One of this morning's Internet dramas involved Randy Pitchford, head of Borderlands development studio Gearbox Software, complaining about the website MCV's condemnation of a reference to a "girlfriend mode" for Borderlands 2. The "girlfriend mode" is not an official mode in the game, nor does it appear to be an official name, but it was used by the game's lead developer in an interview with Eurogamer to refer to a new option to allow inferior gamers to play co-op with more skilled players.
MCV charged that even informally calling this kind of set-up "girlfriend mode" put Gearbox "dangerously close to stumbling into a sexism row of its own." Pitchford charged sensationalism and said that "Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode..."The future DLC Mechromancer class has a skill tree that makes it easier for less skilled coop partners (any gender!) to play and be useful."
The row brings up some of the familiar debates about games and games journalism. We've got some people pointing to the prospect that this Borderlands 2 design element is even referred to informally by the phrase "girlfriend mode" as another cause or symptom of the straight-male-leaning culture of mainstream video games. We've also got a rather upset game developer lamenting that the gaming press has made a scandal out of a snippet of a quote.
Eurogamer had quoted Borderlands 2 developer John Hemingway as saying, "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."
For lack of a better term, indeed.
There just might be a better term.
Here's another angle to consider here: the phrase "girlfriend mode" is unnecessary because someone — people at Nintendo — already came up with a better term: "co-star mode.' Co-Star mode was introduced in 2007's Super Mario Galaxy with the intention of letting a second player assist the first. The main player would have access to the game's full suite of Mario controls. The second player would use a Wii Remote to point out items in the world, freeze enemies, hold platforms and otherwise lend a hand. In an interview with his boss that was published on the company's official website, Nintendo's chief game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, described two scenarios in which this mode might be used:
What I originally had in mind were situations like a parent sitting by their child — for example, a mother assisting her child. I also think it would be great if the opposite happened. I had a very strong image of the mother controlling Mario, while her child assisted her saying things like "Mum, there's an enemy over here!" A parent and child helping each other while they play was something that I wanted to make reality for a long time, and with Super Mario Galaxy, I strongly feel that situations like this could really happen. So I think there's a benefit to sitting next to a beginner and showing them how to play, and I think the two could have all sorts of conversations with each other as they play.
Miyamoto makes some assumptions about age, and maybe some about gender, but the end result is a rather wonderful term for what both the Super Mario Galaxy team did and what the Borderlands 2 team seems to be trying to do. The word "co-star" elevates the status of the second, presumably less-skilled player. It clearly labels them as something other than the best player. They are not the "star", but they are the guest, the visiting celebrity, the fellow great. They're the celebrity walk-on in a sitcom or the other actor who isn't being interviewed at the moment. They may be a mere supporting actor, but "co-star" makes them sound so much important. It's better than "girlfriend mode" or any other construction that would label the second player as inferior to the first (see: "casual mode," "person-who-sucks-at-games mode").
Today's main controversy may be about equating the term "girlfriend" with "one who is not skilled at games," and that conflation, applied to anyone in a gender, is certainly so broadly inaccurate as to be inappropriate for any game. In the examining of this term there is an opportunity to consider a whole other way of looking at this kind of system. We have here a chance to consider that the name of a system that welcomes in a less skilled gamers need not be named or referenced in a way that patronizes or denigrates the inferior player but instead might lift them up and make them feel welcome. Call them a co-star, regardless of which chromosomes they've got.