There has been a lot of discussion lately over the use, by John Hemingway, lead designer for Gearbox’s upcoming game, Borderlands 2, of the phrase “girlfriend mode” to describe a skill tree that would help inexperienced players. Hemingway used the term during a discussion with Eurogamer of a DLC character that is still in development. In many ways, the report from Eurogamer and the Twitter furor that followed are reflective of both the struggle within the gaming community on the treatment and representation of women as well as the troubling trend in journalism of using disingenuous headlines to generate controversy.
The reality is that video game culture has been willing for far too long to cast a blind eye at a pervasive posture toward women that devalues and dishonors them. Of course, the first step to change is admitting you have a problem, and so we should champion the growing chorus of writers (both men and women) who agree that gamers, developers, and journalists need to seriously reflect on how their words and actions might express prejudicial attitudes toward women. Indeed, the Entertainment Software Association’s report, “2012 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry,” clearly show that there are plenty of women who play video games regularly, the percentage is close to 50/50 between men and women; as such, any cultural assumption of women as ignorant of games is just patently untrue. The ESA’s data makes Katie Williams’s experiences at E3 this year all the more bewildering, as a perception of male exclusivity or ascendancy still exists within the gaming industry.
In light of these developments within gaming culture, John Hemingway’s choice of words was both unwise and poorly timed. Gearbox’s president, Randy Pitchford defended Hemingway when he tweeted, “There is no universe where Hemmingway [sic] is a sexist – all the women at Gearbox would beat his and anyone else’s ass.” Pitchford latches onto a common misconception here: that a speaker’s intention or character must attenuate the offensive potential of the speech itself. But sexism, racism, and other kinds of -isms don’t have to be intentional to be present, and it is rarely the speaker who is most impacted by his words. Indeed, the very argument of unintentionality only serves to confirm the assumption that a undercurrent of sexism runs throughout the video game industry, so much so that participants in the behavior aren’t even aware of their complicity.
However, Eurogamer’s role in the controversy over Hemingway’s remarks must be highlighted. The fact is that journalism as an industry has a long history of trying to generate interest through headlines that create a problem where none might have previously existed. Gamers have often bemoaned the media’s temptation to bring up video games every time there is a violent crime committed by a young person, even though the pervasiveness of video games today makes such statements about as noteworthy as saying, “18 year old breather of air commits arson.” As such, Eurogamer’s headline, “Borderlands 2: Gearbox reveals the Mechromancer’s ‘girlfriend mode’,” creates a focus for the article that was certainly a contributing factor in the resulting debate. Hemingway himself does not seem to be a fan of the term “girlfriend mode,” as he frames its use with the phrase, “for lack of a better term,” suggesting that he’s at least tacitly aware of the expression’s potential to offend. Eurogamer might have taken this into account before going to press with their headline.
In other words, everyone needs to consider their words more carefully. Anyone who represents the gaming industry needs to be particularly aware of the history and context of sexist assumptions and language that have damaged the industry’s reputation as a whole. At the same time, journalists must begin exercising a greater sense of moderation in their reporting. Headline writers need to value discernment as much as they seem to value controversy. In American polity we are all too fond of claiming our right to free speech anytime someone suggests that they were offended by something. But we cannot allow the right to free speech to become the equivalent of a shoot from the hip, call-it-like-I-see-it discourse that neglects to consider the human impact of our words. Perhaps we should all be doing a lot more listening: for those who are offended, listen closely and be sure that your offense is appropriate to the transgressing speech; for those who speech has been labeled offensive, listen compassionately to those who have been negatively affected and try to understand them.