Randy Pitchford: Creating LGBTQ+ understanding through games
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Representation in media matters and video games are the new frontier for the push for diversifying our entertainment. Gearbox Software reinforced that as its writers crafted an expansion pack for its popular Borderlands 3 video game.
The expansion featured two gay characters, and it was nominated for “outstanding video game” earlier this year by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for its annual GLAAD Media Awards. IT was also nominated for two Gayming Awards.
Borderlands 3: Guns, Love, and Tentacles was an expansion pack that came out in March 2020. The second expansion pack for the hit game featured The Marriage of Wainright and Hammerlock, which takes place on a cult-controlled planet with the wedding of two gay characters Wainright Jakobs and Sir Hammerlock. It included queer, nonbinary, and pansexual characters.
It’s part of the action role-playing first-person shooter Borderlands series that has sold more than 60 million copies and $1 billion in revenues. It’s as mainstream as a video game can get, and GLAAD praised the game for normalizing LGBTQ+ behavior and providing a storyline that shed light on such backgrounds during a politically and culturally divisive moment.
Gearbox is based in Frisco, Texas, and the state has had a history of tangling with the LGBTQ community. In 2017, Governor Greg Abbott supported a “bathroom bill” that would have prevented transgender Texans from using bathrooms that matched their gender identity. Randy Pitchford, the founder of Gearbox, wrote a letter to the governor that opposed the bill, which did not pass. I spoke with Pitchford about why Gearbox promotes inclusivity in video games, how it deals with political issues that affect its employees, and creative freedom for its artists. Gearbox has since been acquired by Embracer Group for up to $1.3 billion, and the company maintains that it has creative freedom.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Above: Randy Pitchford is CEO of Gearbox Software.
An unusual expansion
GamesBeat: You had this DLC with the marriage of LGBTQ characters. I wondered if you could set the stage.
Randy Pitchford: What’s interesting about that–we first introduced this character, Sir Hammerlock, in Borderlands 2. There was a moment when you’re interacting with him at the beginning of the game. You have to go talk to him about something or ask him for help on something. He just says, “Yeah, one of my old boyfriends…” And that was it. We didn’t make a big deal out of it.
I think at the time there were a bunch of reasons why we thought that would be something to do. The simplest one is just that Gearbox is a diverse environment of creatives. There are all kinds of different people from different ethnicities and different genders and different orientations and identities. It’s no big deal at Gearbox. That’s the fun thing. Let’s just throw something in there as if it’s no big deal. I have to give a lot of credit to–I believe that was a line written by Anthony Burch in that environment.
What’s interesting is that it got noticed by a lot of people. We started getting invited to LGBT-friendly game events and other kinds of things. Some other things came from that, where I started getting enlisted here in Texas to help be an advocate for LGBT people. It’s always been something that’s important to me for a lot of different reasons, but it became this cascading thing.
Then we were doing Borderlands 3. Hammerlock is in there. He has a new partner, Wainwright Jakobs, who in the lore of the game is tied to one of the weapons manufacturers in the Borderlands world. After the game finishes, we had some fun in the credits where we had little almost concept art follow-ups to show–like in the movies. I think American Graffiti first did this. They show what happened to them years later in life. We were using these little pieces of art to show what was happening with the characters after the events of the story. One of the pictures depicted Sir Hammerlock and Wainwright Jakobs, and it was a proposal. Will you marry me?
After we finished the game, when we were thinking about what kind of campaign storylines we could do for the DLC pieces–we do these massive campaign storylines in the DLC that we offer. We had a bunch of stuff written on a whiteboard, and one was, “Cthulhu and Nightmare.” Another was, “Hammerlock and Wainwright’s wedding.” Because we had like 20 things on the board, we decided to start jamming some of this stuff together and seeing if we could come up with something. That’s where the Cthulhu concept and the Wainwright/Hammerlock marriage got jammed together. We called it “Guns, Love, and Tentacles.” We made this horror story around the wedding. It was a lot of fun to make. One of our great designers up at the Quebec studio first came up with that amalgamation and started to imagine that storyline.
GamesBeat: Did you have to deal with any kind of hate or backlash around that? If so, what was the reaction like?
