“Always Bet On Duke To Represent Gaming”: Duke Nukem Forever and Representation in Videogaming

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on July 04, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , ,

‘Always Bet On Duke’ has been the catchphrase of one of gaming’s most iconic and controversial heroes: Duke Nukem. Duke’s reputation of ‘kicking alien asses’, making tongue in cheek jokes, and encountering ‘babes’ has split opinion in both gaming and the wider world of media: childish, tasteless and downright offensive or clever comment on the relationship between gaming and political correctness? Either way, Duke’s humour has been enduring and endured for over eleven years; the time between the releases of Duke Nukem 3D in 1996 and near-eternally delayed Duke Nukem Forever in 2011.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the content of Duke Nukem Forever. This has given rise to much criticism, some of it standard, and some of it surprising. There is one particular trend in the recent criticism of the game which I am going to focus on, and which somehow unsettles not only the wider media, but also the gaming industry, and gamers themselves: the game’s representation of women and its attitudes towards sexual violence against them. In a continuation of the attitude of the non-gaming press, Duke Nukem Forever has become another target of the mainstream for its violence, bad language, and its sexual content. While the gaming press and gamers tend to take an objective and unbiased approach towards the issue of non-sexual violence and cursing in games (nobody in this group seemed to bat an eyelid at the ‘No Russian’ airport scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, or the expletive-ridden dialogue of Grand Theft Auto 4) their reaction to Duke Nukem Forever’s depiction of topless pole dancers and, in particular, women captured by aliens, impregnated and restrained in alien cocoons initially seemed as knee-jerk and short-sighted as anything that the mainstream press could produce.

For example, the staff of normally unbiased online videogame news and reviews site GameCentral harshly penalised Duke Nukem Forever in their review, saying that the game’s violent, offensive attitude towards women, its depiction of their capture, impregnation by the game’s alien antagonists, and imprisonment in their cocoon holdings (a suggested torture that only the player can end with a shot to these womens’ heads), contributed to the two out of ten score meted out. Perhaps this content had more sway over GameCentral’s review score than any of the other negative elements of the game, both moral and technical; many other games that the site has reviewed have had equal levels of shooting and swearing to Duke Nukem Forever, and equally bad game design, graphics and animation. Similarly, Ben Sprague’s blog post on 1up.com, You’re F^&ked Babe! Duke Nukem Style!: Alien Rape and Merciful Murder!, strongly suggested that the women in this scene were being tortured by their cocoon holdings, drawing parallels with the tentacle rape sometimes depicted in Japanese Hentai. The (strongly argued) general consensus amongst gamers playing through this section of Duke Nukem Forever is that it is offensive and sickening, and more so than the non-sexual violence and cursing that is more commonly found throughout the game. It seems that the representation of sex, sexual violence and women in gaming are inextricably linked, and as problematic as that is in both Duke Nukem Forever and other games, it points to a wider and deeper problem of their representation within the gaming industry which many gamer reactions overlook.

Even in this section of the game, Duke Nukem Forever employs Duke’s trademark humour that was the crux of his character in 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D. But his humour falls flat, and his quips of “sorry babe, it’s better this way” and “not even I can save you now” uttered if the player chooses to dispatch the cocooned women seeming out-of-character with his earlier gung-ho taunting of enemy extra-terrestrials. While cocooned women played a part in Duke’s earlier game, Duke Nukem Forever’s embracing of current generation graphics and animation, plus its foregrounding of a relatively minor feature of the previous game to cash in on its now-decade old brand of humour, makes it far harder to obfuscate the issues it inadvertently raises and backtrack from the realms of bad taste. Graphically and through gameplay, the babes draw far more attention than they did before, and at one point, two of them form a literal barrier which can only be removed if they are killed by the player or left to fatally give birth to the aliens they are impregnated with. While the game forces the player to encounter them, it also forces upon this encounter a high degree of non-interactivity, and the babes rarely acknowledge the player’s presence except when making bad jokes about their situation (“I thought it was okay to swallow!”). In a game where player interactivity with pinball machines, one-armed bandits, weightlifting equipment and all manner of environmental features is prevalent, the fact that player interaction with the babes is denied makes their very inclusion in the game seem all the more out-of-place. (In the Nintendo 64 version of Duke Nukem 3D, the babes could be rescued from their cocoons, whereupon they would be teleported out of the environment, presumably to safety.) Furthermore, in this area of Duke Nukem Forever there are, as named by its developers, ‘wall breasts’: alien mammary-like features which Duke can slap to gain ego boosts (the game’s equivalent of player health). These are included, according to the developers “since most girls don’t like it when you slap theirs”. This non-interactivity and inability to initiate dialogue with the babes inadvertently renders them in Duke Nukem Forever as the source of serious controversy rather than as its humorous foil, where the very absence of their subjectivity created in an attempt to sidestep controversy is instead filled with player readings and misreadings of the game. This has, I think, resulted in players accusing it of representing torture and rape because no meaningful representation exists or is allowed to exist in choices and actions of a player as an alternative.

This is, I believe, Duke Nukem Forever’s biggest crime against what its strongest critics are calling taste and decency. It seems as if this game and the gaming industry it represents is caught between completely excluding female representation, and fully developing it to create clearly interpretable female characters with fully realisable relationships with and within their surroundings. Sadly, these such representations in gaming are, at the moment, in the stark minority. In an industry that strives ever more for technical proficiency, graphical realism and player interactivity, such irresponsibly under-developed representations of women, and their token use in a violent action-oriented plot will not pass as humorous or inoffensive. Rather than get bogged down in the much-sensationalised controversy, however, the gaming industry needs to learn from it and understand that gamers themselves do not wish to have these unhealthily half-way representations forced in front of them, just as it does not need the storm of controversy that such representations attract.

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