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Duke Nukem Forever: Nostalgia for a simpler, manlier time

I hope you watched that entire Duke Nukem Forever trailer. Next, you should watch this compilation of one-liners from previous Duke Nukem games. Are you feeling like more of a man yet? Because I do. And I'm a woman. So that's saying something.

Duke Nukem Forever seems to be in a perpetual state of controversy. The game has a complicated history, including a twelve-year wait with lots of bait-and-switch delays. I theorize that the reason why Duke has achieved Chuck Norris-esque legendary status as a character is due to his having played hard to get with us for so long. If there had been a Duke game every couple years since his first appearance in 1991, we would be sick of him by now.

As a result of the delay, Duke as a character has come to represent nostalgia for days gone by and old school video games that didn't give a shit about political correctness. Every improbably muscular, bad-ass game protagonist since the 90s has been influenced at least in part by Duke. He is the ultimate hyper-masculine video game character.

But if you look back on him now, Duke seems kind of ... dare I say it ... boring. Every single thing he says is a cliché, and his entire character feels like a parody of a parody of a video game protagonist. But back in the day, Duke was the ultimate power fantasy for young gamers across the globe -- well, as long as those young gamers fit a very specific demographic. White. Male. Straight. Because Duke's a man's man! A red-blooded American man who stands in front of flags, next to clingy, adoring strippers! Because he's a womanizing charmer! (... Right? He's not just overcompensating? Nah, couldn't be.) The ladies love him, which is somewhat hard to understand because he is a huge asshole to everyone! (Is he paying all of these women to hang around him? I mean, they are strippers, right?) He's super fit and physically adept! He loves shooting off his big guns! (Seriously, that's not a reference to penises?) Oh, and he's got sunglasses. And he's wearing suspenders, which everyone strongly associates with heterosexuality, as well as coolness.

Have I mentioned that Duke Nukem would be a way more interesting character if he were a commentary on insecure masculinity and closeted homosexuality? Or if he were a commentary on anything at all beyond an elementary school boy's fantasy of what "cool" is?

Anyway, ol' Dukey seemed pretty great in the 90s. Remember those days? Back when women didn't even know what a video game was, amirite, fellas? Video games were still solidly a boys' club back then (still true, or so some gamers wish), and there were no silly women to screech nonsense about wanting playable female characters, maybe even with clothes on. And, seriously, who needs these emo Cloud Strife bishonen pretty boys that Duke could snap in half like a twig? Those guys have to go, they make us uncomfortable -- and don't even get us started on that Samus Aran chick. If we don't make sure that everybody follows their proper gender roles, then the entire universe might collapse!

"There's been a kind of pacification of our heroes and Duke's kind of like the antidote to that," explains Randy Pitchford of Gearbox, the company that bought Duke Nukem Forever from 3D Realms. Thank goodness Duke stepped in to make sure that video games were still masculine. They were getting too womanly, and someone had to put a stop to it!

I obviously take issue with anyone who claims games aren't hyper-masculine enough and that they don't cater to heterosexual men enough (although that's been a hot-button issue lately with regard to Dragon Age 2, a game that actually includes hot guys alongside hot ladies, plus gay characters/relationships -- props, BioWare). You don't have to spend much time in the gaming world to realize the extent to which games are marketed to, and created by, heterosexual men. But I can't stand that in Duke Nukem Forever's case, "catering to heterosexual men" doesn't only mean putting boobs everywhere. Apparently it also means that the women attached to the boobs should be humiliated in some way. Because, uh, if you're a real man, you'll enjoy that. Or something.

I'm referring to Duke Nukem Forever's Capture the Babe mode. As summarized by the Border House: "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."

When asked about whether this was sexist, Pitchford responded, ""It's a love pat on the ass -- more about sexual innuendo. Not at ALL about violence towards women, which is SUPER UNCOOL."

Good start, Mr. Pitchford, but not quite. Let me tell you something.

Your game is sexist.

Against men.

