I love fanservice in my video games. I’m a fan, it’s a service to me, I love it! Goofy off the wall DLC, looks at alternate universe possibilities where I get to see my favorite characters in new settings, fun silly and sexy costumes for my characters, wild and overpowered weapons that allow me to carve through enemies like tissue paper? Sign me up!
Full disclosure: I tend to be a rather character focused consumer of media, I don’t care nearly as much about world building as I do about watching fun or interesting characters and how they interact with each other.
So why is it that I’m so intrinsically annoyed by so many things that are ostensibly fanservice? Well let’s start out with the elephant in the room, it’s example three “fun silly and sexy costumes for my characters” that tends to not stick the landing.
First thing we’re going to break down is what we’re talking about here: fanservice. And I’m taking no prisoners on this one: even back in 2014 women made up approximately 48% of game consumers. You cannot use the excuse of women are no longer a demographic to consider for your games anymore. If you ignore women when making your video game you are ignoring 48% of your fans. When we call something fanservice we need to really question, is this a service for all fans? Or is it a poorly thought out, lazy, toss-in?
What you hate fun? We can’t have sexy women in video games? It’s art, you’re stifling the artist’s intent.
Hold on soldier let me explain a tad further. First thing’s first: If video games are art, I’ll criticize them like art. You don’t get to have your respect cake and eat it too. Art is ingested, analyzed, discussed and if it sucks? critiqued.
But I pretty passionately advocated that video games should also be fun, so why am I so against these fun sexy ladies? It’s simple. I’m not. What I’m against is fun, sexy ladies without any representation of fun, sexy men.
How you represent people is important. Fun sexy clothes on your character isn’t necessarily a statement in and of itself but having only the female characters in ridiculous costumes changes the context. First: it places an assumption on the viewer;s preferences, anyone who isn’t attracted to women won’t receive any sort of payoff. And secondly: it adds unfortunate implications as to women’s value in the world. If your women have to be dressed sexy in order to have value in your video game but men don’t then there’s a discrepancy in their value. Women characters shouldn’t need to rely on their appearance in order to be worthy of their place in the narrative. Their spots should be earned the same way their male counterparts are, by what they add to the gameplay or narrative.
I bought Xenoblade Chronicles 2 earlier this year on the switch and I often reference it as one of my only disappointing purchases on the system. And while a significant reason I wanted to stop was because of the gameplay, I may have been more willing to power through the 20+ hour learning curve if I didn’t have to look at the ridiculous character design while doing so. Having such blatant and ridiculous design choices ruined any possibility of immersion that the (otherwise beautiful) game had.
On the other end of the spectrum is a game that does fanservice super well, and that’s Saints Row 4. Say what you like about mechanics, or story, or any number of creative choices, I have mad respect for Saints Row 4 for it’s absolute gender neutral nonsense. When people say fanservice, I think of Saints Row 4 (and Mass Effect: Citadel, but that’s more on the fun side of the fun/sexy fanservice dichotomy) You make a character and they being the game dressed identically regardless of gender. After a brief intro the sandbox opens up and then you get the freedom to dress them however you like, no rules no gods no masters. Saints Row 4 doesn’t think that women need to be dressed sexy to be in their game, Saints Row 4 thinks everyone should get to dress sexy if they want to.
By allowing players the choice between practical and silly, and having the options be available regardless of character gender, all of the unfortunate implications involved with fanservice suddenly get thrown out the window. And if video game developers are really so against creating inclusive games, it’s true that that’s their prerogative. But for as long as video games are going to be released, they’re going to be released to all the diverse people in the world. Women, Men, boys, girls and non-binary individuals, people who like women, men, both, or neither.
Video games are art, good art makes an effort to reach out to all who would view it. And video games are fun, the best of fun is had when everyone is invited.