Stop calling it “Girlfriend Mode”

A clubhouse with 2 boys and a sign out front reading "No Girls".

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.

Hemingway said http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-08-13-borderlands-2-gearbox-reveals-the-mechromancers-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.

29 thoughts on “Stop calling it “Girlfriend Mode””

  1. This is Gearbox, who helped release Duke Nukem Forever, which is one of the most sexist piles of crap to come out of the games industry as of late. The fact nobody at Gearbox thought this was a terrible idea points to there being a great deal of sexism present, regardless of whether the employees involved are men or women, or whether they realize it or not.

  2. Ugh.

    This is super-annoying, especially since my non-dude partner consistently out-plays me in most games.

    I like “Story” mode or “Casual” mode, myself. If Borderlands wanted to be jokey they could even use “Softcore” mode, to be a play on ‘Hardcore”.

  3. Why wouldn’t he just call it “Easy” mode? Even “Very Easy” mode? Or “Novice” mode? Or “Story” mode, as in Mass Effect? “Recruit” mode as in CoD? “Walk on the Beach” mode in the new Spec Ops. There are a plethora of terms out there already in use to describe what kind of mode he wants to create. So it’s like he had to go out of his way to invent a new one just for maximum misogyny here.

    Also, way to reinforce patriarchy from both sides there, bro. Not only are women shamed for conforming to stereotype should they play Girlfriend Mode, but men are now implicitly shamed if they have to play on Girlfriend Mode because they just happen to be new to the genre. Good times.

    For the record, it’s still a sticking point between me and my SO that I can beat Mile High Club and Heart of the Reich on Veteran and he can’t. Clearly, I should just start calling it “Girlfriend Mode” and Recruit through Hardened “Boyfriend Mode” ;p …Well, except I wouldn’t, because I’m not an asshole and I grew out of girls-this, boys-that back in the sandbox.. What is wrong with this guy?

  4. Ugg… this makes me sad. I’m terrible at FPS. But then again, so is my male partner. We have female friends who will kill us repeatedly during our monthly LAN parties.

    This is a tired old trope. Can we retire it already?!

  5. As I understand it, they’re not simply talking about creating an easier mode, they’re talking about creating the ability for two players to play two different modes within a single co-operative game. It’s a small distinction, but not one I feel is coming across 100% clearly in the article.

    Calling it a “girlfriend mode” isn’t any less sexist for this, but it does explain the allusion to the relationship setting (because a couple of different abilities wanting to play a game together is one of the completely legitimate scenarios that this mode could cater for).

    Have to say though, I have never once heard anyone use the term “Girlfriend Mode” used to explain difficulty settings, even if the post does state that it’s common…

    Personally, I’m going to continuing playing “Gearbox? Don’t they make expansions for Half-Life games” mode.

  6. After DNF it’s obvious that Gearbox has some serious issues with sexism, shame since Borderlands it’s my favorite FPS.

  7. Haha, I love the use of women at Gearbox as some sort of shield, as if they obviously hold veto power over any sexist elements in the game and absolute control over their work environment. ‘Cause that’s how sexism works.
    Whatever. I wasn’t planning to buy anything of Gearbox’s after DNF. I really don’t need to see the continuing creative efforts of folks who literally had rape fetish concept art for their game.

    1. “I really don’t need to see the continuing creative efforts of folks who literally had rape fetish concept art for their game.”

      Wait, what now? Was this DNF or Borderlands?

  8. I hear this quite often, mostly when (straight male) game developers speaks about a very accessible coop game that their (non gaming) girlfriend also enjoys playing.

    But there is actual a technical term for it we call it “Casual”, that is normally associated with games that are easy accessible for non gamers regardless of their gender.

  9. Gah. The old canard that is the difference between “a sexist person” and “a person who made a sexist comment”. I really wish there was a better way to deal with this issue, because for many people, if you’re referred to as a bad person (in whatever way) the fight or flight instinct takes over, and nothing good ever results. (This is, perhaps, not how things should be, but I do believe that it is how things frequently are.)

    In this specific case, we see Hemmingway make a sexist comment. If we want to figure out how to stop comments like this from being made, we have to ask why he’s making them in the first place. To me, two theories would immediately spring to mind:

    1. He might be a deeply sexist and misogynistic individual who believes that all women suck at games.
    2. He might be a reasonable person who has heard the term elsewhere, copied it, and never really given it any thought.

    Option 2 seems more likely to me, because it is a prevalent term that I’ve seen elsewhere (a Google search for ‘”girlfriend mode” -borderlands’ yields over 60,000 hits, for instance), whereas I’ve not seen any other evidence that he is a sexist individual.

