Tuesday, May 22, 2001

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Boobs and Rubes: The soft-porn fixation embarrassingly displayed at computer gaming's biggest convention, E3, is dooming the $6 billion industry to the nerd-geek ghetto.

God_lot

(Originally published in Salon here)

May 22, 2001 | LOS ANGELES -- A blond in a G-string has got herself contorted 15 feet above this city with her ass bent so far back behind her, she can fit her head straight through. On the ground below her, several hundred young men, all members of a multibillion-dollar media industry, hoot and cheer at her porn pole gymnastics. Milling around them, in this square of asphalt dubbed the Promised Lot, the promotional site for a Texas computer game publisher known as GOD, are additional women in leather butt-floss and little else, even more women dressed in cock-tease Catholic schoolgirl outfits and a squad of dwarfs in orange jumpsuits.

Welcome to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the annual showcase for the latest in computer and video gaming. And if you're wondering what a stripper's sticky business on a steel pole has to do with video games, well, then you haven't been paying attention to just how big -- and sleazy -- a boy-toy party the computer gaming industry has become.

Enjoying its third year here, E3 2001 comes at a wildly transitional period for the interactive entertainment industry. Hardly exempt from the NASDAQ crash, major game publishers have brought the machete down on thousands of jobs, while smaller companies are consolidating even before the blood dries. (Indeed, E3's showroom floor, while just as sprawling and sensory overloading as last year, has scaled back slightly.) Meanwhile, an insane amount of lucre has been marshaled for the next battle in the game console wars. Sega's Dreamcast may be no more, obliterated by Microsoft's plans to spend $500 million to promote the Xbox, but there's still Sony's PlayStation 2 to contend with, not to mention the Cube, the next generation console from Nintendo. L.A.'s the place where those high stakes will be gambled, and to a certain extent, based on the buzz generated here, the victor will be decided.

But the industry has also decreed that E3 will be the place where you should pose with a woman in a tight skirt in front of a monster truck. Computer gaming may well be a burgeoning new medium growing in prominence and economic leverage, but E3 itself is proof that the industry is still flailing about for respect and general acknowledgment. The hypesters can try all they want to market gaming as a cultural force destined to overtake Hollywood, but the industry's dogged unwillingness (or inability) to join the mainstream right now is about as obvious as a too-big silicone tit stuffed into a too-small T-shirt. Boys will be boys, after all -- you have to wonder if the pandering is really holding gaming back, or if it's just what these hormonally supercharged teenagers deserve. Whatever the case, mainstream cultural credibility is still a long way away: This year's E3 was a snapshot of an industry stuck in the geek ghetto, with little hope of breaking out.

Gaming advocates are wont to prop up their mainstream legitimacy by trotting out yearly sales figures -- the press packet provided by E3 sponsor IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association) claims $6 billion in 2000, nearly twice that from five years ago. This, they say, makes computer gaming an economic peer of Hollywood. But as a clear-eyed commentary pointed out recently, that figure is really the aggregate of PC game, video game, console and peripheral sales, all lumped into one tottering hype ziggurat that is then compared with Hollywood's domestic box-office gross. Never mind the film industry's vast ancillary markets -- cable, DVD, etc. Those billions upon billions of sales conveniently don't count.

A more accurate comparison would actually be to the $5 billion-plus porn industry. In terms of sales, the numbers are roughly equivalent. And in terms of audience -- to judge by the waves of young guys trudging glassy-eyed through Staples Center, sporting that same look of paralyzed stupor that is native to fans of both Quake III and "New Wave Hookers IV" -- they're almost exactly the same.

The confluence of porn and games was surely at its most evident on the GOD lot. Gathering of Developers was founded by exiles from iD, Ion Storm and other high-profile gaming companies on the premise that it would be the preeminent publisher for independent game studios. An admirable sentiment, but somewhere along the way, CEO Mike Wilson decided that preeminence should also involve a lot of cleavage and dwarfs. (Imagine Miramax's Harvey Weinstein promoting "Chocolat" at ShoWest with lap dancers and pinheads.) Whatever the motive, the GOD lot was packed with flesh-addled gamers gathered for the booby show -- while the GOD games themselves went almost entirely ignored.

And while the IDSA would likely condemn the excesses of the Promised Lot, which was held outside the convention center and without its sanction, GOD's white-trash sex fantasia was just a slightly more extreme form of what went on in the E3 showroom with its full approval. Sierra, for example, which first gained prominence through family-friendly adventure games, featured a trio of whip-wielding babes in rubber suits. Wholesome Nintendo, whose brand depends on games for preteens, packed its premises with a coterie of fillies in body-hugging Lycra.

