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

Another Man
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Harry Styles’ starring role in Another Man magazine proves he is the perfect teen idol

Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – One Direction’s most famous face is as traditional a heartthrob as it gets. Music critics should know better than to write him off.

In As You Like It’s famous “seven ages of man” speech, Shakespeare splits the everyman’s life into seven parts. Three central, youthful ages stand out. The schoolboy, “with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school.” The lover, “sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”. And the soldier, “full of strange oaths,” with a patchy beard, brimming with ambition.

Today, an equally significant work made its way into the world – the most recent issue of Another Man magazine, which stars Harry Styles in three separate editorial shoots, as well as interviews between him and Paul McCartney and Chelsea Handler, and an essay on his youth written by his sister, Gemma Styles. In each shoot, Styles bears a resemblance with each of these three Shakespearean stages – in one, he sports a boyish bowl cut outside his old school, another casts him as a wistful, long-haired lover decked out in red, the third sees Styles with a new, short crop (done for the upcoming film Dunkirk, in which he plays a soldier), more masculine tailoring and barely-there facial hair.

The photoshoot marks something of a milestone in Styles’ career – something he seemed to confirm himself when he preceded sharing the magazine’s three covers on his Instagram feed with three blank posts (now, when you click on Styles’ Instagram page, there is a clear white line between his pre and post- Another Man pictures). This is his first interview and photoshoot since he left One Direction, and cut off all his hair for an acting role, and aside from the odd grainy fan picture or long-lens pap shot, fans have hardly had a glimpse of him since.

So, if this is a statement about a decisive moment in Styles’ trajectory, what does it actually say? Do the three different styles of shoot represent the ghosts of Harry’s past, present and future? Is his sheer versatility a way of presenting the former boyband star as a full-blown actor? In terms of the magazine’s written content, we don’t really discover anything about Styles we didn’t know before.

In his short phone interview with McCartney, Styles’ questions (“When you first went from being in a band to being on your own, what was the creative side of that like?” and “How did you find going from touring with so many people around you, to going out doing songs you’d written every word of?”) suggest he plans to write and perform solo music, and he briefly discusses his acting work with Chelsea Handler (“It’s a challenge, but it feels good to be out of my comfort zone”).

But the rest of the issue feels firmly nostalgic. Styles reiterates how much he loves returning home to Holmes Chapel (“that’s one of the places for me where I feel like I disappear the most […] I go back to Cheshire a lot and walk around the same fields”), the rush he had performing with his former bandmates (“there’s no drug you can take that gives you that same high”), while his sister reflects on his moments spent boiling pasta, playing with the family dog, and running baths for their mum. “It’s cool to have such specific moments in your mind to look back on,” Styles tells Handler.

The three shoots are nostalgic, too. This latest issue of Another Man follows one themed around Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones and the “heirs to his throne”. As Styles is his most obvious successor (often compared to Mick Jagger in both looks and charisma), two of these shoots feel almost as though they were intended for that previous issue. Both the boyish, Sixties Beatles and Stones-inspired shoot – “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, shot by Alasdair McLellan – and the ragged rockstar story, “Anything That’s Part Of You”, shot by Willy Vanderperre – reference specific Jagger photographs and his general vibe.

On seeing the new covers, the Guardian proclaimed: “Harry Styles proves the heartthrob is dead: long live the artthrob”. It saw the shoots, with their high fashion aesthetic, and placement in a niche fashion magazine, as well as Styles’ ability to move from boyband star to actor to potentially authentic singer/songwriter as proof that the old concept of a heartthrob has died. The article says he is “not just a teen dream any more”, “revelling in a context that couldn’t be further from his One Direction past”, and adds: “To win hearts in 2016, you now have to offer artistic value. And you have to hustle.”

But what these visual callbacks to Jagger emphasise is that Styles is, in fact, a very traditional heartthrob – his very appeal may be due to the fact that he is the most traditional heartthrob we’ve had in years. Like McCartney, John Lennon, David Bowie, Jagger, Marc Bolan, or Kurt Cobain, Styles is creative, interested in fashion, androgynous, boyish and followed around the world by a stream of enthusiastic fans, who are mostly young women. And, perhaps in no small part due to that last detail, like all of them, he has been dismissed as a cheap fad by music writers who should probably know better.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot said that a truly “traditional” writer is that which has “a sense of the timeless, as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together”. This is also what makes that writer contemporary, and aware of his own specific moment in time. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

If we apply that logic to the long list of teen idols, Harry Styles ticks all the boxes. Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – Styles is as traditional as it gets. May he retain his place in the canon for centuries to come.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.