    If we try to demonise John Hemmingway over this, then we’re going after the wrong target. The problem is not one man who made one ill-advised comment. The problem is the institutionalised sexism that led him to be able to make such a comment without thinking. And of course, Hemmingway has become a tiny part of that institution, and of course, what he said isn’t acceptable, but if we’re looking to change things for the better then making a villain out of John Hemmingway or Gearbox isn’t going to accomplish anything.

    I’m really glad you’ve focussed this article on the term itself, rather than on the people behind it, because it’s the term that we need to fight. If we’re to get anywhere, we need to make more people realise that this kind of terminology is harmful, which involves thoughtful commentary like yours, more than anything else.

    Personally, this sort of gaming mode reminds me a lot of various automotive technologies like automatic transmissions or cruise control. You give up some control, and your overall performance won’t be as high as an expert driver with a manual transmission, but many people neither need nor want that level of fine-grained control, and are happier with simpler controls. As such, I propose that we refer to such systems as “cruise control mode”. You still have to drive the game; you just don’t have to do as much to keep things going.

    1. He certainly did not create the term, but he was yet another person to use it. We have heard it too often and it should have gone into retirement long time ago. Frankly, I wish it had never existed.

      I like your name idea of “cruise control mode”.

    2. I agree with your analysis of the reaction to Hemingway’s comment; it doesn’t reveal whether he is truly a misogynist prick or just a guy who used an ill-advised word without realizing the possible consequences.

      In any case, “Girlfriend mode” is dumb, demeaning term and shame on him for just throwing it out like it doesn’t carry any implications.

      I don’t even get why he’s talking about “mode” actually, according to him it’s a particular talent tree which would offer relatively easier gameplay, it’s not some setting determined beforehand. I kind of wonder if you can mix this lower difficulty tree with the others, maybe they could even apply it with other classes as well; it could be a great tool to give players exactly as much assistance as they require during play.
      Cruise control mode sounds like a neat idea for a new name, or maybe “assisted play mode” what do you think?

    3. Actually, didn’t Jay Smooth have a video about this recently? He suggested we take (in his example) accusations of racism along the same line as suggestions as to personal hygiene. “Excuse me, you have a little racism stuck in your teeth.”

      Because privilege is one of those things that everyone has to reexamine periodically.

  10. Would it be ok to support Girlfriend Mode if it secretly made the game harder than any other mode? Cause my fiance regularly beats me at every game we play.

    It would lead to amusing/awesome situations like
    “Dude, I beat the game on Girlfriend Mode”
    “whoooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaah”
    (I apparently imagine two guys talking together much like a Bill and Ted film)

  11. While ‘casual’ is a much preferred term over ‘girlfriend mode’ (ugh), I’m not 100% happy with my gaming being seen as casual just because I am unable to play on higher difficulties (and can’t play certain games at all). There’s nothing wrong with casual gaming, but I am most definitely not a casual gamer. I then think something like “Story mode” is better, except that some games really don’t have enough of it and the term would look laughable.

    I also think it’s a shame that when game modes get harder, they always get harder in a certain way, so that I’ll never try anything above ‘normal’ because it’s just not possible. It would be nice if some games got harder in different ways (I remember some older adventure games having an easy mode and a hard mode, and the former had more hints and simpler puzzles. I was pretty excited that for once I couldn’t only actually play hard mode, I even enjoyed it more than easy mode because it was simply an appropriate challenge and easy was… too easy. Not an experience I have frequently :P. There could also be other ways of making games harder besides more use of motor skills and reflexes or more difficult puzzles, of course, there is the mode where you actually need to use strategy instead of just hacking away or using overwhelming numbers, but it often also needs more motor skills unless it’s in a pure strategy game).

    1. Catherine’s “Hard” mode just made the puzzles harder, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into. There’s not much twitchery involved; it’s pretty much pure strategy and the ability to think in three dimensions. You might really like it.

      I sort of disagree that games get harder in “one way” on Hard Mode most of the time, though. To be sure being able to twitch faster is always helpful, but in something like, say, Dead Space you also get less health and ammo, so you have to think harder about resource management. Even in something like CoD, Veteran makes certain routes and tactics simply impossible, meaning you have to really think about how you approach each fight. A good strategy will win the day most of the time no matter what your skill level is like provided you can get the gun pointed in the right direction. I’ve got a buddy who’s pretty much the slowest guy around (he just cannot do QTEs, at all, ever), and he managed to beat F.E.A.R. on hard mode just by using really good tactics and a whole lot of stealth.

