Pitchford declared: “Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode. Anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir up something that isn’t there.” Pitchford explained what Hemingway had already explained. It’s a skill tree designed for less-skilled players of any gender. A few tweets later, he stated that “There is no universe where Hemingway is a sexist – all the women at Gearbox would beat his and anyone else’s ass.”
The justification that a company can’t be sexist because it employs tough women is ridiculous, of course. One also wonders where these women were when Duke Nukem Forever was being shat out. But maybe we’re being optimistic, and the mea culpa is accepted—with a grain of salt, considering the company’s checkered gender legacy. And maybe we ignore that a company with a shaky history of gender politics is acting like it’s ludicrous that an employee and spokesperson’s sexist “anecdote” is being reported, and accepted, as sexist.
If we accept all of this, it might seem that the response to this gaffe has been exaggerated. If this happened in a vacuum, if this wasn’t coming from the company that produced Duke Fucking Nukem Forever with a straight face, if the culture of gaming wasn’t still inundated with dog-whistle sexism—in short, if everything about gender politics in gaming was very, very different—then yes, this would be an inordinate response.
People are being accused of picking fights and looking for something to be upset about. That’s wrong. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the state of affairs. They know what they’re upset about—a culture of sexism that’s largely impossible to confront precisely because it’s so pervasive and unspoken. Why not just do an indictment against the culture at large? Well, that can have unintended repercussions. It’s more effective, and frankly safer, to attack sexism whenever it rears up in an undeniable, indefensible way.
And believe it or not, an “outsized” response changes things for the better. As Michael Robinson put it, “An environment where one guy feels ok being casually sexist is an environment of casual sexism.” Conversely, an environment where a guy is crucified for being casually sexist is an environment that doesn’t permit casual sexism. Even rats can learn to avoid an electric shock, and even jackasses like Joe Peacock realize that blatant sexism isn’t taken well by the culture at large. Sure, they won’t apologize. Like Gearbox, all you’ll hear is an explanation of how this is a misrepresentation of their intent, or how this was just one producer, or one developer, and it doesn’t represent the company and all the tough sexism-punching ladies they have in their employ. But the next time they, or someone else, is about to say something repulsively sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or racist, they’ll feel the twinge of pain from the last time they did. Less sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist conversation means that the zeitgeist moves away from that type of thinking. 60% of Americans are accepting of gay marriage today, as opposed to 49% two years ago, because the national conversation has moved towards casting those opposed to it as backwards, atavistic thugs on the wrong side of history.
Does John Hemingway deserve to be flayed alive for an offhand, if very revealing, comment? No, not really. The reaction is disproportionate. But it has to be. Incidents like this become a referendum-by-proxy on geek culture because there is no other productive way to have a conversation about a culture whose very DNA is the casual sexism and racism of privileged power fantasies. Let me be clear: Things are getting better. Let me be clear again: That didn’t happen by accident, and it can get worse again. Horace put it best when he advised that we must “be alert in guarding against relapse following a renaissance.” If we don’t continue to aggressively stamp out sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all of it, then we tacitly accept it. And if we accept it, we encourage it. If the goal is to change the status quo, to give that DNA some gene therapy, then fence-sitting is tantamount to endorsement.
I’ve rolled my eyes before at the concept of “geek culture,” because it can certainly seem like something that was only codified as a means of self-aggrandizing and out-grouping: “I’m special because my parents got me a video game when I was eight, and you’re not because yours didn’t.” But the fact remains that there is a gestalt culture centered around video games, comics, and everything else geek-associated, and as that culture has grown more inclusive I’ve been impressed at its ability to police itself. Five years ago, John Hemingway’s “girlfriend skill tree” comment would have only been criticized on forward-thinking blogs, and that criticism would been roundly mocked and dismissed by the general culture. Ten years ago it would have gone unnoticed, and fifteen years ago GIRLFRIEND MODE would have been advertised on the back of the box and changed your character into a cheerleader with six-inch heels and her ass hanging out. So, you know. Good work, everyone.
Keep it up.
Cohen Edenfield is a biomechanical construct with a BA in Literature, commonly found in the American Southeast. He’s the author of Reign in Hell, an infrequently-updating comic just gearing back up again. You can follow him on twitter or read his uncomfortably honest journal-comic here.