Pitchford: It’s really interesting when you take a stand on something. Honestly, we didn’t do it to take a stand, though. We did it because that was the natural progression for these characters. That happens a lot to us in storytelling. There’s a certain point when we’re creating the characters, creating the situations, and then there’s a point where they take on a life of their own. As storytellers, what we need to do is respect where these characters would lead themselves and let that happen.
It is seen, though, because of that storyline, as if Gearbox was trying to take a stand. Astonishingly, there’s still a lot of the world that thinks these kinds of ideas are of a political nature, which completely boggles my brain, that there could be anything political about the nature of personal relationships. But here we are.
Above: Borderlands 3 expansion features The Marriage of Wainwright & Hammerlock.
You get some interesting responses. It’s always on the edges, you know? Our games reach lots of people. Because of that, if you can think of 1,000 random people, imagine the one percent edge cases on the love side of the equation, and then the one percent edge cases on the hate or disgust side. If you imagine a bell curve of how people respond to any given idea, most people are in the middle. But then you have that one percent that is the edge cases. Even if you’re only reaching 1,000 people, there are still 10 people on those endpoints.
Now imagine that you’re reaching millions of people. One percent is tens of thousands of people. Some of those people on the edges can be pretty engaged! They have a lot of strong feelings. We want strong feelings because that’s engagement. That’s evidence that we’ve reached people and affected them. But sometimes–there’s a lot of people in the world that don’t know how to manifest their strong feelings when they’re trying to express them to creators. Some of that stuff gets pretty weird. We’ll see everything from the most strange kind of love, people trying to get close to us in almost creepy ways, to really kind of disconcerting–what appears to be hate.
I tend to parse that for what it is. It’s a deep level of engagement. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference. It’s apathy. People that aren’t engaged with the content don’t send hate mail. They don’t threaten us. They just don’t care. They don’t even think about it. I take all of that as almost a blessing, that we’re affecting and reaching people. But our mission is to entertain people, to try and create joy and happiness. It’s weird that some people–I don’t think they see it that way when we make a video game for them. We have to constantly be re-evaluating our relationship.
Made in Texas
GamesBeat: Did you feel like you got more heat because you’re in Texas, given that it’s not the most liberal state?
Pitchford: You know what, Texas is a weird place. When I first moved out here Ann Richards was governor. It was a blue state. I live outside of Dallas, and it’s weird to think about. I came from California, and I had a view of what Texas was. But living here, it’s hard to get bluer than Dallas, frankly. If you look at the map you can see that. There are a few spots where all the dense populations live, and they’re as blue as the metropolitan areas in California. But there’s a lot of rural Texas. On a political level, because of the way the counties are drawn and the way representation works, where it checks both population and territory, there’s a lot of power in some populations and some individuals that have very different world views on this kind of thing.
While it hasn’t manifested in neighborly conflict, where it has manifested is–it has been a political thing. Because of our interests, because of our love of our own talent, we’ve become a bit political here in Texas. I got deeply involved in an effort that ultimately led to the defeat of what was known as “bathroom bills” in Texas, in the state legislature. It was strange to find myself in a position where I could do something about that.
We had a case where the chair of the committee was going to surface the bill for a vote–check out these criteria. The Republican representative in an area where I’m a constituent had a background 25 years ago in game development, as part of a company that ported old-school arcade games. As people were trying to maneuver to help find ways in to create common ground and allow a conversation to happen and maybe help better ideas prevail, I found myself saying, “Holy shit, am I the guy?”
I developed a relationship with this man, and it became clear that he was super reasonable. All it took for him was meeting transgender people. Once he knew what the right answer was, then the challenge was how to navigate it politically. He found a way because he knew what the right answer was, and he had the will to do it. He found a way to make that push, pushed by the governor and the lieutenant governor swinging together–he just made it all go away. Kept it just below the surface where it was going to be addressed until it didn’t matter anymore.
Of course, like all things, with a lot of these kinds of issues, they’re on the table and everyone’s focused on it, and then once it drifts away it’s just gone. It goes away for a while and everyone forgets about it. Nobody in Texas talks about bathroom bills now. They’ve moved on to other strategies.
Above: Borderlands 3 is a sci-fi shooter game.
GamesBeat: Did you have discussions inside Gearbox at that time?
