It must be that time of year. With the impending release of Duke Nukem Forever, details about the game are beginning to trickle out about it. Much like another recently released game, Bulletstorm, DNF is intended to be the most over-the-top, exaggerated, mindless excuse to have fun that developers can put together. Every standard aspect of an FPS is scaled up to ludicrous levels: the guns are ridiculous, the quotes are absurd, and the cops are literally pigs. In short, it is juvenile idiocy given form. So much so that the Capture The Flag mode, a staple of FPS for a long time, has been transformed into Capture The Babe. Predictably – and precisely according to plan, no doubt – the anti-sexism groups have erupted, calling for the game to be banned. Now, I’ve come out in defense of games accused of sexism before (see here) , in the cases when the sexism was a point of satire. That is not my intention this time around. No one is saying that Duke and his antics in this game aren’t sexist. The point is that depicting sexism and endorsing sexism are two very different things, just as playing a game featuring an activity and emulating that activity are far from the same.
Let’s take a look at the mode that is causing all of the uproar. Capture the Babe, if it makes it to the console unchanged, will consist of storming the enemy base, seizing their woman by throwing her over your shoulder, and rushing back to your own base. In the event she starts to panic, you are able to slap her butt to get her to settle down. Is that sexist? Oh, absolutely. You are quite literally treating that woman as an object. (In this case, a flag.) Now, does playing this game make ME a sexist? I don’t think so. In fact, I genuinely hope not. Because the game, like virtually every FPS since Doom, also features a deathmatch mode. This is a mode in which you murder people. Lots of them. As many as you can, for as long as you can. Whoever kills the most people wins. If playing the sexist mode makes me a sexist, then playing the murder mode makes me a murderer, and our jails are about to get very full indeed. Playing a character does not make you that character. If Duke players are sexist, then Rock Band players are all golden gods of the music scene, Madden players are pro athletes, and Elevator Action players are crazy briefcase toting super spies.
Suppose there was a game where, as the protagonist, you were tasked with tracking down a killer. Your skill as an investigator leads you to him, but the tables turn and he goes after you. Depending on your performance in the game, you could subdue and defeat him, or fail to do so. If you fail, you will be treated to brutal, graphic, and above all realistic depiction of being savagely beaten and murdered, with every gory detail presented with true crime documentary accuracy. Does that make you a murder victim? Would suffering any violent crime in a game inflict the same fate upon you in reality? Clearly not. And neither should it be so on the flip side of the coin. The only thing that makes you a murderer is murdering someone, the only thing that makes you a rapist is committing rape, and the only thing that makes you a sexist is being a sexist.
It is easy to speculate about a game and its makers when you are on the outside, but I personally am not a woman, am only distantly associated with the game business, and am even further removed from the makers of the game. We wanted a more valid view of the topic, so we reached out to a friend and associate of the site, Aubrey Norris. Aside from being a part of the game industry and the author of some of the most unique and memorable press releases and media updates we have the good fortune to read, Aubrey is married to a Gearbox developer who worked on the game. We asked for her thoughts on her husband’s involvement in a game that features a Capture the Babe mode, and the call to ban it. She had this to say:
I think it’s totally fine and I’m proud of him for working on a game that has so much consumer momentum. I hope the team doesn’t get discouraged by a vocal minority and would encourage anyone who doesn’t like it to simply not buy it. It’s not their place to say whether or not people should freely be able to buy content that they have personal objections to. Personally, I can’t wait to play DNF and I’m a huge proponent of equality between the sexes and a graduate of a woman’s college.
One would imagine that Mrs. Norris is in a better position than most to form a valid opinion on the tone of this game and the mindset of its makers.
The events in a game do not have any bearing on reality, it is as simple as that. I find that, while sexism in books, music, and film get their share of backlash, video games tend to get a disproportionate reaction from the press. This may be because video games, like cartoons, are popularly viewed as being intended exclusively for children. In the case of DNF, which is wearing the M rating like a badge of honor, this is definitively not the case. The more powerful – but no more valid – reason that games get hit so hard is that, as an interactive medium, video games allow you to perform these unspeakable acts yourself in a simulated fashion. This, it is viewed, engages the player. Somehow it gets the blood on their hands, requires them to make the decision and thus, in some small way, makes the decision okay. I am aware of no evidence to suggest that the interactivity makes any difference to the message, nor am I given any reason to believe it. If you know the difference between fantasy and reality, then you know that Duke’s actions are no more acceptable than they would be if they were performed on the pages of a book, on prime time TV, or on the silver screen. If you do not know the difference between fantasy and reality, you have no place playing ANY game. Even when the games are targeted directly, obviously, and without protest toward children, imitation is anything but common. Mario is the most enduring video game icon of all time, and yet we aren’t up to our ankles in pre-teens that are downing mushrooms by the handful and stomping on turtles. Hell, there hasn’t even been a spike in the number of plumbers.
