John Hemingway, the lead designer of Borderlands 2, landed himself in hot water a few months ago with a comment he made in Eurogamer when describing the skill tree of the game’s first downloadable character, the Mechromancer:
"I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game?”
Because girlfriends, being, you know, female, are bad at first-person shooters.
John Hemingway chose his words poorly, and it’s no wonder that his remark was received negatively. But the question that lingers is this: how did the image of the shooter-inept female gamer come to exist in the first place, and why does it persist?
Well, maybe it’s still around because it’s little bit true. It’s not that we’re incapable. It’s not that we lack the reflexes. It’s just that we’re arriving to the game late – way late.
While it’s undeniable that women comprise a large portion of the MMORPG community, and make up a growing portion of RTS players, a woman who dominates in the FPS realm is still treated as a rara avis. We’ve all heard that women play more “casual” games — whatever thatmeans — but beyond that, there’s surprisingly little public data available about the specific types or genres of games interest female players. A pretty outdated Gamercrave article provides a few statistics, purportedly peeled from a Nielsen report: at the time of the study, females made up about 30% of players of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and represented an even smaller slice of Half-Life 2 players, at 22%. (By comparison, the Entertainment Software Association estimates that 47% of all video game players are women.) Twenty to thirty percent may seem like a healthy chunk, but when one considers that similar studies suggest that more than 40% of World of Warcraft players are female, the gap seems significant. The female FPS player remains the rare and most fetishized ideal; the paramour of the “real,” takes-no-BS girl gamer.
I am not one of these exceptional creatures. While I received the 360 version of Borderlands 2 as a Christmas present, this was the first week I had time to I peel off the cellophane and play through the first few levels.
And as it turns out, I’m terrible.
Most of my time in Borderlands 2 is spent waiting for Maya to respawn after I've been mowed down by yet another bullymong. I don’t play that many shooters, but I also don’t buy for a second that I’ve shied away from them due to some feminine aversion to violence, learned or natural. The media often invokes the image of the hyper-aggressive Western male as the typical player of shooter games, but is crouching, covering, and stealthily gunning down other players more violent than repeatedly splintering skulls with a sword or a hammer? Why have so many women found a home in games like World of Warcraft, but not Call of Duty?
Probably because, for many years, no one ever really tried to sell us Call of Duty. What makes a game appealing to women is still an oft-studied subject, but I'm willing to put forth three factors I suspect are to blame for a lower percentage of women picking up these titles. First, many women find it reaffirming to see women in the games they play, and female characters are rare in most shooters, especially as playable characters: my first forays into modding in junior high were generally attempts to import female character meshes into games that lacked them. A second reason might be that few advertisements for these franchises acknowledge that women play these games. And third, sexism is rampant in many sectors of multiplayer shooters’ communities, as documented by sites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty (NSFW/potentially triggering).
Thankfully, we seem to be moving forward in all three categories. The Borderlands series has playable female characters, and has introduced even more through added DLC. The Call of Duty series has featured female players in its Black Ops television spots. And Microsoft is working to craft a more effective set of tools for dealing with the harassment women face in the Xbox Live community.
This may be as safe a time as ever for me to pick up my controller and join the ranks of the players of CoD, of BF, of Rainbow Six, of whatever. And yet, last year at PAX East, I remember feeling absolutely inept when demoing a capture-the-flag style mode of a new shooter game, while all of my teammates were landing shots with relative ease — despite the fact that this was new, hitherto unreleased IP. I barely made it halfway through the Borderlands 2 demo at E3 before being politely herded on by booth staff, and let's face it, I probably would have been terrible at Halo 4,too, if I'd bothered to stand in line for three hours to find out.
However, when I told these stories back in Chicago, one of my classmates suggested I was being too hard on myself. The reason he was able to breeze through most shooters' single-player campaigns so easily, he reasoned, was that he was a long-time player of first-person shooters. He had developed a kind of gaming literacy that carried over to other FPSes; a kind of spacial reasoning specific to the first-person shooter genre.
Of course, you might say. It's obvious that people are going to be better at the type of games they play more often. But I think there's a little more at work here, especially when one considers the prevalence of titles that employ this mode of navigating, aiming, and firing. Some of these franchises have almost as many titles as The Land Before Time has sequels. I'd venture a guess that after a while, the developer assumes some level of familiarity with first-person perspective. And even if they don't, the multiplayer community sure does.
The result is a vicious cycle. Why play a game when I find the difficulty curve so steep? And when I finally get a few hours of single-player under my belt, why open myself up to guaranteed harassment by playing "incompetently" in the multiplayer arena?
I'd like to have a chance to enjoy these games. But earning my admission into the boys' club that is competitive FPS play isn't easy when the bouncers have been around since since Doom. If Borderlands 2's "Best Friends Forever" skill tree has any chance of presenting me with a way in, I'm all for it. While John Hemingway's choice of words was disappointing and stereotypical, maybe this DLC will prove to be a ticket out of "girlfriend mode."
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