Pitchford: Yeah, but mostly the attitude is about–everyone’s in different places. You don’t know where everybody’s at. We don’t walk around constantly screaming, “Hey, it’s okay to be you here and we’re all going to be cool with that.” That’s the case, but how do you make that clear, especially to new people joining up? One of the neat side effects of this kind of work is that in an indirect, but very real way, it signals what the attitude and the philosophy are like at the studio level around these kinds of issues.
We know that, as a consequence, it creates a different degree of comfort and trust with people that might have something about themselves that isn’t exactly the center of normal. I count myself among them. I have a number of traits, from being kind of neuroatypical–well, not kind of, I’m very neuroatypical. I have a bunch of other different things. I’ve never managed to find a way to be convinced to believe in a God. Almost everybody around me does. I’ve never tasted alcohol in my life. I’m this weirdo when I’m socializing, where everyone takes that for granted. I’ve never smoked anything in my life.
There’s a lot of ways where I feel like kind of an outsider. I’ve always cared about that. I’ve always been the weirdo. In high school, I was the class clown. I’ve always been that odd man out. So I want us to always be careful to be a safe place for people that are a little different.
One thing–I don’t know if it’s a consequence of any particular thing other than maybe it’s more a consequence of our scale. But now we have groups and task forces and people that bind together around issues. There’s a diversity group. There’s a specifically LGBT group. There’s a diversity group for people of color. I don’t think that signals a cultural shift so much as a scale shift at Gearbox, though. We’re not all in the same room together anymore. It makes sense for these kinds of structures to emerge. That’s where those conversations can take place, and then conclusions can be made–if a change needs to be made, they can bring that to the company as a whole and find that change is welcome.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that to create a safe space and a good environment for your people, you have to sometimes take some sort of political stand. If they know that you’re working against the bathroom bills, that sends a clear signal about what kind of workplace you have.
Pitchford: It does. But I’ll tell you, it goes back to what I was saying before about edge cases. In my experience in the world, when I interact with real people, rather than the internet and social media, where we tend to only see the edge cases–most people, if we’re going to be honest, don’t have the time to post comments. The people that look like they’re doing most of the work on social media, they’re the edge cases. When I interact with real people in the real world, I have to go pretty far to find someone who wants to impose on the comfort and liberty of someone who might be transgender or any other LGBT identity.
Above: Gearbox Software is now owned by Embracer Group.
Most people are just trying to live their lives, and we’re cool with everyone else doing their thing. I’ve never encountered anyone at Gearbox, and we have all kinds of diverse opinions and political positions, who would suggest that you can’t use the bathroom you want to use. “Use whatever bathroom you want!” That’s the attitude in the real world. You have to get to pretty gnarly extremes to find someone who’ll take a stand like that when they’re in the face of someone who would be affected by that policy.
We’re up in Frisco, Texas, which is a suburb north of Dallas. It’s a pretty hip, happening place. But there are still traces of rural Texas there. Not that we’re trying to stomp that out by any means. But you can feel a bit of a culture gap here and there. There was an old ordinance on the books where if you have a certain number of square footage or something, you have to have at least two bathrooms, one for men and one for women. That was obviously trying to say you should make enough bathrooms for everyone. But it was done at a time where there wasn’t awareness. I imagine this was written in the sixties or something when you just didn’t have the awareness that transgender people are a thing.
Anyway, fast forward, my wife opened a restaurant called Nerdvana, which is on the ground floor of our headquarters at Gearbox. It’s a cool place, a video game-themed bar and restaurant. She said, “Why do I even need gendered bathrooms? Why don’t I just have a bunch of full bathrooms where you can lock the door and it has everything you need?” Technically that violated this ordinance. She marched herself down to City Hall, had a conversation, and found herself not in a political debate, but asking, “What is this ordinance for?” “Well, if you want to change it, call the city council.” All right! Called the city manager, called the mayor, got the council together, and at the next meeting they said, “Sure, let’s change this.” And every single person on that council votes Republican. It’s interesting.
GamesBeat: I wonder if you always have to be aware, or hyper-aware, of these things in your area, your state, or your town. Do you feel like that affects your writers’ room? Does your team have to be aware of decisions they make about characters and things like that in your games?
Pitchford: When we’re trying to entertain people, and we’re also trying to be artists, it’s just a consequence. You get literal artists in a room together, artists are going to art. Some of what art is about is challenging us or showing us something about ourselves. Things come into it. You feel a lot of that in Borderlands.
