Duke Nukem is an amazing game, and it should be honored for the groundbreaking work the developers did.
It’s the 25th anniversary of Duke Nukem 3D. You knew that, right? With everything else that’s going on in the world, I’m sure you had marked this on your calendar. He was one of the iconic video game protagonists of the 90s. Maybe not as famous as Lara Croft or Solid Snake, but certainly on the list. You remember the game, even if you didn’t play it. You remember the commercials. The red shirt. The sunglasses. You remember him lifting one-liners from movies like They Live! and Army of Darkness and literally shitting down the decapitated throat of a defeated boss. You made space for all this in your brain, I’m sure, alongside your memories of Titanic and the Clinton Impeachment. Duke Nukem was a thing, maybe not the biggest thing, but a thing, and remained a thing for years to come. And now its thing-ness cannot be ignored, so here we are. God help us.
As embarrassing as it is to write “What does Duke Nukem mean in 2021?” it is a pertinent question, mainly because he’s such a clear, distilled example of a still-pervasive trend: bad-faith satire as cover for enjoying toxic masculinity. While Duke’s failure as satire and/or parody isn’t exactly news—some journalists were clear-eyed enough about this when his last game, Duke Nukem Forever, was released in 2011—his status as a forerunner to more subtle forms of masking toxicity with humor is worth unpacking. Gaming culture still does what Duke Nukem did. It’s just gotten better at hiding it.
We all know what bad-faith satire is. It’s the “just kidding!” defense for doing anything ugly or hurtful, and often involves deliberately exaggerating sexist/racist/etc. tropes as a kind of preemptive self-defense, as if exaggeration was proof of self-awareness and therefore commentary. While exaggeration alone might make something parody, satire is supposed to exaggerate for a reason. Proper satire has a political point of view and cares about whether or not its audience is actually getting its message. This is one major reason why comedian Dave Chappelle famously packed up shop when he noticed too many white people were laughing at his sketches about race for the wrong reasons. Even though it wasn’t his fault, he did care enough to adjust his output so he didn’t contribute to a larger ecosystem of toxic meaning. This is the opposite of what we so often see, which is creators knowingly profiting off their ironic work being taken unironically. At that point you’ve just become the thing you are criticizing, assuming your criticism was even genuine to begin with.