The problem isn't 'girlfriend mode', it's making games easier then blaming it on women

Why are developers so afraid of challenging players?

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.

 

This piece wants to appeal to women, so we had to put a picture of some kittens on it. Photograph: Getty Images

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism