The entertainment industry loves a good scandal. If it’s not The National Enquirer pissing its knickers over Jennifer Anniston’s love life, it’s The Washington Post Social wondering just exactly how long it will take before Macaulay Culkin dies of heroin. Perez Hilton, TMZ and the rest of the celebrity gossip gutter press deal in sensationalism, pumping non-stories full of half-truths and hyperbole until they’ve got their share of page hits. The gaming press is no different.
This week, Gearbox Software lead designer John Hemingway found himself in hot internet water after referring to Borderlands 2’s easiest difficulty setting as “girlfriend mode.” Allegedly, the Gearbox team use the phrase as a nickname for the game’s “Best Friends Forever” setting, a veritable novice mode that makes shooting and stat-building much simpler. It’s a great idea, bridging the gap between videogames and the control-pad illiterate masses, poorly presented by a careless designer who can’t wait to tell everyone what fun him and the guys have back at the office.
Cue Pressageddon. While Gearbox honcho Randy Pitchford tried to maintain order, Hemingway was being pelted with tweets and emails in the social networking stocks. “Sexist!” they cried: “chauvinist!” “The game industry hates women!” Before long, everybody from IGN to The Guardian had joined in, chin-stroking about how women are treated in computer games. The Huffington Post, The New Statesman, even Forbes magazine all joined the baying mob, wanting to string Borderlands up for crimes against oestrogen. Eventually, after enough apologising and counterspin from Gearbox, the mob of bloggers dispersed and the whole thing blew over. Everyone went back to work, with a little less faith in the games industry.
We already know that computer games treat women with all the respect and grace of a pissed Jim Davidson. Whether it’s Lara Croft flashing her knockers for the cover of Tomb Raider, or Ashley Graham bleating for help to climb down a ladder, women in games only get a look in as eye candy or needy damsels. Even the so-called “strong women” are sexualised, with Jill Valentine’s bum-tight catsuit and Bayonetta’s lollipops reminding us that women do matter, so long as they’re hot. Now we have John Hemingway telling us that women can only play games that have been dumbed-down for their silly girly brains; the stick shift is for guys.
John Hemingway was stupid sure – he was stupider than Britain’s Got Talent – but the gaming press is far too prissy. Where we used to blithely accept anything so long as it had blood effects and multiplayer, now everything has to be just so. What started out as a careless joke quickly became the misquoted flavour of the month; without proportion or restraint, the press gave Hemingway a lot more attention than he deserved, elevating him from loose-lipped frat prat to sexism symbol. It’s a sign of the times: with games finally gathering cultural moss, we’ve become so determined be taken seriously that anything that might make us look foolish is promptly snuffed out with demagoguery and outrage.
Remember the Tomb Raider reboot debacle from earlier this year? Crystal Dynamics were practically lynched for a sequence in which Lara Croft – now an inexperienced, much less curvy twenty-something – is bound in rope, trying to fight off a would-be rapist. Cowering against a rock, covered in wounds, Lara is forced to endure her attacker biting her neck and grabbing her backside before she overpowers him, grabs his gun and shoots him dead.
How brave of Crystal Dynamics is that? In an industry ruled by rehashed mechanics and cookie-cutter characters, it takes a lot of imagination and gall for Crystal Dynamics to push the boundaries and ask questions, and all we could do was chastise them. I empathise with everyone’s cautiousness – exactly how Tomb Raider will deal with that sequence is yet to be seen, and the industry has a track record of misrepresenting women – but if we’re going to start knee-jerking at the slightest hint of breaking ground, we may as well give up on progress.
We have to give games the space to grow-up. Hemingway’s quip was indefensibly ill-planned, but by making such a flap we’ve put a stink on an otherwise innovative new idea; we did it with Tomb Raider before that, and Mass Effect before that. We love a scandal: game journos get so bored of writing up endless DLC hype that when a hint of a genuine story comes along we leap on top of it like an editorial dogpile. “We’re a proper industry too” this seems to say: “we can have scandals and controversy and issues too!” Sure we can, we just have to make sure we pick the right targets: sexism has no place in games, or anywhere else, but when we slap developers on the wrist for testing new water, it’s us who are being prejudiced.
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