Borderlands 2’s Best Friends Forever Furore

You can't fight here, this is the war room

Here’s today’s scandal, then. The Mechromancer, a post-release DLC character for Borderlands 2 has been revealed, and one of her skill trees is aimed at making the game more accessible to people who don’t play shooters. Officially, this set of abilities is called ‘Best Friends Forever’, and includes skills such as missed shots having a chance to auto-ricochet into their intended targets – i.e. allowing some victory from imprecise aiming. That’s fine. That’s even quite a good idea for anyone who wants to play the game with someone who isn’t well-versed in such things. I quite want to play it with my Dad, in fact.

The trouble is that a dev at Gearbox unofficially dubbed it ‘the girlfriend mode’ when talking to Eurogamer, which is clearly all kinds of offensive and quickly caused online outrage – definitely justified were the skills truly called ‘girlfriend mode’ but rather less cut and dried if it turns out to be just one guy’s personal (and foolish) nickname for the real title of Best Friends Forever. Gearbox are claiming the drama stems from misinterpretation and sensationalism.

Gearboss Randy Pitchford’s already taken to Twitter to claim that “Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode. Anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir up something that isn’t there”, and God only knows what’s happening behind the scenes. Or, indeed, what the truth behind this mini-scandal really is.

I sighed when I heard about this. I stared at the wall for a full four minutes. I tried to think of good reasons to simply not report this, but I knew none would ultimately fly. The combination of the mainstream games industry’s male-centric attitude and the internet’s tendency towards hair-trigger response means this kind of thing is only going to increase in frequency, and even if it’s enormously dispiriting I think it’s important to follow the growing pains of a medium that’s long been stuck in adolescence if we truly do want improvement.

The phrase ‘girlfriend mode’ and attendant implication that women are rubbish at games (as opposed to, if you want to go with the difficult-to-dispute angle that the majority of players of mainstream games are indeed male, many women simply not being interested in playing power fantasy stuff like BL2) is exceptionally obnoxious and lead designer John Hemingway clearly wasn’t watching his words carefully enough when talking to the press. This does have echoes of the recent Tomb Raider sexual assault scandal, wherein it became increasingly hard to establish through all the noise, finger-pointing and opinion columns what was actually intended by a certain scene in the game and what was just one developer mouthing off. Whichever the case, it didn’t look good and scrutiny at least was justified.

With much of the internet equally quick to react this, I can understand the frustration at the developer that it’s been interpreted as the skill tree now being widely called ‘girlfriend mode’ rather than its true name of Best Friends Forever, but I’d be surprised if it really was simply one designer plucking a contentious phrase out of thin air. I’d be willing to bet you one shiny British pound that is not the first time ‘girlfriend mode’ has been used, but for all I know Hemingway really did come up with it on the spot.

For a developer already associated with an arguably chauvinistic property (i.e. Duke Nukem Forever, and divisive elements such as its notorious bottom-spanking feature and making light of enforced impregnation) and prone to contentious media statements (e.g. calling accurate pre-announcement news of Borderlands 2’s existence “shoddy journalism“) this isn’t going to help one jot, and I can only imagine future press encounters will be very carefully controlled.

Randy Pitchford has gone on to claim to that “The future DLC Mechromancer class has a skill tree that makes it easier for less skilled coop partners (any gender!) to play and be useful.” Again, can’t really argue with that. Can argue with even the most casual assertion that it is aimed at one particular gender, because even if that does come from just one staffer at Gearbox rather than the entire studio he sure as hell shouldn’t be saying it in front of a microphone. Pitchford has professed ignorance of the ‘girlfriend mode’ handle until now, telling a Tweeter that “I didn’t know it was a nickname. It’s not even a thing – just a skill built from the idea of playing coop with noob friends.”

He’s continuing to argue that the Mechromancer’s skill tree is a ‘noob’ mode rather than a lady-specific mode and that reports of Hemingway’s “personal anecdote” are “just sensationalism” even as I type this, so you might want to keep an eye on what’s said. He’s just added that “There is no universe where Hemmingway is a sexist – all the women at Gearbox would beat his and anyone else’s ass.”

It almost certainly boils down to a poor choice of words – the resultant question is whether those words imply a broader issue or were just an unfortunate slip of the tongue. It’s likely that Gearbox will have more to say, and hopefully that will shed more light one way or another.

