Intermittently Sexy

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November 21, 2012 by climagiste

Fanservice and Glimpsing in Videogames

Outside of Japan, it’s hard to find games with significant sexual content, let alone games marketed as erotic. In 2010, We Dare, a crappy Wii party game that promise spanking and striptease for consenting adults, was pulled from the North American and then British markets after outrage over its “PG” content rating. What the moral crusaders missed was that besides loading screens that gave factoids about orgasms and endorphins, the game was about as sexy as Mario Party. Whether the paucity of erotic oriented games in the English speaking world is due to Puritanical morality or technological constraints or some other reason, sex, or rather sexiness, finds its way into the videogame world through the time-honored Japanese tradition of “fanservice.”

It was always a beach day on LOST.

At first glance, the word fanservice seems to be a cooler, 21st century way to say “male gaze,” a term coined by Laura Mulvey[1] to indicate the way film presupposes a heteronormative, male point-of-view that reduces women to their body parts, objectifying and fetishizing them. Fanservice, as defined by TVTropes (the best website on the Internet) is “Gratuitous display of characters in skimpy clothing, or none at all, under the assumption that it will attract or “reward” viewers.”[2] Unlike the male gaze, fanservice allows for both female- and male-oriented desire, often taking the form of buff dudes appearing shirtless for some reason or other (escaping from scientific tests that required nudity, bombs exploding off their shirts, “It’s so hot out!”). And in a way, fanservice does subsume framing and content that typically exemplify the male gaze (butt shots of superheroines in comics, the long pan from shoe to thigh of every female character in film/TV), but the term has the potential to do more than open the possibility of the objectifying gaze to the nonhetereosexual male audience.

Keith Russell, in his essay, “The Glimpse and Fan Service,” defines the term “glimpse” as a separate but similar type of looking than the gaze. He argues that in the case of the gaze, “the object of desire is located within a dramatic tension that implicates the viewer in the appropriation of the viewed,” whereas the glimpse is “a moment of free seeing.”[3] While one could argue that the camera lingering on a woman’s breasts is taking its moment of free seeing thus objectifying her, Russell’s nuance comes from the history of anime and manga fanservice wherein the panty shot, the spread eagle, and the see-through shirt (three archetypes of so-called “male” fanservice) are not only fleeting and presented as accidental, but also not for the other characters, leading to no capitulation of desire. They are truly gratuitous and were a way for adult illustrators and animators to sneak adult themes into what was a children’s genre.[4] In practice, fanservice/glimpsing and the objectifying gaze have so much overlap that it’s messy business.

Samus waves to you once her super heavy suit comes off.

Enter Metroid, an early example of gamic fanservice. Players played through hours (less than five hours or one wouldn’t know anything is awry) of platforming action as Samus Aran, only to have her take her helmet of at the end to reveal… crazy red hair. This small reveal (and probably word of mouth) led to a more dedicated playthrough, which if completed under three hours, Samus was revealed to be a woman wearing a one-piece swimsuit, an avatar you could use instead of armored Samus. If you beat the game in under an hour, you got a glimpse of bikini Samus, who was not a playable character. The fanservice aspect of the Samus reveal is that Samus’s eroticized body has nothing to do with any diegetic, gamic, or representational concept of desire. The hair-only reveal invites fantasy and speculation more than objectification: “Could that be a woman under all that space-armor?” This kind of speculation leads away from the game and its rules and diegesis, into the realm of erotic possibility and imagination and doesn’t make its way back into the text.

