Girlfriend Mode: Just Another Straw

If you’re a gamer, you’ve been there: you want to share a game so desperately with someone else, you want to play together, to enjoy it together, but they just suck. Maybe it’s just this game, maybe it’s most games, but you want to play this awesome title and you want to share this with them, and they just can’t keep up. And sometimes maybe you wish there was a way for them to be able to play this game without either of you throwing the controller in rage. If only there was a setting or a mode for that…

Quoth John 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.

You may be expecting me to rail against Hemingway on this point, to call him out on flagrant sexism, to perhaps throw rocks at the BLT team. But I’m not going to do that, because honestly, that’s not the problem, and that’s not the point.

Instead I want to focus on a very telling bit of wording in that quote: “for the lack of a better term.”

Gaming and geek culture in general has a specific self-identity, that it is largely comprised of white, straight dudes who behave in stereotypical male ways. Challenge instead of acceptance. Confrontation instead of cooperation. Domination instead of community. This is celebrated as what is Good and True about gaming, and others need not apply. This may not be the dominant part of the community — it’s certainly not in the people I hang out with, though I have met these assholes before — but it’s an image which is there, and which has stuck.

What comes along with this a casual misogyny, revealed by the constant derision of things which are more stereotypically feminine, by the assumption that women cannot bring as much to the table as men can when it comes to gaming. It is revealed by phrases like “girlfriend mode.” It is revealed by the fact that (a) everybody understands what is meant by that phrase, and (b) the developer can’t seem to think of a better way to communicate the idea. There is an implication here that women don’t play games, and when they do, they are the girlfriend of a man who does.

Daniel Nye Griffiths described this very succinctly by saying, “‘girlfriend mode’ is just another note in an unwelcoming chorus.” It’s another straw being delicately placed across the camel’s back, nestled into the ever-growing pile of casual insults which only serve to remind women that while they are welcome, they will never be truly welcome.

Can’t think of a better term to describe making a game less difficult? How about “Easy Mode”? Is that a completely new phrase to gaming? Howsabout “Newbie Mode”? Or maybe “Freshman Mode”?

I could do this all day. There are tonnes of ways to indicate a lack of skill that don’t imply gender.

The point is, it’s so ingrained in gaming culture that women are only present as significant others, and when they are present they are never going to be as good as and certainly never better than the men they are with, that this is the kind of phrase that gets tossed around. Is “girlfriend mode” an explosive phrase all on its own? Not really. But it’s just one more way in which men show women what they truly think of us. It’s a symptom of a bigger disease.

Yes it’s a casual slip, but that fact is important. This is what happens when barriers are down, and language goes unscreened. This shit is so ingrained, so ever-present, that it becomes inescapable.

One thought on “Girlfriend Mode: Just Another Straw

  1. earnestdotcom says:

    Thanks for this. When I heard "girlfriend mode" initially I knew it was sexist and it was a poor syntax choice. You've done an excellent job of articulating the issues behind the terminology.

    Despite my discomfort with the term, I've been playing Borderlands 2 and enjoying it quite a bit, especially the Mechromancer class (the one described as "girlfriend mode"). For the record I'm male, and I'm pretty horrible at first person shooters.

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