When Gearbox, the developers of Borderlands 2, unveiled one of the games new features to a journalist from Eurogamer they might have been forgiven for not anticipating the reaction it got. Although since Gearbox are also the developers who cured the constipation preventing the movement of Duke Nukem Forever into the world maybe this lack of awareness isn’t surprising.
Their intentions seem laudable. They’ve put an optional character into their game designed so that somebody who lacks experience with gaming can join the game using this character and enjoy themselves. We can all point and rage on Twitter regarding the fact that an employee of Gearbox chose to describe this character as a "Girlfriend Mode", a sexist assumption that belittles female gamers, but beyond that is something of an even more insidious nature. Here we are seeing the casual assumption that to give a game mass appeal, particularly to a female audience, it must be made easier.
The evidence of this assumption in the minds of developers is manifested right across mainstream gaming. While a certain level of dumbing down, or streamlining as it called when it actually works, is forgivable in games that are genuinely inaccessible it is less forgivable in games that have been defanged by their makers to offer no challenge to players. From Call Of Duty: Black Ops, where even on a higher difficulty setting it is possible to complete the first mission without actually shooting anybody to the supposedly higher-brow LA Noire, where the game bends over backwards to make failure impossible, time after time we are seeing games that won’t let you fail.
Two things are damaging about the desire of developers to encourage inexperienced players by dropping the challenge level of games. The first is that this simply ruins games affected by it. The video game is a wonderful art form, the marriage of player and game when the two are well suited is a thing of beauty (even if to the outsider the perfect marriage of game and gamer looks a lot like somebody sitting in front of a colourful screen for an unhealthy length of time getting gradually smellier and hairier) but this unity is based upon challenge and the overcoming of that challenge. A game without challenge is just it is a tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That challenge can come in many forms and some are more oblique than others but still the game should offer some level of opposition to the player.
The second is that by associating declining levels of challenge in games with accessibility and in particular with female gamers we risk creating a culture where female gamers and particularly developers are blamed for some of the worst trends in game design. This association is what motivated much of the hatred directed towards Jennifer Hepler at Bioware. The venom in the attacks on her constituted such an overreaction that it would be comic were it not so vicious. What Hepler suggested, that a player could skip the action to get to the cut-scenes, is of course sacrilege to a gamer and an insult to anybody who actually considers game play to be the defining part of the process of playing a game. But it didn’t warrant the torrential hatred that flowed forth.
The idea of actually skipping the game itself to get to the story is probably the last thing an employee of Bioware ought to be suggesting given that the Mass Effect trilogy’s final chapter has a story that stinks so hard it can strip the bark off a dog. However while Bioware has come in for a lot of criticism over the years for a lot of reasons it was telling how the tone and nature of so much of that criticism changed when the subject of it was a female employee.
So when Gearbox employ the term "girlfriend mode" for a character in a first person shooter who is designed to be playable by people who can’t shoot, that’s problematic. That’s them telling the people who play their game that they added a skill-free character option because of women. A game without challenge is a bad game and so the logical conclusion is that games are being made worse to accommodate women.
Women make up half of the population of gamers and while many favour puzzle games and world building games, usually derisively written off as casual, it is clear that these games are not free of challenge. There has not been some grand delegation of women demanding slower moving enemies and more ammunition for the BFG-9000. Developers didn’t stick training wheels on games to tempt the current generation of gamers, of either sex, and they shouldn’t now if they want to win over the next.