John Hemingway Must Die!

Cohen Edenfield

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

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  • http://twitter.com/amealcar AJ Nogueira

    I always assumed the Duke Nukem Games were supposed to be parodies on the status of shooters.

    That aside, I think this article makes some decent points on the covering of reactionary responses to sexism and gaming. I feel like this is a hallow victory in the end. The status quo of gaming will stand in some sort. Sure sexist remarks about games will begin to disappear, but when will the White Male Protagonist? When will games themselves be representations of different voices rather than just tacked on in reactionary responses.

    • Jane

      I agree. True equality will only come when the white male protagonist disappears… er..

      This isn’t a “victory” at all. It’s a travesty. It’s ridiculous. Thppt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anjin-Anhut/100000249774201 Anjin Anhut

    Thanks for the encouragement and stellar observations. Keep it up yourself. :)
    Here are my 5cts:
    http://howtonotsuckatgamedesign.com/?p=6610

    • http://twitter.com/skullmandible Cohen

      You nailed it. You basically wrote the article I wanted to write about how shoddy the original journalism was, but couldn’t in this article. Thanks!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anjin-Anhut/100000249774201 Anjin Anhut

        Thanks. It was vice versa with your justified swipe at Gearbox’s sub-stellar history regarding sexism (Duke Nukem). I did not see how to fit that into my article.

  • http://twitter.com/CaramelZappa Caramelzappa

    I was a little terrified that the title of this article was completely sarcastic and you were just going to talk about how this isn’t a big deal.

    But really, this is a fantastic article. Very well said.

    • Jane

      I know. At first I thought he might just be using a dramatic, clearly inflammatory title to draw irrational extremists to his article. Thank goodness he’s really suggesting that this guy die, or if not die, at least be destroyed in every way that matters.

  • illuminatia

    Great article. Yes, that metaphoric electric shock behaviour modification is exactly what the game development business needs.

    • Jane

      I guess the irony of comparing the people you’re accusing of bigotry to animals which must be “trained” through “electric shock behavior modification” is lost on you.

  • Jane

    … So a reader says that they were “terrified that the title of this article was completely sarcastic…” The title of this article is “John Hemingway Must Die.” Wow. Nobody else thinks this attitude is scary eh?

    Things are getting better. Through persistent, dignified, and rational insistence, by the example of those who lead the way, equality and liberty for everyone becomes more real every day, DESPITE this brand of repulsive self-righteousness you’ve got going on here.

    What’s the strategy here? If anyone says anything which can even remotely be considered by the most knee-jerk activist to be sexist, FLAY THEM ALIVE, write articles with titles about how they must die, organize boycotts, demand they be fired (by the way, that means they lose their livelihoods, in case you forget the real consequences of your mad desire to crush them) and just generally destroy them?

    You admit it’s a disproportionate response. But that “It has to be.” Right? Why? Because that’s what will bring people around?

    Yes. If history has proven one thing, it’s that people will change their thinking, become less polarized and just generally more tolerant and enlightened when another group creates an environment in which the slightest misstep is punished beyond all reason. Even a rat can learn to avoid shocks, right? Wow. In an article condemning bigotry, the author compares a group of people he doesn’t like to rats. How deftly ironic.

    This is such a tragic attempt to justify the unjustifiable. But it’s worse than that. Sexism is a real problem, but in your hurry to burn this guy at the stake and capitalize on the current wave of self-righteous anger, you ignore the consequences of this tact you’re advocating.

    When you act like this, when you act irrationally, you alienate those who would otherwise be your allies. People may not voice it, they may be quiet, (they probably will be, because you’ve made it clear that the slightest dissension will be punished.) But it will color their actions. It will color the way they vote, what they teach their kids, what they talk about with co-workers, etc etc.

    “Submit or we’ll destroy you” is not an argument, it’s a threat, and when you threaten someone, they will either fight you, submit resentfully until they can find some way to rebel, or run away and support others who will fight you.

    By the way, the title of this article is deplorable.

    • http://www.mediumdifficulty.com/ Karl Parakenings

      It’s not a serious title. Cohen is not suggesting that we flay and kill John Hemingway.

      • Jane

        Really. Thanks. That’s what my primary concern was, because obviously, I thought that Cohen really had the stones to try and find, torture and kill John Hemingway, not that he’s surfing a bunch of artificial, self-righteous anger to inflate his own ego and name while doing his part to destroy someone’s reputation and career who he admits doesn’t deserve it, but who he’s happy to do it to anyways, because… well, I guess just to “send the message.”

        Although now that I think about it, I guess I’ve never been a fan of deliberately ratcheting up rhetoric to destroy someone on the theory that it’s going to send a message to a bunch of sexists and get them to stop being sexist. Let’s leave aside the whole morality of it and just look at at the practical aspects:

        Sexists are rarely threatened into not being sexist. If anything, you just polarize them further, and push them underground. You think they will see the errors of your way by overreacting and destroying someone’s reputation?

        This campaign to destroy Hemingway lost the movement the high-ground when they decided to reach this sort of pitch. As soon as they did, they became just one more group of thugs trying to big-foot their way around an issue, doing the same kinds of things as they ones they point the finger at.

        Sad. Alienating. And kind of disgusting.