      1. Yeah, ok, you often also have to get more strategic in various ways (I generally file all that stuff under strategy). I appreciate actually needing to use my brain in strategy games, though I’m not really a fan of the genre as such. I do play them occasionally. But in other games things like that are just a part of what makes the difficulty higher. Getting the gun pointed in the right direction is quite a feat: it’s not something I can actually do, so games that require it without auto-target and/or pause gaming are games I usually can’t play at all. Same goes for aiming other weapons besides guns and bows. And there are indeed games I’ve played using as much stealth as humanly possible that I wouldn’t be able to play any other way :D (I happen to like stealth gameplay a lot too).

        I’ll have to look into Catherine. Although I’ve become a bit wary of people who say the twitch level of a certain game isn’t so bad: people have assured me lots of times that games really don’t require much twitching and then they turn out to be far beyond my abilities. It’s just a case of using wildly different measuring sticks, but it means I can’t really go by other people’s judgements and assurances on games very often unless they know me really really well or they’re reviewing for AbleGamers.

    2. There’s a difference between “casual” and “easy”.

      Especially in a multiplayer game, it’s important that different play styles be supported (inclusivity increases appeal and user base – i.e. units sold) and that they be balanced with each other. Some people really love the twitch FPS that requires incredible precision only gotten from hours and hours of practice. Others prefer to just jump in and have a good time. Yet others, for various reasons, can’t master the fine control that twitch gamers have.

      You can totally support all of these players.

      I worked in the video games industry for several years, and we did this all the time. It’s the only way to allow PC and console players to play together, or even play the same game separately – you assume the PC user has a mouse and you give the console player some degree of “auto-aim” to balance things.

      This is just an extension of that principle. What the article was describing (misogynist bullshit aside) was actually a great idea – a character build that doesn’t require fine aim. It’s a great casual play-set; it should have shipped with the original game instead of being a DLC afterthought. But it doesn’t have to be “easy mode”. Maybe characters with fine aim can do things she can’t if they hit just right. Or, she has resource management issues other characters don’t have, like she uses more ammo or has a cooldown when she sprays an area. Now she’s on even footing with all of the other characters and a challenge to play while not requiring finely-honed FPS skills. She’s just different and will appeal to a different segment of the potential target player base.

  12. I’m a girl. I often play on easy mode. It’s because I’m disabled now and physically can’t play some games on a harder difficulty. So if you don’t like the sexism argument, there’s always the ableism one.

  13. I suggest calling it Zen mode – As a long time neopets player, I often play the “zen mode” present on their flash puzzle games; things like the timer are eliminated so the player can more thoroughly enjoy the game. It also hints at the style of play, as opposed to the perceived difficulty. Since zen mode wouldn’t make sense for all styles of game, I’m also a fan of the term casual mode; it suggest that one could easily pick it up and give it a try.

  14. Y’know what? This is why I am DONE with geek culture. Between this, the whole Sarkeesian debacle and endless idiocy in forums in which I am made to feel like an outsider in a pastime which I have loved for years, I give up on gamers as a culture. I’ve found far more progressive attitudes towards women and minorities in the biker culture around my neighborhood, and they’re supposedly the dangerous ones!

  15. Yeah unfortunately the gaming industry and culture are pretty much known to be sexist (And homophobic), hopefully this’ll change, at least it seems there is more and more focus on treating women equally in the tech world, let’s hope that eventually finds its way into gaming culture.

  16. As I understand it, they’re not simply talking about creating an easier mode, they’re talking about creating the ability for two players to play two different modes within a single co-operative game. It’s a small distinction, but not one I feel is coming across 100% clearly in the article.

    Well, it isn’t modes so much as skills. Each character in Borderlands 2 gets a few different skill trees, from memory, so you can develop your Gunzerker, for example, towards being more of a tank or more of a damage-dealer.

    The BFF skill tree looks to be a tree which prolongs the life and usefulness of players with less well-developed FPS skills – which sounds like a really nice thing to have, because it means people with fine motor control issues (for example) might be able to enjoy playing co-op more.

    My guess would be that it turns you into some sort of a “ranged tank” – more durable, more likely to hit but doing less damage, but keeping enemies pinned down or focussed on you while the other player(s) can pick them off. And “different-ability co-op skill tree” or “assymetric co-op skill tree” or even “support skill tree” would probably describe that perfectly functionally…

  17. Girlfriend mode? LOL! Everytime I play ANY game, I play medium/hard. My boyfriend’s usually the one to play on easy mode because he hates dying in-game. I guess he’s refering to non-gaming chicks or something.

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