I like LA.
I’m no Randy Newman, who professes a melodic love of the place. Rather, I’ve grown to appreciate Los Angeles, even as I look out on the street and see an urban civilization dying, one homeless drug zombie at a time.
Come to LA early on a foggy Sunday morning and you can see it, too. Downtown Los Angeles only compares favorably to places even more bleak and empty, like downtown Phoenix. No one lives here. And the people that commute in during the week to work here are exiles, looking forward to leaving as soon as possible. So, you never come to the nominal center of the massive SoCal megaplex expecting much. There’s a bunch of office buildings, the Lakers play in the Staples Center down the street. And this is where they put the convention center.
I came here, once again, to attend a convention.
For the 10th year in a row, I’ve tossed aside other responsibilities to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo. For the past eight years, E3 has put on its call girl circus of marketing come-ons and sultry promises in an effort to woo videogame buyers and press. And, by and large, it works. We show up the Sunday before the expo spreads her legs. We flock here on an annual pilgrimage and help make E3 into one of the most successful industry commercials ever. Maybe the Super Bowl does a better job in its ability to sell product in guise of sharing news.
Wandering the streets of early morning LA stokes a love/hate relationship that would fill a season of Oprah. From the scabby man blocking the door to the bathroom in Starbucks, to the white Rasta kid toking up in front of Macy’s and screaming at some hobo incoherently, to the three city blocks cordoned off for some film shoot, LA is like a cancer patient that just keeps going to work. “What else am I gonna do? Just sit at home and die?”
George Romero shot Dawn of the Dead in Pennsylvania. But he could have saved money on extras and just filmed the whole lurching masterpiece in downtown LA.
I’m here because of E3, and E3 lives in LA for what might seem like an obvious reason. One of the major power centers of game development and publishing, Southern California provides a magnet for people with digital stories to tell, entertainment to shill.
Eight years ago, the whole sultry shebang moved to Georgia for two years. The suits behind the decision explained the relocation in terms of needing more space and something to do with making it more convenient for the Europeans because, technically, Atlanta is closer to the old country than California.
And while I’m sure Georgia has its charms, they don’t include providing a place that game people want to be. That’s why the whole tawdry mess was shipped back to LA, where it started. Because, like LA itself, the game business feels like an unhealthy entity kept alive by a bubbling mad scientist’s cocktail of dreams, greed and a vaporous aroma of the future.
LA is fantasy, to be sure. But, maybe just as important, LA is the city of hope.
Every once in a while, I pick up my copy of Lester Bangs‘ madness and read a little. I’m not so much looking for tips on how to put more “new” in my journalism as much as I like to get a feeling for what it’s like to be really, crazy, passionately in love with something. Rock ‘n’ roll broke Lester’s heart because he loved it so much. And I think the reason why is that he was there, man. He was there when it all happened. And he was young. Rock changed everything and he wanted it to keep on mattering. He got older, but he wanted to stay young. He never lived to see a creaking The Who smirk as they sing “I hope I die before I get old,” or to marvel at a geriatric Sir Mick Jagger strutting in front of NFL fans crowing about his general lack of satisfaction. Rock grew up; Lester couldn’t, and it killed him.
At least, that’s my theory and the base of my sympathy with Lester’s prose.
I don’t think attending E3 will kill me. I don’t think I care enough. Really, I just wonder why I despise this event so much and why I hate myself for going year after year.
Like every really screwed up relationship, this takes some explaining.
From what I can tell, there are two big groups of people at E3: those that fundamentally love it and those that either dread or despise it. If people are honest, you can break down these groups into the people that have been only a few times and the people like me, who have trudged out year after year. I suppose you could say familiarity breeds contempt, and this wouldn’t be a bad clich
I don’t think you can see how ugly this is until you’ve been to the show a few times, maybe 10 times. It takes a while to see your part in the machine and wonder why you’ve been doing it. It’s like waking up after 20 years in a dead-end job or a lifeless marriage and wondering whether its more noble to just stick it out or to face the embarrassment of admitting you should have moved on sooner.
