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.