Back in March, Gearbox Software incited controversy by unveiling a new game mode for the revived Duke Nukem Forever: Capture the Babe. For those unfamiliar with the shooters genre of action games, it’s derived from Capture the Flag, where two teams fight to snatch their enemy’s flag and deliver it to their own. In the case of Duke Nukem Forever, the flag is replaced with a writhing woman who is likely to be scantily-clad. And to top the cake of controversy, when the Babe occasionally freaks out, the player must “give her a gentle smack to quiet her down”.
Opinions about this vary over a wide range, going from enthusiasm on end to abhorrence on the other, with several middle-ground ‘mehs’ along the way. The pro-Duke camp lauds Capture the Babe for what they see as defiance against puritanical political-correctness, or for displays of decadence and raunchy imagery. Mostly the latter. The anti-Duke camp lambastes the game for promoting violence against women and/or acts that belittle women’s worth. Of course, this being the internet after all, posts and counter-posts tend to involve personal attacks, with pro-Duke posters labeled as chauvinistic man-children and anti-Duke posters painted as over-reacting feminazis. I have a few thoughts in regards to this, but before I say anything, I want to talk about another game.
In Rose & Camellia, Reiko is the low-born widow to a wealthy family’s eldest son. Though her love can no longer protect her, Reiko stands up to her oppressive in-laws, intent on claiming that which is rightfully hers with the power of her open palm. Ladies and gents, this is a game about slapping. There are also critical slaps, slap-dodging, and counter-slapping, but the main goal of this game is to “Beat her Cheek”. A parody of the Victorian soap opera setting, Reiko struggles through her trials in her own delicate fashion:
A simple game that is entertaining in its direct approach, yet I digress. To all of you out in the internet, whether you are for or against the Duke of Nukem, do you feel the Duke’s butt-smacking of the flag-babe can be viewed in the same fashion as Reiko’s slapping of her in-laws? Duke Nukem is already set up as an all-powerful Adonis, worshiped by throngs and conqueror of everything. When he smacks someone, female or otherwise, the act both reaffirms his position as alpha male and diminishes the perceived power of whoever he slapped. Reiko’s role as the beleaguered widow is often explicit in portraying its own vulnerability and helplessness. However, Reiko turns this on its head by weaponizing the open-hand slap, empowering both herself and her opponents who fairly fight her one-on-one. The setting, the amount of apparent satire, the identity of the slapper, the identity of the slapped, and myriad other factors modify our varying judgments of the situation. In essence, a reasonable assessment of a game or anything else requires context.
Thus, I do not argue for or against Duke Nukem Forever, but instead that a reasonable argument cannot be made at this point in time. There are no screenshots of a ‘babe’ being captured; there are no gameplay videos of the mode in action. The only context we have is half a paragraph of text, and everything else is conjecture based on media of other parts of the game and from understandings of Duke’s character from earlier games. Even in the more recent screenshots, the lewdest things shown are just a pen and some chalk scribbles. Certainly, it is highly likely to be littered with raunchiness and exposed women, with the game being pretty much advertised as such, but there is nothing that demonstrates the mode itself.
I’m not wholly without opinions myself, but I do know that whatever I present now will be rather under-informed. Still, I’d like to present two ways Gearbox could dilute this controversy, or at least give it a bit more flavor:
Changing The Slapper
From the screenshots of Duke Nukem Forever’s multiplayer gameplay, Gearbox is using the ‘hordes of clones’ approach for character models. Simple and cost-efficient, but a little too surreal and lacking in variety for my tastes. However, let’s imagine a future where Gearbox lets players play as someone other than the Duke. Then, let’s imagine that copyrights no longer exist, allowing players to be a certain raider of tombs.
This would work with any female character. If a woman hoists another woman about fireman-style or deprecatingly pats that woman on the bum, then the belittling is no longer directed at all women. Not so in the case of Duke Nukem who, even if he is not intentionally chauvinistic himself, serves as an incarnation of self-absorbed chauvinism with his engorged muscles and crimson wife-beater.
Changing The Slapped
On the other hand, what about the woman-flag who is to be slapped and carted about? Again, I’m quite certain there will be little effort made in characterizing the woman, since she is intended to be a literal object who whines every so often. Get an actress to record a few lines here, get someone to design a busty hourglass figure over there, and voilà: a sexy NPC of unremarkable personality à la the hostages of iconic Counterstrike.
Now, let’s turn on the imagination again. Let’s pretend Gearbox gets cheeky, perhaps for an April’s Fools prank. Duke Nukem Forever has been out for a while and lots of people enjoy playing the multiplayer portion of it. Then, on April 1st, players log on to play a heated match of Capture the Babe and find… Marcus Fenix in a bikini. Duke Nukems everywhere must now escort a beefy man of equal machismo, with his muscular body exposed to all eyes. Evoking the same emotions that Yahtzee’s challenge to Rockstar and Sucker Punch did, players are not only tested on their reflexes, but also their precious masculinities as well. Can you imagine the butt-slaps in this context? Dare you imagine?
Personally, I don’t see any of the above happening. Duke Nukem Forever is a game about an egocentric hero, aimed partly (if not mostly) at those who adore or want to be an egocentric hero; players are meant to laugh only with Duke Nukem, not at Duke Nukem. The appeal of a cigar-chomping American hero-cliche teeming with testosterone passed me by a long time ago, and now I just see him as I do whoopee cushions and pens with breasts on them: relics of an immature childhood.