What a horrible mess, with missteps on both sides of the debate. And one that I suspect is far from over, as this snowball probably has more than enough inertia to keep rolling for a while yet. I do hesitate to contribute to the furore, but I am conscious troubling mentalities of this kind do prevail around the industry, whether or not this particular instance has been interpreted accurately.


  1. FunkyBadger3 says:

    Fuss. Over. Nothing.

    Have a word with yourself, RPS.

  2. woodsey says:

    Honestly? It reads like the result of a personal anecdote that just came into conversation. “My girlfriend doesn’t play many games so I call it girlfriend mode hur hur.”

    There’s really nothing particularly wrong with any of the stuff he said, and as someone else has said, whilst you could construe it as him saying all women are shit at shooters or whatever, I think you’d have to put in some work yourself to reach that conclusion. Add on to that this has all been taken from a written interview – and everyone knows how easily tone and intent can get lost through that process.

    I can’t help but feel we’re reeling from other, genuinely problematic things that like awful bloody Hitman trailer and the Anita Sarkeesian nonsense. Honestly, I felt the same with the supposed Tomb Raider controversy – people are on a roll and things are escalating far too quickly. These things should certainly be scrutinised and considered, but part of that process is knowing how to measure the response – and whether one is even needed in the first place.

  3. Cappysam says:

    I just don’t find calling it girlfriend mode that offensive. If my girlfriend for some reason wants me to go with her when she goes shopping some of the hip little stores she goes to have a dedicated “Boyfriend Drop Off Zone”. There is usually a comfy couch and some mens magazines and if they are awesome they might even have a big screen TV. I will gladly go in there and hang out with the other bored boyfriends.
    I could react totally differently of course. I could be deeply offended that they are stereotyping that just because I am a boyfriend that I don’t have an interest in fashion. I could be upset that it really only caters to heterosexual males. Instead I take it for what it is.
    I just think that choosing your battles in terms of fighting against discrimination is important and this is a very small and harmless fish. Better to let it go and chase after some whales.

  4. Muzman says:

    Might as well chuck in.
    My guess is it was a joke. The sort you make to get the girls in the office to throw things at you. Only, dude forgot he wasn’t in his living room with his best buds, but talking to the whole world.

    This happens a lot on the net. Guys particularly take that dumb school yard laughter economics to the net like it’s the same thing, but bigger.
    More interesting, perhaps, in this day and age people just can’t say sorry or something and try to do better with context in future. It’s got to be PR bullshit, or dig your heels in and say it’s not offensive and fuck you for telling me what to say and “free speech!”.

  5. socrate says:

    i like how people are defending this….if we go with people way of defending this,why not call it “dumb 12 year old mode”…i mean we all know that 12 year old are less intelligent then the older gamer /rolleye

    i mean doesn’t make sense why not “boyfriend mode”….you know im sure/hope that there is no mean thing behind this,but it also doesn’t help gaming in general i for one know alots of girl that have boyfriend that are extremely bad at gaming so to me this doesn’t make sense at all

    further more they are saying that instead of making people smarter its just better to keep them crappy and give them auto aim…which is the thing i hate the most out of console….every damn fps have some sort of auto aim…remove the skill requirement and reward people for making no effort and being horrible at what they do…i really think there is alots of better way to handle this

    someone that isnt interested in playing a game wont have fun even with homing bullet in a game and thus won’t be interested in getting better and learning,its basic logic really.

    its quite sad that the mechomancer is just a boring no skill mode really i don’t see alots of “girlfriend” /rolleye getting into this because of that class at all

  6. Apocalypse says:

    So Gearbox is adding a skill tree for game controller players and named it “Girlfriend Mode”? Sounds perfectly valid to me, his will draw less fire than it would have else. :D

  7. Runs With Foxes says:

    Never seen a sadder storm in a teacup. Everyone who has posted in these comments, including me, is a loser.

  8. Aatch says:

    I just… what?