Perhaps I’m not being realistic. Mario may be ubiquitous and yet non-influential, but his activities are nothing like what Duke is doing. Fine, then. Let’s take a look at another game, far more kid oriented than Duke, called Fat Princess. The purpose of the game (the whole game, not just a mode) is storming the enemy base, seizing their woman by throwing her over your shoulder, and rushing back to your own base. In the event your princess is stolen, you are able to force feed her cake to get her to slow down. I didn’t have to change many words to turn the nefarious “Capture The Babe” into the cute and carefree “Fat Princess”, yet one is the source of petitions and calls for bans, and the other is one of the only success stories of PSN. Is it because of the cartoon visuals? Is Duke worse because it is realistic? Do you honestly believe that anything about Duke Nukem is in any way realistic?
That is another important point. There is a time and place for realism and depth, and there is a time and place to abandon it. I will not say that women have been treated or depicted fairly or respectfully in all, or even most, games out there. Ideally each game would be crafted with care, each character developed with strengths and flaws, with nuances and motivations. That is absolutely not what we get. Instead, too often women are half-naked ditzy plot tokens that sit high in castles, helplessly awaiting rescue. They exist to titillate and to swoon. They are, in short, one dimensional. But take a look for a moment at the men in those games. They are often hulking, cigar chomping man-mountains with stubble you can light a match on. They carry around guns so big that they can only be compensating for something. Sometimes it is a fifteen foot long sword instead, which isn’t even subtle, as metaphors go. Realism is extremely lacking in games in general. Though I’ll agree women are more often misrepresented than men, simplicity and ignorance exists on both sides. When poorly developed or horrifically stereotyped characters of any sort are presented in a way that even suggests that they should be taken seriously, that is a problem. Nothing about Duke Nukem is meant to be taken seriously. It is a self-indulgent, self-aware amplification of simplistic, junk food gaming. A well developed, accurately represented female in such a game would be as out of place as a well developed and accurately represented male. The theme is absurdity, a massive running gag. It represents an antiquated, ridiculous view, essentially a time capsule of the cultural dark age during which it began its development. Perhaps it is not your kind of humor, but there are those who can appreciate it without embracing it as a philosophy.
That brings me to a final point. Not all games have, or should have, a message that they are trying to deliver. A game, at its core, is intended to entertain. It is intended to provide a fun activity for you, and ideally to do it in a creative way. If the game does it well, then perhaps you can look past the window dressing that they’ve gussied it up with, and any missteps or poor choices that may have been made in the presentation. Look at Tomb Raider. Lara Croft was definitely intended to be a sex symbol. Her presence on the box was intended to convince pubescent boys to buy the box. The game inside the box, however, contained engaging gameplay based on exploration and puzzles, and the series has run for a long time and is well remembered. The game didn’t have a message, nor did it need one. I would have enjoyed it even if I was controlling a stick figure. Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad , on the other hand, cranked the objectification up to eleven, humorlessly, and performed poorly regardless. Because it was nothing but message, and that message was “Boobies!” If you try assigning a message to everything, then consider for a moment the game series Cooking Mama. “This is a woman. She cooks. That’s all. Because that’s what they do.” If you consider such a sentiment legitimate, it is more damaging and insulting than a dozen jiggle-physics games, because it is earnest, wholesome, and subversive. It hits much closer to home, and it is delivered without an ounce of irony, nothing tongue-in-cheek about it.
Sexism – just like racism, fanaticism, terrorism, extremism, and many other -isms – is not okay. I hope we can all agree on that. Instances of it in real life should be treated seriously, quickly, and severely. In the end, though, all of the -isms are about forcing your point of view upon others. Acting as though your way of thinking is implicitly correct, and the behavior and beliefs of others that differ from yours are thus incorrect and should be silenced. Sometimes this is appropriate, other times it is not. Don’t fall into the trap of jumping on the censorship bandwagon. People, believe it or not, are smarter than you think, and a game that includes things no one should say or do should not be shut down because you are afraid that it may encourage others to say or do them. Will simpleminded sexists buy this game, and enjoy it because it reinforces their preconceptions? Yes, and that is unfortunate. But it will also be played by people eager to laugh at its absurdity and irreverence, and by those who are after the inventive gameplay that Duke 3D pioneered. Let people make up their own minds. And trust me, if there is anyone out there stupid enough to choose Duke Nukem as their role model, the punishment will be swift, severe, and automatic. Because that mindset and that personality simply doesn’t fit into real society.