Borderlands 2 Lead Designer John Hemingway was discussing a skill tree being developed for the Mechromancer class called Best Friends Forever. The skill tree includes abilities that make it easier for lesser-skilled players to still hit their targets in order to make the game more accessible to everyone. In a game like Borderlands 2 where the difficulty scales with the size of the party this is a damned good idea.
Unfortunately, Hemingway referred to this skill tree as "girlfriend mode," kicking off a wave of indignation and condemnation that I witnessed mostly on Twitter. In the minds of many, Hemingway was proving the existence of the casual sexism that is endemic in videogame development and culture by playing off the tired stereotype that women either don't play or are bad at shooters. Gearbox's Randy Pitchford tried to explain that there is not actually anything called "girlfriend mode" in the game, and that the skill tree is intended for noobs, not women in particular, but it was too late to stem the anger.
I mean to take nothing away from the importance of calling out insensitive speech, and I understand that people get frustrated and want to express their rage. There's an argument that no one started paying attention to the issue of sexism in the game industry before anyone made really loud noise about it. And when offenses are really egregious, calling out bad behavior loudly and angrily might always be appropriate.
However, I think stringent reactions to incidents can also botch opportunities to productively engage with figures in the videogame development community. We could have had a conversation with Hemingway about the casual sexism in the game development community. Instead everyone yelled and screamed, he got defensive, tried to defend the comment and that was that. If there's ever an apology from him I'm going to have every reason to suspect it's just to quell the public ire, and he'll go on talking about "girlfriend mode" in meetings at Gearbox. What a lost opportunity.
I was reminded of the way the situation was handled when David Jaffe made a sexist comment back in February during a GameTrailers interview from an event in San Francisco:
"...if you have a lady friend and she really wants to know the best game ever, and she will give you a fucking blowjob, if you play this game. If you let her win Twisted Metal split screen, she will suck your dick."
This situation turned into a complete clusterfuck. Harsh comments were exchanged on Twitter, a game journo made the mistake of assuming that all people automatically differentiate between an attack on something they said and an attack on themselves personally and all but called Jaffe a misogynist, and the tabloid-worthy climax was a confrontation between Jaffe and Kotaku Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totilo at the DICE conference in Las Vegas, which was caught on tape by the Penny Arcade Report's Ben Kuchera. You can listen to the confrontation here.
Jaffe discussed his incident with IndustryGamers a week later. Jaffe was, in his own words, riding high on the enthusiasm he was feeling for his game at the event in San Francisco when he gave the interview in question. He said that GameTrailers interview had been his 30th or 40th interview of the evening. He was tired. His guard was down. He made a mistake. He admitted that his comment was stupid and vulgar and implied that all Twisted Metal players were male, which was wrong to do.