Know this, oh ye studios and publishers: After 30 years, gender issues have overtaken violence as the hot button issue in video games. Earlier this year, Square-Enix was taken to task for not one but two of its studios’ depictions of women. Gearbox is now under fire as a newly announced downloadable character class for Borderlands 2 was described as “girlfriend mode” by one of the game’s lead designers.
Gearbox detailed a fifth playable character, the Mechromancer, that will be available as DLC for Borderlands 2 around two months after the game hits shelves. Taking inspiration from Jamie Hewlett’s (Gorillaz) old comic book character Tank Girl, the Mechromancer is a punk girl in a jean jacket, pigtails, and a robot arm. Her support ability summons a giant tank named Deathtrap who, unlike commando Axton’s turrets, is there to draw fire away from the player.
The Mechromancer is different from other characters in a different way. One of her three skill trees, the chain of abilities unlocked as you progress in the game, is called “Best Friends Forever.” Those skills are built to make the game significantly easier than playing as one of the other classes. For example the “Close Enough” skill will give shots fired a chance to ricochet so the player doesn’t have to aim particularly well.
So what’s the problem? Making Borderlands 2 more accessible without affecting the core game has to be a good thing, right? The problem is how Hemingway described the Mechromancer to Eurogamer during a Gearbox studio tour. “The design team looking at the [Mechromancer] concept art and though, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we’ve ever had. I was 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.”
Hemingway’s statements ignited a firestorm of angry Internet goers and the game remains a trending topic on Twitter as of this writing. Gearbox president Randy Pitchford took to Twitter himself on Monday morning to defend Hemingway and the game.
“There is no universe where Hemingway is a sexist,” said Pitchford, “The future DLC Mechromancer class has a skill tree that makes it easier for less skilled co-op partners (any gender!) to play and be useful.”
While Hemingway’s phrasing could certainly be seen as patronizing, Borderlands 2 is hardly a bastion of video game misogyny. The game is written by Anthony Burch, who along with his sister Ashly Burch is responsible for the surrealist comedy show Hey Ash, Whatcha Playing. The only serious topic that show ever tackles is how women are depicted in games, and the writer has shown a keen awareness of problematic game creation.
Hemingway chose his words poorly. If people want to take Gearbox to task for being misogynists, take them out for releasing Duke Nukem Forever.