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

Photo: Nadav Kander
Show Hide image

Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder