(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.