In some games we find sexism buried within plot points or seen through the stereotyped portrayals of female characters. Duke Nukem Forever is not one of those games. There is no need to look deeply into gameplay or storyline to find issues. Duke Nukem Forever is simply a game that wallows in sexism. It revels in creating a main character that has a complete disregard for women. Duke Nukem sees women as sexual objects existing solely for his amusement. It is clearly not a game geared for a diverse demographic. I know that this franchise is not meant for me. When looking at everything surrounding the game (the advertisement, the hype, the cover art, the interviews) it becomes apparent that Duke Nukem Forever is capitalizing on sexism and gleefully enjoys that role.
Game preview event
Back in February of 2011 Gearbox hosted a preview event for Duke Nukem Forever in Las Vegas. They rented out a strip club, renamed it Titty City for the day, and invited gaming reporters for the event. Inside the club they had women dressed in short plaid skirts, white shirts that were tied above their waists, white thigh high stockings, and high heels. It was the “naughty school girl” look we may all know from Halloween costumes. Of course, these outfits would not be allowed under any school dress codes I have ever seen. The urinals had signs on them that said “Duke Nukem’s Wizzle Tits” which is a joke that I fail to understand. Pictures from the event can be found here and here for those interested. Amid all this pageantry they had demo stations for the game. So why host the event in such a way? They could have invited people to the Gearbox studios for the demo. If Gearbox is a poor choice, then why not rent out another facility to host these demo units? This strip club theme was gleefully celebrated by Gearbox. This is not to say that strip clubs are inherently bad. They can be entertainment venues for men or women and much of the atmosphere is dependent on how the employees are treated. But, in this specific scenario the strip club was not meant as entertainment for both male and female games journalists. It played right into the stereotype of gamers as heterosexual males that would want to visit strip clubs and treated it as though the only people that write or care about games must also fit into that category. Any number of venues would have been better suited for the variety of journalists in the gaming industry. This preview location just adds to the hyper masculine image of this media as a whole. It screams “games are made by men and for men only” when preview events are held at strip clubs.
The cover art
The cover art on a box indicates the theme of the game. Looking at Duke Nukem Forever‘s box art we get a clear picture of what is meant to be appealing about the game. Duke Nukem’s crotch is front and center. He is leaning back and looking content with a cigar dangling in his mouth. Near his crotch is a disembodied, manicured, female hand. I suppose an artist assumed it unnecessary to show a full female character when all they need for the sexual connotation is a hand. This image shows women as nothing more than body parts existing solely for a man’s pleasure in an eerily literal manner. The large smoking gun at Duke’s crotch just adds to the sexual *wink wink nudge nudge*. This game is not subtle.
PAX East booth babes
PAX, the Penny Arcade gaming fan convention, has a policy against booth babes on their show floor. This is a policy instituted in part to make the convention more welcoming and friendly for all gamers. At this year’s PAX East in March Duke Nukem Forever decided to test this policy. They had models dressed similarly to the the outfits used in the strip club during their preview event. When the twitter account for PAX @Official_PAX was questioned about these models they said that
“Our bb [booth babe] policy is cosplay of ingame chars is ok. We checked it out and asked DNF to cover up a bit but otherwise it’s within our guidelines.”
But I argue that calling this cosplay is wrong. Cosplay is something done by fans. It is something done to show appreciation and admiration of a gaming charcater or franchise. These models are not dressed up to show personal appreciation of a character in Duke Nukem Forever. In an attempt by Gearbox to promote their game, they paid female models to dress a specific way for their job at PAX East. That is a very different situation than fans recreating costumes and cosplaying characters from their favorites games.
“Capture the babe” mode
[Trigger warning: ableism, physical abuse]
More information has recently come out about the multiplayer modes for this game. The one that has raised the most questions is titled “Capture the Babe”. This mode is similar to a game of capture the flag but instead of flags, teams fight to capture women. When captured, these women may get upset and to calm them down the player will be required to slap their butts. I am surprised that articles have not called the captured women hysterical but I am unsure how the game refers to these captured “babes”. This mode contains many problematic themes:
- The use of women as objects to be captured by men
- Women as unreasonably emotional creatures
- Hitting a person as a method of calming them or controlling their behavior
This is what we get for video game? Misogyny and physical abuse being used as jokes is another way to create an immature culture that is specifically pushing away many gamers. This is not welcoming; this is exclusionary and this is harmful.