All this despite no perceptible evidence that the booth bimbos actually draw attendees to the games -- GOD striptease fans aside. Consistently, on the floor of the convention hall itself, game quality was all: The largest crowds I observed were at the floozy-free Blizzard booth, gathered to play the upcoming Warcraft III; or in front of a giant video screen, hoping to catch the ultracool trailer to Metal Gear Solid II; or lined up down the hall, to watch the astounding demo of Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.

With no clear correspondence between booth babes and foot traffic, you have to wonder why they're there at all -- unless it's financed by some kind of wink-wink slush fund for gaming company executives in the throes of midlife crises. Or put there on the reasoning that the babes make their games seem, well, sexy. "After all, sex sells!" an aggressively unctuous P.R. exec suggested to me helpfully. When I asked her why sex, which has nothing to do with the game it's supposedly promoting, would make a guy plunk down $50 to buy it, her eyes went blank.

It's really the same kind of logic that enables middle-aged aluminum siding salesmen with comb-overs to think that throwing down large at a strip joint makes them sexy. (Then again, when it comes to erotic self-delusion, the average game boy is probably their peer. "I was all flirting with her and I gave her my business card," said a chunky, fish-lipped E3 attendee, proudly reporting back to his friends. "She said she'd send me some pictures, and call me.")

As it stands, the whole jig is just one disgruntled female employee away from toppling under a sexual harassment suit. Very likely, the "hostile work environment" clause of the code is fulcrum enough to bring the entire embarrassing enterprise down around the industry's ankles.

I asked a female GOD staffer how she felt about having to work among the hired babes. She insisted it didn't faze her. In her company, she told me, "we're like family, and these guys are like my brothers." Still, she's one of four females in a company of 34 -- an entirely typical gender disparity in the industry. And while the ISDA claims that 43 percent of gamers are female -- though I suspect it took some seriously creative jiggering of what counts as a "gamer" to derive that figure -- female attendance at E3 seemed closer to between 5 and 20 percent. And since most of the women who were there were merely on hand to deliver the corporate equivalent of a fluff job, that ratio is likely to stay right where it is.

It's the dearth of women, among other things, that consigns games to their geek ghetto, with no genuine celebrities, or pop-cult recognition outside its narrow subculture. So at E3, you're treated to the sight of hot young developers swaggering across the floor, tricked out in pimp daddy raiment and boy-band hair, whose only groupies are mouth-breathing dudes in "Akira" T-shirts.

The game industry could really use a new generation of photogenic, media-friendly auteurs to join elder statesmen like Shigero Miyamoto, Warren Spector and Peter Molyneux, men who've finally managed to eke out a thread of mainstream acknowledgment. But that optimistically assumes there are enough young designers who are ready for the responsibility that would entail. A longtime P.R. rep recalled to me how she wanted to slide under the table when her top game-designer client made an offhand racist crack -- during dinner with a journalist from a major magazine. A creative director for a leading development team cheerfully described to me how its Q.A. team made a prostitute sport a game's logo on her body during a combination gonzo video/gangbang session. It only takes a couple of hours of floor gossip to grasp how deep the social retardation among most game developers runs -- and how not ready for prime time they truly are.

To find developers at their best, it was really necessary to get off E3's main floors. It's there in Will Wright's witty, closed-door demonstration of Sims Online, or at a talk on narrative in gaming, in which Irrational Games founder Ken Levine advises his younger peers to look for inspiration beyond their narrow sphere: "Read a book -- and something besides a fantasy novel or a sci-fi novel." Or down in the sparsely populated basement level, where an idealistic young French designer is showing off Arx Fatalis, an elegant role-playing game of crystalline beauty, hoping against hope that it can cut through the mass-market homogeneity that gaming has become. "Games should be treated as art, but they are becoming more and more like hamburger," Raphael says with a sigh, pronouncing "hamburger" as only a Frenchman can.

Finally, providing that one could rip one's eyes away from protruding bust lines, who will prevail in the console wars? Last year, I was sure that Xbox's dominance was predetermined. But now, I'd say the odds lean slightly toward Nintendo, whose games generated the best buzz -- especially Miyamoto's Pikmin, a kind of Japanese cousin to Black & White, only more accessible. By contrast, Halo, Xbox's vaunted killer app, seems like just another variation on the already popular Tribes 2 -- and, more ominously for Microsoft, features a helmet-wearing protagonist without a name, or even a face. (This in a market where identifiable personalities, like Crash Bandicoot or Mario, are key to a console's branding.) Meanwhile, Sony's strongest character, Solid Snake, is looking more brand-enforcing badass than ever.

But whatever the outcome, the victor will dominate an industry that is still grossly unprepared for the mainstream, a disreputably grab-ass, twerpy adjunct to the real media. Billions of dollars will change millions of hands, as they always have, but in the end, it won't have any impact on the larger culture going on without them outside their digitized walls. Just more money shuffled back and forth in an underground economy of lost boys.

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