Oh, did I surprise you there? I mean, don't get me wrong, the game's pretty sexist against women as well, or at least "Capture the Babe" is, but let's table that for the moment. (The Border House post that I linked already does a great job discussing the marketing campaign for Duke Nukem Forever, as well as the Capture the Babe mode, so go there, read what they have to say, then come back.)

The fact that Duke Nukem is seen as a masculine ideal offends me, and I'm not even a dude. The trailer makes me laugh, to be sure, and the goofy one-liners from the old games make me laugh -- but they make me laugh because Duke feels like a parody of an ideal man to me. Unfortunately, I'm worried that he's not meant to be a satire of performative masculinity. Is he? Someone, please tell me that he is. Because otherwise, this is like showing an episode of Mad Men to your grandfather and having him respond, "Gosh, those were the good ol' days."

Duke Nukem isn't a franchise I can be nostalgic about, because the 90s sucked, especially for gamers who didn't fit the straight, white, male demographic. I don't miss the days when games were white dudes shooting aliens and women squealing in bikinis. Do other people miss those days? Probably, and quite frankly, those gamers can continue to play boring, forgettable garbage if they like. Unless Duke Nukem Forever turns out to be subtle commentary on its own genre, I don't see what I'm supposed to get out of it. It seems like it's not going to hold up. Aliens invading Earth? Yawn.  A white guy with a gun and a steroid addiction? Been there, played that. Women in bikinis? Seen it, in every other game ever. Got anything else for me, Duke Nukem Forever? No? Well, then.

Duke Nukem Forever is a throwback to that "simpler time" -- but we live in a complex time, now, and it's way awesomer for it. Maybe all of these new "emo" heroes scare Randy Pitchford. They don't scare me, not any more than the new bad-ass, gritty Lara Croft scares me. Women acting like men! Men acting like women! Gender roles out the window! Everybody banging a wider variety of hot people in Dragon Age 2! We live in exciting times. And you know what? It's a hell of a lot more interesting than gaming in the 90s was. (Okay, except for Super Metroid. I mean, even that game has women in bikinis. Still better than Duke Nukem Forever will be, though.)

One last point from Mr. Pitchford: "I think it'd be really interesting some day to see what a female version of Duke would be like. Maybe that's a game."

It is a game, just as a gay version of Duke is a game, or pretty much any other version of Duke could be a game. And it would be a way less cliché, forgettable game than the one you made.

So, make that game, Mr. Pitchford. I'm willing to wait. I know I'll have to.

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  • Rowan said:

    I have to respond here and defend the honor of something near and dear to my heart. No, not Duke Nukem (though I really enjoyed it when it was a sidescroller!) Instead, 1990s video games.

    Obviously, there were problems with 90s games in terms of sexuality and masculinity. It was still the game industry; it still existed in the world. But I can't agree with a declaration that it's better now. Consider that the 1990s were the decade that started Ultima VI and VII, with their relatively powerful female characters and ability to make a male or female Avatar. Or, at their end (technically 2000, but it's the same "game" decade IMO because the next console generation was 2001-focused) you saw The Sims, arguably the most gender/sexuality-friendly game of all time, as well as No One Lives Forever, with arguably the best female game protagonist of all time.

    The trends that lead towards the more overt sexist and homophobia of modern games did start in the 90s - graphical improvements and general aging (or perceived aging) of the gamer demographic led towards "grittiness" and "maturity" as goals to be achieved. Yet I'd still argue that those goals weren't really achieved until the PS2 and Xbox generation of gaming - the graphics weren't GOOD enough to be as gritty as they wanted to be. That was also when common use of digitized speech came to be. Those two combined to create an industry culture where adding female options and characters was "twice as much work" for the developers. So they started defaulting to male characters even more than they had.

    Finally, two of the genres which had been the kindest towards non-straight male gamers, RPGs and adventurers, were common throughout the 1990s but started to lose their impact. RPGs still existed but were no longer considered one of the most important genres, and adventure games all but died.

    April 1, 2011 10:43 PM

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