The Problem with “Girlfriend Mode”

So. There’s been a bit of a kerfluffle around a very stupid thing a designer over at Gearbox said. What he said was:

The design team was looking at the concept art [of the Mechromancer class] 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.

Now, let’s set aside the sexism already inherent in Borderlands. Let’s set aside my near-rabid love for the game (yes, it’s sexist as shit and I love it anyway.). What, exactly, is wrong with what he said?

Well, let’s consider the assumptions built in. “The girlfriend skill tree” is a skill tree for people who “suck at first-person shooters.” It will let them “understand” and “play” the game. In other words, without this tree, they will not understand (implying they’re stupid) or be able to play (implying they’re inept) the game.

Now note that the skill tree is not being called “the girlfriend skill tree” in game. In-game, it’s not sexist. Hell, the existence of the tree? Not sexist! It’d be a great way for an expert gamer to play with any n00b gamer — kids, folks who’ve never played FPS games, etc.

What is sexist here is that the designer took all these ideas (stupid, inept, can’t play FPS games well) and rolled them up into exactly one type of person: a “girlfriend.”

This assumes two things: 1: the default gamer is either a dude or a lesbian. 2: said gamer’s girlfriend sucks at games and is probably a little stupid.

Are there couples where this is the case? Sure!

However. There are loads of couples  out there where both play FPS and rule at ’em. There are couples where the “girlfriend” is better at FPSs.

And, most importantly: there are about a zillion better things to call this skill tree. The fact that the designer not only went straight to “girlfriend” but said there was no viable other term? That shit is sexist. The fact that “girlfriend mode” is a known concept and thus the first thing his brain reached for? That shit is sexist.

Seriously, here’s a list, just off the top of my head, of better words to use than “girlfriend”:

  1. n00b
  2. kindergarten
  3. easy
  4. helper
  5. training-wheels (my favorite, because it implies that the person could get better and not need the leg-up anymore)
  6. buddy

And I’m not even trying here.

Naturally, people are coming out of the woodwork (so far, looks like it’s all dudes who are gamers) to defend Gearbox and the designer. In one way, they’re right: this isn’t that big a deal in the big scheme of things.

What it is, however, is yet another piece of evidence that Gearbox, games like Borderlands, the FPS genre in general, and video gaming overall are full of sexism. Sometimes that sexism is overt, sometimes it’s more subtle. No real surprise, our society is full of sexism, and communities built mostly of dudes get extra full of sexism.

I think it’s vital to call this shit out, though, so here I am.

The expression “girlfriend mode” is really fucking sexist, and needs to die. Just say “n00b mode.” It’s shorter, sounds more gamer-geeky, and (best of all!) won’t make female gamers like me have a moment of wondering if we really want to keep buying your games if you think so poorly of us.

A couple worth-reading pieces on the subject:

“Girlfriend Mode,” Borderlands 2, and Why Being a Dude Rocks
Borderlands 2 “Girlfriend Mode”: Why a Casual Misstep Matters


I’m glad that people are calling out shit like this. The more we call it out, the sooner it’ll stop fucking happening.

(Confession: yes, I will buy Borderlands 2. I’m really psyched for it, it looks awesome, and if it has even half the replayability of Borderlands, it’ll be money well spent. But I suspect that, like with Borderlands, I won’t be able to stomach playing the female characters and will be annoyed by the female NPCs. On the bright side, it’s likely to be far and away less sexist than a lot of other games out there! At least Borderlands didn’t seem to think its female avatar needed an attempted rape to be sympathetic.)

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