Counterpoint: Randy Pitchford on the "Girlfriend mode" controversy and integrity in games journalism
Eurogamer's Wesley Yin-Poole caused a bit of good ol' internet outrage last week with his piece called “Borderlands 2: Gearbox reveals the Mechromancer’s “girlfriend mode.” In it, Yin-Poole reported that Jonathan Hemingway made an anecdote that referred to the new "Best Friends Forever" skill tree as a "girlfriend mode."
People flipped out, and Twitter was instantly awash with claims that Gearbox was being sexist with the mere suggestion of the anecdote.
Days later, I found myself with the opportunity to interview Gearbox's President and CEO, Randy Pitchford, about Borderlands 2. Whilst we talked of more than this controversy, it was hard to ignore what had happened. Here's a transcript that details Pitchford's thoughts on the scenario, plus those on practices currently in use in games journalism.
Stevivor: Now, I thought I'd get the tough questions out of the way first, and as you might expect, they all revolve around last week's "Girlfriend mode" saga. Now, we're all fully aware that the mode doesn’t exist, and it was a quote about a "Best Friends Forever" skill tree that's literally blown up on social media. You're opinion on the matter is also well documented; you took to Twitter in the thick of things to say that "Borderlands 2 does not have a girlfriend mode" and "anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir something up that isn't there."
So, my first question to you is this: is this the first real big social media blowout that Gearbox has had to face, or am I blowing this out of proportion, now?
Randy Pitchford: I don’t know how big it was. Here's the thing: there's some stuff that really sucks about our world. We're getting better, as a species. We're getting better at gender equality, but we've come from such a dark place, and it's just bullshit that women don't get a fair shot. So it's very natural, if we see things -- especially if we see things in popular media that we love, and we see evidence that we might imagine is suggesting that the creators of things we care about might be sexist -- that it offends us deeply, and so it's a very natural reaction if you see that.
My hope was to say, 'look, there's no sexism there.' There might be examples of characters in video games we make that show us the best and the worst of society. We have a lot of fun with our content in the same way that I watch South Park and laugh at Cartman because he's such an asshole.
In terms of the gameplay and the situation, what bothers me isn't the fact that some attention was called to remind us that it's unfair whenever there's discrimination in the world. I think it's good to be reminded that discrimination is terrible. I think it's really good to be reminded, especially when we're talking about something like video games, that there is no difference between a man and a woman and their capabilities in a video game. Skill in video games is about passion and it's about time; we get better at the things we practice at. I think that there might be some arguments that young people and people that have better reflexes might have some advantages, but I think gender is an irrelevant issue.
The Mechromancer has a skill-tree called "Best Friends Forever," which has some skills which help a less-skilled player become useful in combat. Now, one of those skills – and I think this was the skill, I wasn't there when Jonathan Hemingway was talking to some journalists about it, but I know the skill he was describing; what is does is allow the chance for a missed shot to ricochet and reflect, and actually hit an enemy target. At its maximum build, you have a 50% chance of a missed shot reflecting and hitting a nearby enemy. But, all shots do 50% less damage, so it's not the kind of skill that you'll use to turn the game into easy mode. It is a skill that allows a less-skilled player to be somewhat useful on the battlefield.
I've been trying to get my grandparents into video games. My grandfather, he played around with the Wii for a little bit, but he's not a gamer. But, I want him to respect what I do; he taught me about being a gentleman, so I really want to share this experience with him. I hope I get an opportunity to introduce him to this and that he can play this game.
Maybe with a skill like this, he might learn how to play a first person shooter. You know, the first time you ever try to pick up a joystick and move around and aim, it's a little disorienting. It takes a few minutes to learn how to look around and manoeuvre and navigate through a first person shooter.
But, if you have a player who is motivated enough to spend a few minutes to learn how to do that, and maybe have some rewarding or entertaining things that happen to drive them forward, those skills will develop. And once you have those skills, you have so much entertainment that's open to you; so much joy and fun from first person shooters. I think the hope of that skill tree is to allow those people that love Borderlands, that have friends that aren't gamers at all, to have a path that will allow them to introduce them to the genre.
Stevivor: So maybe a better nickname would have been 'Grandpa mode'?
Pitchford: It's not even a mode. It's a skill tree, and I think that if it helps to imagine a friend that isn't as good at games as we are, then that's what it's for. Sometimes, to get tangible about that makes that clear. Let's imagine a hardcore gamer: maybe she's at college or something, and she has a boyfriend that thinks games aren't very cool, but she wants to play with him. Well, she can introduce that to him. Or, let's say there's a guy who has a little sister, and she's not very good, but he wants her to be a co-op partner. Or, like the grandfather example. Gender and age are irrelevant. What matters is relative skill level; a gamer bringing in a less-skilled gamer.
