It’s hard to put into words how titillating Duke Nukem 3D is to 13 year-old boys of all ages. I know; I speak from experience. There is an overabundance of violence, from blowing the brains out of an alien begging for mercy to gore exploding at the screen whenever a pipe bomb goes off. There were breasts – covered, pixilated, occasionally tasseled, and 2D – aplenty. The multiplayer feature was great (for its time), the weapons were fun, and the depth of the title (short enough in length so as not to be repetitious, but with enough extra features to encourage replay) made it super-appealing to those whose weekly allowances were measured in single-digits. To this day it features everything a hyper-hormonal young lad needs for a good time, save for a built-in box of Kleenex.
However, DN3D is not a morally upright title. Everything that makes it appealing to young men–gratuitous violence, sex, swearing, and ADD-approved gameplay–can now be viewed, objectively, as Not-So-Good things. They’re not evil, mind you, but not exactly things that’ll help one win at the game of life. It even engages in theft, in that its best catch phrases are ripped-off from other franchises. Evil Dead is bad-ass, I’ll grant you, but enough to warrant direct plagiarism? For shame.
Duke’s defenders will say that the game is satire. We shouldn’t take it too seriously because it’s obviously a send-up of similar games, films, and media. They’re right. Much worse are subtle pieces of art that glorify warrior culture as the pinnacle of human achievement or subvert human spirit, nature, gender, and growth. The lampoon is a healthy form of expression that utilizes hyperbole to reveal the excesses or ridiculousness of a concept.
Satire can’t be used as a coverall, though. The inherent problem with the format is that people will come to like it for its own merits rather than understanding it for the critiques it is making. Witness The Prince, which has been worshipped by the Mussolinis and Trumps of the world since Machiavelli penned the work back in the 16th Century. Inherent in this—and any piece of art—is the double-edged sword of expression. Art expresses that which cannot be expressed, and so must be interpreted by the audience. Should a creator be bound by the actions inspired by his work? Should the former singers of Prussian Blue be arrested for inciting to riot? Should the Beatles be vilified for writing “Helter Skelter,” motivating Charles Manson?
These are extreme examples, and I want to make sure that I’m clear: I’m not advocating for a ban on Duke Nukem 3D or any other piece of media with similar content. Far from it; if we are to have a free society with open discussions, then art like this is not only permissible but essential to the equation. Popular speech doesn’t need to be protected; unpopular speech allows for discussion and analysis.
Understanding video games as an artistic medium, therefore, requires scrutinizing things more closely. The good must be taken with the bad and analyzed if the true meaning of a piece is to be discovered. Gamers can’t have it both ways. We can’t say that video games aren’t serious so everybody should lay off, and then in the next sentence argue for certain titles to be considered alongside Nude Descending a Staircase and Citizen Kane in terms of artistic merit.
If one is willing to say that DN3D and games of its ilk are simply entertainment, then that’s a conversation worth having. It remains a fun game – seriously, buy it for a few bucks on GOG.com– and many of its features were innovative for its time; one point in the game, involving a 720 degree path embedded within 360 degrees of architecture is revolutionary in the best ways of art, utilizing a media’s strengths and limitations to their best effect. DN3D’s cousins, from Serious Sam to (arguably) FarCry, can be digested in the same way and as many feel they were intended to be: diversionary amusements.
But if real criticism is going to come into play, then let’s get down and dirty. DN3D can have its violence. It can have its swearing. It can have its vices. What it doesn’t get a pass on is the stuff that is gratuitous for its own sake. Shit by any other name smells just as foul.
- It’s not cool that the functions of women in Duke Nukem’s universe are to be saved, killed, and/or fucked (not necessarily in that order). Seriously, I shouldn’t need to have written that sentence.
- It’s not cool that Duke Nukem 3D depicts the “cops” of this universe as pigs. It is a simplistic argument that services neither side of the debate on police brutality.
- It’s not cool that steroids are treated as a power-up. Like all drugs, there are uses for steroids, but would it be acceptable to utilize morphine in a similar way?
- It’s not cool that Duke has developed a casual attitude toward destruction or torture. The ends justify the means, right?
I don’t care if I sound like I’m an old fart for saying these things. If people are going to defend the Duke or attack him without looking at context, I’ll take the middle ground. I’ll be devil’s advocate for both sides, just so long as both sides are presented. Which is what I’m really after, in the first place.
Conversation is key to winning any argument. Gamers who, without considering the context, attack those ridiculing their favorite title, console, or medium only do a disservice to themselves. Casual acceptance of “harmless” fun at the expense of thought has led to an industry that serves the base, ridicules innocence, and walks away from any self-reflection. A perfect world would have Duke Nukem 3D alongside any number of titles from different genres, but as the Duke’s descendents have flooded the marketplace, it’s time to reevaluate his place in the dogma of his medium’s growth. Truth has nothing to fear from the facts.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we have come far. Or maybe we haven’t? One last anecdote…
A long while ago, NextGen did a feature editorial article on how it was a shame that video games couldn’t be treated as mature subject matter: not just “Adults” (as in XXX), but as in “For Adults” (as in NC-17). To illustrate their point, they had a picture of a semi-nude Lara Croft being covered up by a “censored” bar held by Duke (he would have been holding her breasts, but their publishers wouldn’t allow it). Despite what the title, “Sex & Violence: Your Games Have Grown Up. When Will You?” implies, “[i]t emphasises that gaming is primarily an adult activity and that games should be permitted to capture the entire range of adult human experiences,” (source) which apparently means gratuitous sexual content, hyper-violence, and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Doesn’t anyone see the incongruity of this?
If Duke Nukem is considered one of the building blocks of adult gaming, then the industry has a long way to go.