By: Stephen Crane
A recent Eurogame feature created a large amount of backlash in the gaming community (read: Twitter). What should have been a simple description of a planned DLC character for Borderlands 2 ended up being a lesson for developers: Send in PR reps instead.
The basis of the article was pretty simple: Gearbox decided to turn one of their classes into a tool to help introduce inexperienced and new players to the concept of first person shooters. The skill tree is officially titled "Best Friends Forever". Unfortunately, John Hemmingway who was interviewed also stated "The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we've had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree."
Those words caused Eurogamer to run the title "Borderlands 2: Gearbox reveals the Mechromancer's "girlfriend mode"". Drama began. More than a few websites ran articles explaining this demonstration of casual sexism and how it's symptomatic of the industry at large.
The outrage here has been compared to that around the "Feminist Whore" skill in Dead Island, but that's perhaps a bit unfair. Dead Island's misstep was actually in the code and showed a degree of forethought. Plus it was a bit more offensive. What Hemmingway did was much more casual and much more anecdotal. There were no plans to ever call this "girlfriend mode", and the term was only ever used by him. John Hemmingway definitely misspoke, however, and will most likely need to think long and hard before he decides to agree to an interview again. It will also probably be a while before he is allowed to be interviewed again.
Earlier up I posted a link to an article at Gameranx that discussed casual sexism in the industry. Ian Miles Cheong is absolutely correct: this is the sort of thing we will keep seeing pop up until the industry diversifies itself and for the love of all that is good in the world stops hosting press events at strip clubs. I won't go on much more about this particular point since Ian I think summed it up better than me, but there is something else that needs to be said.
The story and outrage here is also the symptom of something else entirely: developers who aren't trained in how to handle the press. I'm going to be honest with you, journalists and the media are sharks. We want to have a story go viral, and have no problem using developers who are too trusting of the public. Kotaku's Jason Schreier may say gaming's biggest problem is that nobody wants to talk: I argue this case proves the opposite.
Companies who allow untrained developers to speak to the media immediately risk their people saying something stupid. Hemmingway said something very stupid here, especially in the context of all the high profile sexism discussions this year. Heck, this probably wouldn't have bothered as many people just two years ago when IGN casually referred to Mario Galaxy's passive cooperation feature as "girlfriend mode."
So what's changed since then? Hepler, Cross Assault, Sarkeesian, and a whole host of other scandals and controversies. In comparison to those past three, the outrage shown here hardly seems justified, yet here it is. We're slowly becoming a culture and an industry that is more tolerant and starting to show how much diversity means to us. This also means talking to the media is inherently more risky since we are less likely to be lenient towards casual -isms. The media and the public are ready to hop onto any potential problem and discuss how horrible it is.
Is this a sign of change? Hopefully. Even if this only makes people briefly question or second guess what they are about to say, then the reaction was worth it. We shouldn't look to boycott the game or the company: This was one person who spoke anecdotally and said something stupid. This isn't errant code or developmant plans.
The worst part of this all was this: John Hemmingway said he lacked a better term. There was totally a better term: "passive assistance" or even "passive cooperation," or simply "beginner skill tree." Any of those, or even a direct apology to the public by Hemmingway or Gearbox would have stopped the general unhappiness hours ago.