Whoops, I said “text.” Cue Barthes, early theorizer of what would later be called fanservice. Here’s how he defines what is erotic in Pleasure of the Text: “it is intermittence… which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), [etc.]; it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.”[5] For Barthes, the fleeting image of possibility, the one that seduces the imagination, is very different from the clinical inspection of the human body in its nakedness. The erotic (female-oriented) imagination is fueled more by the hint that Samus is indeed a woman, embodied, sexed, beneath her armor than by seeing her fight metroids and Mother Brain in a red leotard. Barthes also dichotomizes types of pleasure we get from texts, a term which I’m going to go ahead and shove videogames into despite its akimbo algorithmic and interactive corners and protrusions. There’s pleasure—euphoric, comfortable, reaffirming culture—and there is jouissance, which is a French word for orgasm and bliss, and which Barthes aligns with the uncomfortable/pleasurable loss of the self as in ecstasy and with texts that force their audiences to question their assumptions and tastes. Though I have a problem with this dichotomy,[6] these terms may be a good way to understand how certain types of fanservice function in videogames.

Lara with her original wire frame body side-by-side with an upgraded polygon count.

For instance, in Tomb Raider, critics have pointed to Lara Croft’s gigantic boobs as evidence of sexual objectification. Fair enough, if we bracket for the moment that they look like funnels and the player doesn’t see them for most of the game since it’s in third-person POV from behind Lara, and I particularly agree that it is problematic that for sexuality of videogame avatars only comes into discussion when we get the first 3D action heroine.[7] But even as intermittent glimpses, Lara’s breasts have less erotic potential than her butterfly stroke underwater, where the gamer sees straight into Lara’s crotch as her legs open and close. The swimming scenes, though, resist the unidirectional gaze of inspection through the gameplay, which forces the player to hurry up or drown in an underwater maze. Moments like these and the constant, nearly sexual grunting of Lara’s climbing and exploring call attention to her as a sexed being, but do not encourage the player to linger. As you can imagine, Tomb Raider has inspired a lion’s share of erotic fanfiction, much more than, say, Kratos from God of War, a gnarly brute whose ripped body is on display throughout the game and enjoys sex minigames for powerups.

Fanservice for undead pirates.

While I am not arguing that fanservice, in its manifestations as glimpses, accidental exposure, “realistic” and gendered sounds and body movements, is not problematic, heterosexist, infantilizing of women, or a continuation of oppressive stereotypes, it is also not the subject/object hierarchy that is characteristic of the male gaze. It is supplementary, gratuitous, only there as a seed for imaginations. Rather than reaffirm the comfort of the diegesis and the ideologies inherent in it, these instances, weirdly, make the digital characters more bodily and have the potential to do what Barthes claims writerly texts do: confront their own subjectivity, their own desires, to separate their desires from the overdetermination of the game. This potentiality, of course, is almost always limited by the very concept of fanservice: to give fans what they want.[8] But who knows what fans want? All the cleavage and crotch-shots in the world can’t account for the rich variety of erotic scenarios fans write Lara Croft into, but it would be a good bet that almost all of these works of the imagination began with a glimpse.

[1]I’m not going to quote the most quoted article in film studies, but I will cite it: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3 (1975), pages 6-18.

[2]“Fanservice.” TVTropes, Accessed November 16, 2008. Although this is a wiki and an encyclopedia (generally considered BAD sources), this website gives a good indication of how certain terms and tropes are used in fan culture. Also, judged by yours truly, this site is for the most part smart, useful, and hella fun.

[3]Keith Russell, “The Glimpse and Fan Service: New Media, New Aesthetics,” The International Journal for the Humanities 6:5 (2008), 108.

[4]Of course, the anime and manga genre incorporated elements most American audiences would consider straight-up pornographic by the 1980s.

[5]Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 10.

[6]There are surely more ways people get pleasure out of something than the big two, and I believe that one can experience multiple contradictory pleasures at once.

[7]People talked about sexuality a few times before Tomb Raider, most notably Leisure Suit Larry, a game with cockroach-like persistence, but the lechery presented in LSL was/is played for LAUGHS in a society where womanizing is considered funny.

[8]This is more or less brilliantly subverted at the end of Tomb Raider 2, where at the end of the game, Lara, in a skimpy bathrobe is about to take a shower (classic fanservice archetype), notices the player staring at her, and says, “Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?” and shoots a shotgun at the screen. WHAT!


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