The trouble started when the lead designer (John Hemingway) referred to the Mechromancer as 'Girlfriend Mode' in a Eurogamer interview. Here's his most quoted quote:
“The design team was looking at the concept art [of the Mechromancer class] and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we’ve ever had. 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. 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.”
It's clear that John Hemingway is not sexist and he never meant to offend anyone with his terminology. His comments, however, provide a good platform for discussions of sexism in game design.
I mentioned Girlfriend Mode the other day to a fellow game designer in one such discussion. We bantered for a while, and at one point, he asked, "If most of the people who play in Girlfriend Mode are players' girlfriends, is the term still insulting?"
His question struck a chord. At first glance, "Girlfriend Mode" may look like a harmless phrase, but it contains insidious sexism. Here's an analogy I used to answer his question:
"Pretend there is a restaurant owner who has a variety of patrons. He learns that he could get more patrons, and make more money, if he put more inexpensive items on the menu.
"So, he adds several low-cost dishes and puts them on a new 'Dollar Deals' page of the restaurant menu folder. The owner is excited for the new menu's debut, so he takes an interview with a reporter.
"When talking to the reporter about his concepts behind the 'Dollar Deals' page, the restaurant owner says, 'I wanted to make, for lack of a better term, the Black menu.'"
It's clear why a 'Black menu' containing a list of cheap food would be considered racist. The terminology makes the assumption that Blacks are poor. Worse, it implies that Blacks are a separate group of patrons who, as a group, need special treatment.
There shouldn't be any need to ask, "If most of the people who buy food listed on the Black menu are Black, is the term still insulting?"
The same logic applies to Girlfriend Mode.
It should be clear why a 'Girlfriend Mode' with the easiest gameplay would be sexist. The terminology makes the assumption that girls are bad at games. Worse, it implies that girls are a separate group of players who, as a group, need special treatment.
As a culture, we've gotten to the point where we see this as racism, yet this kind of sexism remains invisible to many. We need to learn to see it and excise it, or else the makers of games will continue to unintentionally alienate a large part of their audience.