Two weeks ago, Fox News alerted its readers to Duke Nukem Forever's "awfully sexist" treatment of women. Women's rights groups were consulted. Committees were assembled. Someone started a petition. The media began combing the history of video games for other examples of the medium's misrepresentation of women. Not surprisingly, plenty of examples were found.
It's no secret that the video game industry has long struggled with its portrayal of women. Games are often accused of being sexist or perpetrating stereotypes by celebrating male characters and depicting female characters in a limited way. Some of these charges are sound. The way a story is told usually depends on who is telling it: Video game stories are about men because they are told by men. Men have been writing stories about other men since the time of ancient Greece--the Greek myths, for example, often depict men as the subject, with women playing supporting roles as the object of desire, the giver of help, or the demon hindering the hero's progress. Many video game stories don't stray far from this same formula. How often does a video game explore themes related to family, motherhood, or female sexuality?
There is really no one to blame for this fact. Video games have always appealed more to men than women for reasons that have to do with ingrained environmental behaviors and gender roles. This set of social rules that dictate how women and men should behave in games has a lot to do with the lack of female game developers currently in the industry. It's also the reason for such things as the hesitation that some women feel when it comes to video games or the view of video games as an inherently unsocial and detrimental pastime.
However, these cultural constructs do not let video games off the hook. They do not justify the lack of strong female characters or the repeated representation of stereotypes that hark back to ancient Greece. So why then does Duke Nukem Forever not deserve to be labeled a sexist game that depicts women in a harmful way? The answer is context. Duke is probably a sexist character. I say that because no one has actually played the game in its entirety yet, so at this stage, all we can do is draw conclusions from what we have already seen and played. But let's assume Duke has the same personality in this game as he's had in the past few games with his name on it. Duke is a fictional character--he is not designed as a realistic interpretation of the male sex. You are not supposed to look at him and think, "This is how real men act in the real world." How do we know this?
Because of context: Duke mistreats everyone around him. He doesn't care for anyone except himself, regardless of age or sex. He is absurd. He is a satirical--not realistic--representation of men. Duke is a sexist pig. But Duke Nukem Forever is not a sexist game. The sexism, the absurd violence, and the caricatures of men and women are not without context. Context is important because it offers us a framework by which to judge behavior and action. Of course, not every game's context excuses its representation of women, but looking at only those scenes from the game where Duke displays sexist behavior is taking the situation out of context.
When John Lennon told a reporter from the London Evening Standard that The Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" in 1966, he was talking about the nature of religion and comparing rock and roll to Christianity. Taken out of context--as an American teen magazine did five months later--Lennon's quote saw The Beatles' music banned from radio stations, their records burned in community bonfires, and their mailboxes flooded with death threats. In Duke's case, context is paramount, as is the idea that portrayal does not equal endorsement. Duke Nukem Forever's portrayal of sexism is not an endorsement of sexism.
The game is not saying that this is how the world is, nor is it saying that this is how it should be. This is the same problem with the conversation about violent video games supposedly endorsing violent behavior. In this case, however, it is much easier to see Duke as an intentionally over-the-top character that is not meant to be taken seriously. When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita in 1955, he wasn't endorsing sexual relations between an adult male and a 12-year-old girl; the character of Humbert Humbert is a satirical representation and not meant to be taken at face value. Taken out of context, Lolita might just look like the filthy pornographic novel some thought it to be at the time.
Not everyone agrees on context. This is an important fact to consider during the classification process of video games. This process not only assumes that players are rational human beings, but it also keeps in mind cognitive development. For example, an 8-year-old child is probably not going to be able to recognize and understand irony the same way as an adult. An 8-year-old child might look at Duke Nukem and think that there is nothing absurd or ridiculous about his behavior. But that's why we have classification systems in place: to serve as a guideline for minimizing harm among those who consume the content. Ratings should not be ignored.