A great many game journalists were dissatisfied with E3 this year. I enjoyed the Expo because I’ve only been to three of them and so burnout hasn’t had a chance to set in. I am also an unrepentant shooter fan, so three days of guns and explosions and neck-stabbings give me plenty of things to look at , yet I think I understand the dissatisfaction. We attend E3 to cover the news and get hands-on previews of upcoming games and very often get neither. Instead we get announcements that already leaked prior to the show and a smorgasbord of trailers and hands-off game footage we could view from our homes. The problem with E3 is that it purports to be an industry event but it really isn’t, and there’s no finer symbol of that than the booth babe.
The only way I know how to handle booth babes is to pretend they don’t exist. I find their presence embarrassing, but not in a prudish way. I’m embarrassed because I know booth babes are explicitly meant for me to stare at, because I’m a man. They’re meant to get me to hang around the booth they’re working, or to accept the noxious energy drink they’re handing out, or to take the marketing materials they offer me with a smile and a sly look. The people who hire them think a pretty face, long legs in short shorts and breasts almost popping out of a top are enough to get men to stop and gawk, and the people who are hire them are right. That’s the embarrassing part. It feels demeaning.
The most offensive thing I saw from E3 2012 was this tweet and the image it linked to. If you’re a male gamer, that’s how you are perceived as long as photographs like that can hold us all up for trial. Slovenly, mouth agape in mid-gawk as he lines up the photo, perpetuating the stereotype that male gamers are awkward, dare I say sexually-inadequate social recluses who get to look at the pretty girls but never touch them, and hence have to be satisfied with a photograph and a fantasy.
I’m so glad someone took that picture. It’s like the photograph of the woman and the sailor kissing in Times Square on V-J Day at the end of World War II. It’s iconic. I want it to go viral. Please, make a meme. Pen up a de-motivational poster. Get that image spread around far and wide so that male gamers can look upon it and I can ask them one question: Would you want to be that guy in the picture, caught on camera drooling over those two girls?
If the answer is “No,” you understand precisely where I’m coming from here. That is the image that likely leaps to mind when someone who is not into videogames thinks about the men who are. Perpetuating that stereotype diminishes all of us. And it also diminishes the videogame industry as a whole by perpetuating the idea that the audience for videogames is primarily composed of kids like the one in that picture. That’s a factually incorrect statement.
E3 is very much like Las Vegas in my mind, a dark, neon-lit playground standing testimony to the power of the almighty dollar and filled with scantily-clad women. When I first heard the round of booth babe complaints this year I mentally shrugged. I’ve come to understand the Electronic Entertainment Expo as a casino in which we see the consumer narrative sketched out for the rest of the year. E3 is about money, and sex sells, hence the booth babes and I thought I’d accepted that. But when I saw that picture I was not only offended as a man, but I also thought about the fact that E3 is supposed to be an industry event, so why was I having to look at that picture in the first place?
We have to ask ourselves who the booth babes are there for. They’re not there for journalists. Journalists don’t need booth babes to get us in the booths. Our schedules are set weeks before the Expo takes place. Businessmen don’t need booth babes to get them in the booths. Any businessman worth his salt is going to be busy as hell during E3 taking meetings or viewing products and doesn’t have time to gawk at the girls. Booth babes exist for the tourists. They exist for the fans who rush the booths looking for t-shirts and grab one of every piece of swag they can find and proudly compare their hauls on the shuttle buses back to the E3 hotels.
Booth babes are a walking, talking admission that the Electronic Software Association’s crackdown on E3 badges last year, to keep fans or others with no business at the Expo out of the event was a joke. That kid in the photo is clearly not a journalist, as no journalist would be caught dead taking that picture. He does not look like a developer or any sort of suit. E3 begins to look less like Las Vegas and more like an out-and-out circus in light of that picture.
Encouraging this circus-like attitude only leads to more behavior which undercuts any legitimacy E3 holds as an industry event. Seeing people in costume if they’re promoting a game makes sense. There were men wearing street signs with apocalyptic messages promoting Resident Evil 6, a game about zombies overrunning a city. There were people promoting Plants vs. Zombies wearing zombie costumes styled after the game at the EA press conference. But I also saw fans walking around in costume on the show floor, carrying their booth swag and hanging out with their friends. What part of the industry did they belong to?
The worst part of it is, when we wonder why more videogames don’t explore mature material and give us stories that challenge us, when we ask why military shooters can’t delve into real stories about war, when we ask why narratives are mostly hand-waves at the need for a story of some kind, we can look at booth babes and by extension the tenor of E3 as a whole as a representation of what the industry thinks we want … or what the industry thinks we can handle, both of which are demeaning towards those of us who play videogames, and men especially.
I’m made to understand that skimpy outfits were banned from the Expo in 2009. It didn’t seem to bring the show down. If that ban was lifted, one has to wonder whether the ESA wasn’t afraid that toning down the event, i.e. making it less of a circus, didn’t risk making the event less attractive for the press and whoever else’s attention E3 is meant to attract. If the ESA is truly concerned that just the videogames themselves aren’t enough to get everyone excited, then maybe the Expo’s detractors are absolutely right and it’s time to question E3’s relevance and ask who it really exists for.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.