Dabe Alan / Gearbox
Sexism as inclusion, racism as criticism: why the press and developers have trouble communicating
It’s always interesting when someone in the industry talks about media training. From what I understand, the process can involve mock interviews which then focus on what you said, what you shoudn’t have said, and how it can all be twisted into sensational headlines. I’ve also been told by multiple sources that there is a list of outlets and writers that can be trusted, and those that go for the easy kill. You always ask to see your own file during these conversations, but I've never had anyone offer. While quotes may simply be fabricated if the truth isn’t sensational enough, the fact remains that interesting discussions are being lost due to the media focusing on perceived gaffes. Why that happens is a big discussion; you can say that the gaming blogs are driven by a hit-based culture or that developers don’t understand how to avoid offensive statements when speaking off the cuff, but the end result is the same: Meaningful conversations are being lost.
Sexism as inclusion
“The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we've ever had.” Borderlands 2 lead designer John Hemingway said during a studio tour. “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? That's what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is.” Whoa boy, there it is. Randy Pitchford clarified that this was an internal name and shouldn’t be taken as evidence of sexism on the part of Gearbox. He’s got a point, we have the existence of Duke Nukem Forever and press events held inside strip clubs for that, but the name does make many assumptions about who is going to be playing Borderlands 2, and the gender of players who may need help. You can argue about whether this is evidence of a wider sexist environment at Gearbox, but it’s clear that it is a very poor choice of words. Which is a shame, because the actual mechanical solutions to making Borderlands 2 more inviting are fascinating. “In a gameplay demo, Gearbox showed this skill in action. At points, after taking damage against bandits, the Mechromancer was able to hide behind cover waiting for shields to recharge. From there, she could safely shoot in the general direction of the enemy, with bullets magically hitting targets,” the Eurogamer article stated. Creating a skill tree that allows less skilled players of either gender to join a game that’s so focused on co-op and to do so while allowing other players to remain challenged is an impressive selling point. Using this sort of skill tree can manage difficulty on a granular level that we don’t normally see in games, and it could go a long way toward tailoring the game difficulty to individual players within the same world. It may not be revolutionary, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction of making a core game like Borderlands 2 more welcoming to a wider audience. Even better, the more that people play with this skill tree and become comfortable with the game’s mechanics, the more likely they are to try the other classes and skills and branch out into playing the game with a more standard character. How cool would it be if Borderlands 2 indirectly led to a larger population of players for this sort of game? Combine that with female characters that don't conform to the often rigid standards of female-specific body shapes and you have a game that's at least attempting to color outside the lines. This conversation, and the effort behind it, were lost due to the use of a sexist and exclusionary internal name for the skill tree. Making sure women feel comfortable and welcome in gaming is an important topic, and I’m glad that topic has found such traction in the gaming press, but it saddens me that the work Gearbox is doing to welcome more players to its game has been almost completely lost due to unfortunate wording.
Racism as a path to understanding story
A writer from CVG asked Assassin’s Creed 3’s creative director Alex Hutchinson why the press rarely called out Nintendo for releasing similar products year after year, while other developers weren’t allowed the same latitude. “You want my real answer?” Hutchinson said. “I think there's a subtle racism in the business, especially on the journalists' side, where Japanese developers are forgiven for doing what they do. I think it's condescending to do this.” He continued. “Just think about how many Japanese games are released where their stories are literally gibberish. Literally gibberish. There's no way you could write it with a straight face, and the journalists say 'oh it is brilliant'.” He then contrasted how the press wrote about Gears of War and Bayonetta. And my dear lord the stories that followed. If you want the gaming press to attack you, call them racist. Japanese and American games often differ in how stories are told, or even in the importance of the story to the enjoyment of the game, but that debate is lost because Hutchinson started his statement by calling a group racist. There is nothing he could have said after that to redeem his argument; the racism line was always going to be the headline. Games with an Eastern or Western design philosophy may be treated differently, but calling that difference a side-effect of racism is a huge stretch, and a good conversation was lost.
There is yelling, but no conversation
It’s always good to read the source of the quotes that are spread and dissected across the gaming blogs, and in these cases both quotes barely seemed to raise the hackles of the writer who heard them originally. The outrage came later, and that outrage was splashed across headlines and comment threads. The conversation shut down completely at this point, and simply became a bunch of people yelling about sexism and racism. It’s rare for other outlets to follow up with the subjects of these interviews, the more common approach is to simply remove the quotes from their context and create a story out of the easy controversy. This creates a culture where people become defined by a few words from a long interview going viral. The quotes cease to be part of a larger point, they are encased in Lucite to become dead specimens for the press to study from every angle, writing story upon story about what an internal name for a skill tree means for the greater industry, or to offer a counter-attack at the idea of being called racist. Comments made during an interview cease to be a part of the story, and can come to define games, people, and studios almost overnight. “I think stringent reactions to incidents can also botch opportunities to productively engage with figures in the videogame development community. We could have had a conversation with Hemingway about the casual sexism in the game development community. Instead everyone yelled and screamed, he got defensive, tried to defend the comment and that was that,” Dennis Scimeca wrote in an Escapist story. “If there's ever an apology from him I'm going to have every reason to suspect it's just to quell the public ire, and he'll go on talking about ‘girlfriend mode’ in meetings at Gearbox. What a lost opportunity.” I don’t think the “girlfriend mode” incident means that Hemingway is a sexist asshole, and I doubt Hutchinson honestly believes that game reviewers are walking around adoring Japanese developers while working out how to stick it to Americans. I do think both men said stupid things, and the press is rewarded by clicks and comments when they get so close to the trees that the very idea of a forest seems fantastical. What could have been an interesting discussion about casual sexism and misplaced accusations of racism turned into an adversarial relationship where both sides eye each other with animosity and distrust. We keep hearing the same arguments: “Developers and publishers need to stop being so secretive,” contrasted with “The press needs to stop being so sensational!” Both are true, to some extent. An open dialog with the press will lead to a better understanding of how games are made and the stories behind them, and this could lead to greater engagement from players and even loyalty to developers with welcoming corporate cultures. On the other hand, the above quotes are the equivalent of showing a lion a steak and asking him not to eat. Both men were trying to say interesting things about the industry, but those points were lost due to stories being written almost exclusively about the divisive language. This back and forth means that almost no worthwhile conversation takes place. Ultimately, everyone suffers.