Randy Pitchford interviews
The CEO of Gearbox has conducted many interviews about the reboot of his beloved Duke Nukem. In one interview he explains his impression of Duke:
“I don’t know if he’s sexist but he’s certainly narcissistic… to him, it’s not just girls but everyone else on the planet that exists for his entertainment and pleasure, whether it’s a man or a woman.
I find that statement remarkable. To me it reads as if Duke’s sexism is irrelevant because he is also a horrific character toward other people. That fact that a character is hurtful towards more than just women does not erase their sexism. In another interview he describes Duke as an awesome character:
Duke is something that’s gone on for so long that even though it’s something where the subject is an absurd and ridiculous (if awesome) hero, the game has a real human story beneath it. This is all very real for all of us. I think that’s become part of the story.
Duke as an awesome hero? I suppose that wielding humongous guns and blowing up aliens is could be considered awesome. But what about the misogyny though? Is that also equally awesome? As Randy Pitchford explains of Duke:
Many imagine that Duke began as a cliche or amalgamation of the prima-facie heroes during a great era for action heroes. Since then, we’ve sort of witnessed a pussification of our heroes in action movies. They have become complex, emotional characters. Duke, being incredibly one-sided and super badass, now stands out, not as a cliche, but as a unique and fresh character rising through a tide of emo. Haha.
Complexity and emotion are seen as worthy of sexist slurs. Well, does Randy Pitchford think we will be pleasantly surprised by this game?
Surprise is a good word. There is a lot of that. Other good words: Shock, Astonish, Engage, Amuse, Entertain, Entertain, Entertain.
Remember, this is all fun and games. Wallowing in sexism is apparently enjoyable; it is entertainment!
Isn’t it ironic?
Is this all satire, irony, or a simple joke? Each of these are different issues. Starting with satire: for something to be satire it must mock it’s subject matter in an attempt at social criticism. Nothing about the game information so far shows this criticism. This game does not ridicule sexism. Instead Duke Nukem Forever revels in misogyny. It finds it funny and nostalgic. The premise of the relaunch is that this gameplay was fun and edgy in the early 90s and we should enthusiastically bring that bit of video game history to the present. Duke is a hyper masculine, chauvinist, caricature that we are meant to enjoy. It is that enjoyment of the character that makes me believe this isn’t satire. We are not meant to pity Duke. We are told to laugh at Duke Nukem’s antics and meant to enjoy his outlandish behavior. Deirdra Kiai also addresses this idea of satire in regards to this game.
If it isn’t satire then perhaps, this game is ironic or simply a joke. If that is the case I point to the fabulous Feminist Frequency post and video regarding over the top uber ironic commercials. There is a transcript of the video on the Feminist Frequency website. The idea is that these campaigns use extremely over the top and ridiculous sexist imagery and we are all supposed to laugh at these images. This discussion can also apply to Duke Nukem. As Anita Sarkeesianso eloquently states in the video:
Some people might try to defend these ads by saying they’re ‘making fun of sexism’ ironically… somehow. Advertisers must believe that the use of irony distances themselves from male chauvinism but that isn’t the case. While we think we are in on the joke, the reality is they aren’t making fun of or pointing out sexism, they’re doing it.
Remember advertisers have one goal and one goal only and that’s to sell you a product. Everything else, all the jokes, humour and imagery and everything else is to get you to buy it. The easiest way to do this is to use sexist representations that replicates the status quo and doesn’t challenge anything. Marketers love the uber ironic sexist style of advertising because they can use all the racist, sexist misogynist imagery they want and simultaneously distance themselves from it with a little wink and a node.
I recognize that this game will sell. In fact, it will likely sell many copies and make Gearbox a lot of money. But we must realize that it will do so by capitalizing on sexist humor. It banks on people wanting a game that is juvenile and sexist. It expects gamers to enjoy the world of Duke Nukem.
The CEO of Gearbox, Randy Pitchford, is enjoying this attention. He says he welcomes feminist anger. Pitchford WANTS us to talk about Duke Nukem Forever and use it as a teaching tool. If the game itself was actually satire then it would be a great tool. Why should we do the work here? We should not have to show all the failures of this game (the misogyny, the homophobia, the hyper masculine ideal) and then be required to explain these issues. If Gearbox was serious about squashing sexism they could do so within the game. Asking others to do this work while making money by glorifying sexism and hyper masculinity in gaming is not a progressive idea. Making money off sexist tropes has been the norm for decades and I would like for us to move forward, mature, and tell some new stories. Let these overused narratives stay in the past and move forward. Please show us some new, interesting stories and not just more Duke Nukem.