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

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis