It’s a Thursday night, and in a dimly-lit pub function room in Leytonstone I’m watching Princess Peach peel off her garters and toss them to a baying crowd. Her iconic pink gown and parasol were lost a long time ago and, by the time she leaves the stage, she’s down to just a pair of nipple tassels and a tiara.
This is the world of video game burlesque, where performers bring to life the fantasies of salacious gamers across the world. Those on stage take on the persona and trappings of beloved video game characters, before stripping down to their birthday suits. This evening’s entertainment is organised by ‘Show Me Your Moves’, a video games burlesque night with a growing fan base in East London set up by Alexandra Davis of Helles Belles Burlesque.
Photo credit: Helena Exquis
Alex has been in the burlesque business for half a decade now, and in that time it has become clear to her that in an increasingly crowded scene you’ve got to find a niche or a hook if you want to stand out. Growing up in the era of the N64 (she says her first crush was on Miles ‘Tails’ Prower) and subsequently becoming interested in the burlesque scene, the combination of these two great loves seemed obvious. “For me video games are about doing something different, having fun, taking yourself into a new situation,” Alex says, aspects she feels burlesque shares.
Alex’s previous troupe mates, however, “just didn’t see it.” How could you marry what some perceive as the infantile world of video games with the erotic revelry of burlesque? Alex stuck to her guns however and has managed to put together one of a growing number of burlesque nights on both sides of the Atlantic celebrating the titillating and erotic in video games.
The crowd at tonight’s show is a mixture of devoted fans, intrigued gamers, and more than a few punters off the street who seem to have been lured in by the more risqué elements of a burlesque night. As you might expect, gamers don’t initially make for the most boisterous of crowds, and burlesque can be daunting for most, but making her audience feel at ease has always been at the core of Alex’s thinking.
She tells me how in her experience burlesque had always "created an idea of us and them. You sit in your chair and we perform". It’s clear that the people behind Show Me Your Moves aren’t taking themselves too seriously. But they're good at what they do.
Lady Blue Phoenix had an award-winning routine before joining the group, and now that she has adapted it to a Grim Fandango theme it has earned praise from no less than Tim Schafer himself. There’s room for newcomers too; it’s Fingers McGarraty’s first time, although you wouldn’t know that given the aplomb with which they throw themselves into their routine, stalking the stage in a homemade Bomberman costume.
The feeling of this being a show that’s still homemade does mean it’s not the slickest, but it’s certainly welcoming and that’s reflected on stage by a diverse group of performers in race, gender, and body type – it’s obvious that performers and the crowd feel comfortable here.
Photo credit: Helena Exquis
Although burlesque and video games might at first seem to be strange bedfellows they’re better suited than it may seem. Burlesque has always been about the joy of subversiveness, while finding the erotic in video games is not exactly an unknown phenomenon. As Alex says, the secret of the night's success is that “with fanfics and slashfics the erotica is already there. People are horny for this stuff, so why not give it to them?” Sex has been entwined with the games industry from its earliest commercial days. Studios were producing erotica games as far back as the early 1980s and the presence of highly sexualised figures — almost entirely female, admittedly — has been a constant for decades.
In more recent years though, gaming subcultures have brought alternative sexualities to the fore of nerd culture whether studios want that or not, rewriting the rules of what is permissible. Overwatch has become synonymous with its fanbase’s willingness to 'ship' characters (imagining they're in a relationship and creating works about it) with many of these pairings focusing on queer sexualities. At the other end you get the co-option of the cast of Sonic the Hedgehog into furry culture, which has led to a marked increase in the number of explicit images of Big the Cat circling the internet.
What is it that makes video games such fertile ground for erotic fantasy? Alex’s theory is simple and persuasive: "when you get to know something, you just get to fancy it."
When I put the same question to Bez, of Bomberman fame, their response is rather more philosophical. They compare their first time on stage in a burlesque show to their first time exploring the inverted castle of Symphony of the Night: “video games are all about the possibilities, turning things on their head and letting us dream. Burlesque is an extension of that. It brings that sense of exploration into the real world.”
It feels like there's a truth there. For generations of gamers who have grown up with Mario and Link, we're rarely more comfortable then when in their presence. The familiarity and lack of consequences found in video games makes them reliable companions, sources of encouragement that make us feel awesome and important whatever's going on in the rest of the world. Nights like this have many aspects: for some, it may simply be a safe space to escape from the grind of daily life. For others, it might just be a good night out with a touch of titillation. Whatever it means to any one audience member or performer, the evening grants everyone the freedom to explore — or at least watch.
For the performers and patrons of Show Me Your Moves, there's a sense of ownership with these characters. Decades spent with the likes of Manny Calvera or Bomberman allows them to use those personae to explore sexuality in a fashion that may otherwise have seemed too intimidating. For those whose sexualities have historically been maligned and marginalised, this chance to explore their desire through fan fiction and erotica is even more crucial, something the wider games community should embrace and encourage.
Then again, maybe it all comes down to simple urges.
“If they want to fuck a Pokémon," laughs Alex, "why not let them have it?”