If I might talk about my grandfather not being very good at games, it's not an indictment against all grandfathers. I'm sure there's an amazing guy who's 70 years old who plays video games all day and he's incredible and he maybe can beat me at it, and that's awesome. That's the beauty of our medium – it does not discriminate against age or gender. And because that's the way I feel, and that's the way our studio feels, on one level it's extremely annoying to have some sensationalist journalist trying to pin us as being discriminatory.
On the other hand, I think it's awesome when a lens can be reflected on the fact that discrimination sucks and it's a horrible, horrible aspect of some parts of our world, and it needs to end. Any kind, I don't care if it's race discrimination or sexual orientation discrimination. It's evil and needs to die.
Stevivor: Now, you've said people have been misinformed about the Best Friends Forever skill tree. Does the blame for this fall upon the writer that interviewed John Hemingway, or to the gamers out there that read an article that was hastily posted by other gaming media types looking for hits?
Pitchford: I think it's at every level, frankly, including Jonathan. He was trying to communicate the skill tree and the idea that if you are a skilled gamer who has a friend who is less-skilled, here's a neat path you might want to consider. There were a number of journalists there – I wasn't there for it – but, one journalist chose a headline in such a way that created a snowball. That journalist, I think, took actual words from Jonathan, but had this kind of tendency to highlight them in a particular way; I think the journalist knew that by doing it that way, he was going to create an impression with his readers that wasn't entirely honest.
The impression that he created with his readers was one that would naturally lead them to outrage, in the same way that I am outraged by any kind of discrimination in our world. I think that's a very natural and responsible reaction to feel outraged when we detest discrimination, because discrimination is evil. But I think it was dishonest. At whatever point in the middle of that chain between the source and what's actually going on, to the feeling at the end of the information chain; whatever step in that chain twisted it in order to create that sensational response? I think THAT was the dishonest step in the chain. However, every part that chain has a responsibility, including the very beginning -- the source at Gearbox -- all the way to the very end: the reader. Our business exists to entertain people; we cannot exist unless we actually reach our customers in a way that they want to be reached. Unless we give them what they want, we can't exist.
Meanwhile -- and you know this as a journalist -- you exist to communicate information, but thrive by getting readers; by getting attention. It's sometimes frustrating when a reader – who has to know that we exist to entertain, and a journalist exists to get readers – they are going to believe that we're doing it wrong before they believe that the journalist has been manipulating them.
And I'm not saying you're dishonest, the fact I think you're recording me and you're going to just play me back probably means you're going to let my words stand for themselves…
Stevivor: Oh, there will be some editing involved, don't worry. It'll make you seem absolutely awful…
Pitchford: *laughs (thank goodness)* Oh, awesome. That's hilarious.
Here's the thing though: the other part of it is, this is the nature of the world we live in, and I'm comfortable with this world. It happens a lot, I think, I the UK press, you know; I think there's part of their culture where it's a tabloid-centric kind of culture, and I think they've gotten really, really good at finding those little angles that kind of create some ire and ignites passion in their readers, because that works for their businesses. A part of me, I hate to say, kind of respects it; I respect the gamesmanship, I guess. They're understanding how the world works and manipulating that to their advantage. But, I think there's something bigger at play, here. Especially when we're talking about issues of discrimination. It's a real rights matter and people are being affected.
Stevivor: It sounds like you've been able to use the situation to show the integrity of Gearbox and at the same time use the opportunity to talk up the Mechromancer class. As bad as the situation has been, it sounds as if you've flipped it on its head.
Pitchford: Well, the reality is, Borderlands 2 -- if it sells just what Borderlands did -- it's going to reach six million people. Maybe less one percent of them ever had any inkling of what we're looking at as controversy. I think that fact that it happened kind of creates an opportunity to have discourse for those of us who are deeply engaged and are there for discourse. You know, for what it's worth, let's use it to reflect on some issues.
Our full audio interview with Randy will feature on the next Stevivor.com Podcast.
We'd like to thank Randy for being so candid with us on this matter – and, if it's any consolation, we find we agree with your opinions on this matter almost fully. Also, if you're looking to pin sexism on Gearbox, would it have been far easier to pick apart Duke Nukem Forever? Sure, it's not totally a Gearbox thing, but they did finish the title.
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