Or maybe it’s a deep down, dark and sticky love.
Look, not every day in every relationship is a beautiful thing. You can’t make your choices about the rest of your life based on an argument about who left dirty socks on the bathroom floor. Or, as a guy who I used to work with who always managed to avoid conflict said, “You got to choose your battles. You can’t win them all.” It’s practical advice. It’s also shorthand for the deeper truth, that some things are just worth sticking with, no matter how you feel about them in the moment.
That’s the other side of E3. Somewhere behind the four-story promotional banners and eardrum-crushing multimedia, smiling temptresses waving you toward games they can’t play and the seemingly endless river of booze, you’ll find the games. And if you concentrate on the games, the crazy retail patter with men wielding guns like cocks and women promising sex and death with every play, well, you’ll find a little bit of redemption. People hate me for pulling out Matrix metaphors because they see the film as a cheap looting of science fiction in an effort to sell a lightweight S&M fantasy. But you can’t look at E3, I mean really look at E3, and not see that dribbling green Matrix type.
We get used to looking at images on our screens and seeing Dodge Vipers and orcs, breathtaking landscapes and wookies. They don’t look real, but we like to think of them as if they were. In the same way, we have happily digested the idea that games are just a business, so all the soapbox puffery and marketing confetti-throwing is to be expected. In our world, lightsaber battles to the death are meaningful and good games exist to make money. What we keep missing is the idea behind it all. We keep forgetting that, well, here it goes again with The Matrix, “There is no spoon.” Except, there is a spoon. And E3 is spoon-fest.
Sitting in the musty lobby of my hotel, waiting for lights of the big show to start their blinding strobing, I can see LA is dying. But the idea of LA continues to go on in spite of this. I like LA because I grew up watching television and movies, and to my mind, the world is LA. Every cop looks like one of the guys from CHiPs, every doctor is either Barnaby Jones or Quincy and my editor is Lou Grant (if Lou Grant grew a mustache and wasn’t morbidly obese). When the sun sets in my town, I can only reflect that it looks like the sun setting over Hollywood.
LA the city will die; maybe it already has. We can’t tell because the idea of LA lingers – or echoes – or maybe it’s just painted so thickly on the urban fa
Videogames come to worship at the shrine of LA because they share a lineage, some of the same genetic stuff. What makes the game industry matter, and matter in spite of the obvious corporate evils of sweatshop work schedules and amoral content programming; what makes it matter in spite of the overwhelming number of young men who make and cover games, and have no sense of style, or history or purpose; what makes games matter even in the face of fans who defend the medium’s supposed virtues while dropping away from personal meaning and purpose to pretend to be an elf night after night; what remains is the central fission of the digital medium. All that code that makes all of those games go, that makes trees grow and suns set, cars roll and bullets fly, dragons soar and childlike men jump from box to box, is this plastic, sticky medium of the computer, the substrate of ideas.
Inside the computer, there is no difference between a rape and a rescue, between saving a life and taking one. It probably seems cheap to say this, because it sounds like you end up trivializing the notion of games. The point is, you can’t find right and wrong in the code. It’s not there. It doesn’t parse, as the programmers would say. You have to find that yourself. You have to invent it with the machine.
That’s what I love. I get hot and my heart beats faster to think about all those people, all those gamers – me – getting sucked into this vortex of living proto-meaning. It’s like holding the secret stuff of life in your hands. Games are the Silly Putty of philosophy.
I know, I know. WTF? How could you spin something as trivial as videogames into something so big? You big faker.
All I can say is that’s probably true. I like LA. But I love videogames. I just have to remember to forgive them for the little things and keep in mind what started this love affair in the first place, that craziness. Those happy times when E3 didn’t really matter, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t see the flaws and blemishes. Those feelings might not be torrid any longer. That happens. But real love remains. It lingers.
David Thomas is the founder of the International Game Journalists Association. He also provides commentary and criticism at buzzcut.com.