Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2's Best Friends Forever skill tree causes "girlfriend mode" controversy

Tyler Wilde at

This is the Mechromancer. She has a robot arm.

This is the Mechromancer. She has a robot arm.

This morning, Eurogamer reported on Borderlands 2's additional post-release class: the Mechromancer. Gearbox discussed one of the yet-to-be-named DLC character's skill trees, dubbed "Best Friends Forever," and then -- damn, this was about to be a totally normal story, but then everything had to go and get all controversial. If only Lead Designer John Hemingway hadn't described the tree's hand-holding skills with the term "girlfriend."

"The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we've ever had," said Hemingway. "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."

What happened?

 
Some critics say that referring to such skills as being part of a "girlfriend mode" (a term the Eurogamer story quotes, but without context) implies that women are generally bad at playing games, and suggests a sexist developer mentality. Gearbox President Randy Pitchford took to Twitter after the article to protest the criticism, saying that the skill tree isn't officially designated as a girlfriend anything:

"Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode," wrote Pitchford. "Anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir up something that isn't there."

In a string of tweets, he explained that the skill tree is not targeted at one gender, and claimed that Hemingway made a "personal anecdote" which was "twisted and dogpiled on by sensationalists." Eurogamer's Wesley Yin-Poole was not critical in the article, but did use the term "girlfriend mode" repeatedly. He assured Pitchford on Twitter that his quotations are accurate.

Borderlands 2's new NPC Ellie is hanging out in a different part of the debate, described as breaking gender stereotypes.

Opinion time

 
Ever since the controversial BDSM-nun Hitman trailer led into an equally-controversial Tomb Raider scene, sensitivity over issues of sexism has been high. I've stayed quiet. I'm not an expert on gender issues. I have opinions, but I don't think they deserve the same treatment as, say, my opinion on Quake II.

It's delicate territory. One could be accused of sensationalism -- creating a story out of an innocent, out-of-context comment, as Pitchford alleges. But, by letting it skip by, one could be accused of ignoring an important discussion about gender stereotypes. In this case, I'll say a little: yes, I think that the term "girlfriend mode" in this context alienates and belittles women, but I also think there is reasonable doubt that anyone at Gearbox intended to say "women suck at games," and that intent should be part of the conversation. It does make a difference, especially when making accusations.

It is possible that Hemingway was drawing context from his personal relationships. It's also possible that he carelessly used an old generalization -- that women are tech neophytes -- to explain a concept in an easy-to-grasp way. In the end, there doesn't have to be a villain for the conversation to have meaning, and it doesn't have to be sensational to exist.

It doesn't have to be a battle about political correctness, or a battle at all -- it can be a reminder to take inventory of our own shorthand stereotypes, consider them from other perspectives, and talk about it. No pitchforks are needed.