We’re kind of flatland when it comes to how we approach the creative process at Gearbox. Talent has a lot of autonomy for whatever it is they’re working on. Sometimes we do get in trouble a bit. Also, we can get things wrong. We are just human beings. There have been things that have come up that, even within Gearbox, it’ll create a discussion and an argument about it.
I remember when we got, for example–there was a time you probably remember when 3D Realms finally threw their hands up and shut their doors and laid off their employees. Take-Two sued them. Those guys called me and said, “Can you bail us out? You have a great relationship with Take-Two. You started your career with Duke Nukem.” We ended up in the deal where they gave us the franchise and I paid down their debt and got them out of their difficulties.
One of the stipulations on that was we had to ship Duke Nukem Forever. Here’s a game that we didn’t develop. We didn’t have any creative interest in it. But we’re now the producers of it. I remember that there was a build I was playing and there was this really uncomfortable moment for me–I worked on Duke Nukem back in 1996. I’m not going to get into the moment. But it was a difficult thought for me. On the one hand, I wouldn’t do this. On the other hand, these artists are doing what they’re going to do, so I guess I should defend them.
I felt so much empathy for these guys, who’d worked on this project for literally 15 years and then got laid off. They got a second chance, so I’m going to let them do what they want to do. But that happens sometimes in the room. We’ll have debates. We’ll challenge each other. But we respect each other’s artistic license, so to speak. It’s not always clear where the right answer is.
Above: Borderlands has sold more than 60 million copies as a series.
Related to this, it says something about Gearbox that might explain or speak to this. We have a few values that we’ve declared and that we repeat. It’s almost a religion at Gearbox. One value we’ve declared is happiness. It’s not merely about the happiness of the customers we’re trying to entertain. It’s also about the happiness of all of us in the process.
Every once in a while we think about these values and re-evaluate them. There was a moment not too long ago where we thought, maybe we should change the value of happiness to the word “harmony.” We ultimately didn’t go that way, because we realized that harmony might reduce our willingness to challenge each other as artists. Our willingness to challenge each other in our creative and technical efforts. That conflict is not synonymous with harmony. But that conflict that can happen in the creative process is necessary, I think, to get something that has what I like to call “the real shit” in it.
Some things that have raised the most eyebrows may be the closest stuff we’ve done to have that real shit. I want us to do more real shit, you know? I wish we’d do more. That’s what art is for.
GamesBeat: On projects like this DLC, do you yourself have to make a ruling on things sometimes?
Pitchford: There are times, yeah.
GamesBeat: Are you in there with the writers discussing this?
Pitchford: Yeah. I’m in the room. And I’m in the room for a lot of it. There’s a lot of people that, because I founded the company and I manage the thing, they think that means certain things. But I’m a coder and a game designer and a storyteller. I’ve never been a suit. Most of my work at Gearbox is about more of a chief creative officer role these days. So yeah, I’m in there. There are times when it’s a tough one. It’s a coin flip. I have to make the call. It’s not always easy and it’s not always comfortable.
I had this stand I took on Borderlands 3. You’ve heard me curse a lot in this conversation. I have no problem with using those words. But there’s something about the Borderlands games, especially in North America, where a lot of parents are comfortable with children even as young as 13 playing the games. Or in some cases even younger. Even though it’s an M-rated game. And the reason is they don’t necessarily have a problem with simulated gun violence if the targets don’t really have constituents. They’re not people we have to worry about in the real world. In Borderlands you shoot aliens and green blood pops out. The art style is cartoonish. It’s a silly game, so a lot of parents are comfortable with it…except for the language.
Some people, especially in North America, have a huge issue–you say a word like “shit” or “fuck” and you’re going to hell. So I said, “Let’s take a stand on this. Let’s see if we can do this.” We don’t need to use those words. We can entertain people without them. We almost got through it. We almost got through it. And then there was one time. There was an ad-lib in the booth with Ice-T, who played a character, this AI. There’s one line, and it was just so funny. “It’s a big fucking dinosaur!” It was an innocent way to use the word. But the way he delivered it and the way it felt in the moment it happened–I guess I’ll have to do the PG-13 thing, where we get one “fuck.” I had to make the ruling on that. I kind of broke my own rule.
The entertainment value was so good, and it was three-quarters of the way through the game. If there was a parent in the room they might be a little shocked by that. But then they might appreciate the choice and laugh it off. Who knows?
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