    It takes some bloody thin skin to take ‘girlfriend mode’ as a significant slight. When you aren’t the majority of an audience, then you shrug off minor things like that (I get it with computer equipment, as a programmer I am generally not being marketed too for consumer goods). That doesn’t mean that you can deliberately alienate people, and calling it ‘Girl Mode’ would have probably been too far. Likewise, officially marketing it as “for girls” would have been insulting. However, assuming that the Gearbox team is mostly male (intersection of gaming and programming/technical, if you dispute me on this point I will beat you to death with Model M keyboard), and assuming that homosexuality rates aren’t likely to be different inside the team than in the rest of the population (5-10%) then most of the team would either have a female partner or wish to have a female partner. Internally, ‘girlfriend mode’ would be an easy intuitive shorthand for discussing a feature of the game. The reason why they can’t say ‘easy mode’ is because there probably is ‘easy mode’, as an actually difficulty setting, thus causing confusion and ambiguity. One developer forgot that the world is a volatile as a powder keg guarded by jittery fire imps and used it publicly.

    The people working on this aren’t trying to perpetuate a stereotype of the gamer demographic, they used some convenient language to refer to something. It seems however that this isn’t allowed and we should all talk without using metaphor, simile or rhetoric. Just in case somebody, somewhere gets offended because I likened a thing A to thing B and therefore “implied”, that all instances of thing A are, in fact, identical to thing B. Except, clearly people will interpret thing B as thing C, and thing C will be the worst thing known to man, and thing A will be interpreted to include them.

  9. theallmightybob says:

    well to be fair politically correct and just plain old correct can be two diffrent things sometimes.

  10. tkioz says:

    When I first heard about this I just sighed and covered my face… knowing that it was going to blow up.

    Sad thing is it was “sexist” but not “sexist“. As in it’s a tiny stupid statement, not a policy designed to relegate women to a secondary role.

    I hope this doesn’t end up costing this guy his job for saying something stupid… maybe if he had added “sort of like girlfriend mode or little brother mode or dad mode” it wouldn’t matter nearly as much…

  11. jrodman says:

    Is it terribly bad of me to want to brush the implied sexism under the rug and imagine this as a mode designed for me: You go, girlfriend!

  12. Syzorr says:

    Well… guess it is time to take the plunge. Long time reader, first time poster. I have actually been pondering this for the past few hours in an attempt to find a way to express myself in a more positive and constructive manner than most commenters seem to have been.

    The problem is respect. The original quotes from the dev display a lack of respect for the competency of “girlfriend” gamers – and people got angry at that. Then there was the backlash of “storm in teacup”/”give him a break, it was just a joke”/”why so srs” – and this displays a lack of respect for those who felt that they were being unfairly stereotyped or, in my case, undermined by someone in a relatively prominent position once again allowing male gamers to be stereotyped as willingly sexist.

    I used to think, a long time ago, that respect was earned. You start at nil respect and gain or lose it through your actions and that people should be treated accordingly based on how “respectable” they were. However, life experience changes many things and my view on this has changed. Everyone deserves to be treated with a degree of respect and, in doing so, we are serving ourselves well because we will also become more well regarded.

    In his casual choice of words, the dev managed to reveal that soft underbelly of disrespect for female gamers. If we continue to forgive these actions or defend them from criticism we reinforce that disrespect – and why should a group of people continue to involve themselves with a community that openly does that? We are only hurting ourselves through these actions and by just shrugging it off as “’tis merely a flesh wound” we will keep building it up until we are nothing but a raw bleeding carcass…

    And what can I say but that I don’t want that…

  13. 1Kurgan1 says:

    Who cares what the mode is called, seriously people need to grow up. Even if it was called “Girlfriend Mode”, it’s a freaking joke. Theres stereotypes that go the other way too, and being a man, I could careless, I roll with the punches and laugh, it’s just a joke! Lighten up seriously, this author seems genuinely offended by Girlfriend Mode, I got to ask, do you get offended when a Stand Up Comic makes fun of something? Because they are making fun of something, that means someone is being hurt, and thats not funny, so most comedy is no longer comedy… Why so serious?

  14. Harvey says:

    Take it for whatever it’s worth. I’ve been playing FPSs since Doom. My wife kills more infected in L4D2 than me, EVERY time. I fucking taught her how to use WASD. “Girlfriend mode?” hmmph

  15. Bob says:

    I guess the furore could have been avoided if he’d gotten the same advice I received in my younger days after making a thoughtless remark: Engage brain before putting mouth in gear. :)

  16. jiminitaur says:

    I’m afraid of budgerigars.