Dear video games industry, please stop calling easy modes in games “Girlfriend mode”, even in jest. It is sexist, dismissive, and uncreative.
In a recent interview with Eurogamer, it was revealed that Borderlands 2 will have a DLC class tree created for inexperienced players. This is wonderful news! I wish that this was included in the game at launch. Many people play video games, and making them as inclusive as possible is always a positive. So, why are some people upset with Gearbox Software? The lead designer of the game, Hemingway, explained this skill tree as a girlfriend mode.
“The design team was looking at the concept art 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.”
So he used a phrase similar to Girlfriend Mode in the interview because of a ‘lack of a better term’? I disagree with Hemingway on this point. This phrase implies that women don’t play video games and therefore the easiest modes in a game exist so that they can play a game with their boyfriends or significant others. It is heteronormative and sexist in its roots. The industry keeps using the term as if its prevalence makes it okay. Whether it is used one or one thousand times, it is problematic.
They mean to say something akin to “New Player Mode”. It is a difficulty setting that is welcoming to players who are new to the genre, players who may be new to gaming in general, or who simply do not want to play a punishing game for a myriad of reasons.
But instead of using a term that doesn’t alienate women and paint them as the lesser players, some gamers and the industry itself continue to use “Girlfriend Mode”. Every time it is used we are putting out a sign on the clubhouse door that says “No Girls Allowed”. It is one of many subtle indicators that video games are made ONLY FOR men. If women play games they are viewed as interlopers. They are the girlfriends dragged to the media by their partners. They are not there because of their own desires and interests. They are deemed Girlfriends, not Gamers.
Randy Pitchford (the President of Gearbox Software) has defended Hemingway on Twitter saying:
“There is no universe where Hemingway is a sexist – all the women at Gearbox would beat his and anyone else’s ass.”
I don’t know Hemingway, I cannot say if he is sexist. But, what we can say definitely is that the term itself is sexist. In order for the term to make sense it requires the assumption that girlfriends/women cannot play video games and therefore require an easier mode. So let’s just stop using the term.
Varied difficulty settings add to the inclusion of gaming. They allow more people to access the media. Yet, when these setting get sexist names applied to them they become tainted. They act as another way to tell women that they don’t really belong in the clubhouse. The term “Girlfriend Mode” is exclusionary yet it is meant to describe something inclusive. Is that what we really want to do as an industry?
Let’s be creative. Let’s come up with a term that actually reflects the true meaning of this type of difficulty setting. I suggested “New Player Mode” earlier but that isn’t entirely correct. Some people play these difficulty settings to see the story or game assets without the greater challenge of Hard or Normal difficulty. So perhaps, “Story Mode” or “Anti-Stress Mode” might be more appropriate. Let’s come up with some possible names that DON’T lean on sexism for their definition. Let’s get rid of the sexist and uncreative “Girlfriend Mode” term from now on.