Exploitation On The Show Floor

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AN EYE OPENER TO A PROBLEM

I've just gotten back from E3, land of games and sex. Sex? More realistically, E3 is about games and the tease of sex. There isn't any commercial sex there, other than what is always available in LA I suppose. Don't forget Heidi Fleiss worked the LA market. But even without prostitutes, a lot of exploitation of women goes on right there on the show floor.

You know what I'm talking about if you have ever been to E3. The young women, usually called Booth Babes, appear in booths with two goals in mind: first, to draw men into the booth and secondly to distract the people in the booth from the products on display. Don't think that's true? Just keep reading and you'll see what I mean.

THE WOMEN THEMSELVES

You’ll never meet a more cynical group of women. In general, they’re friendly enough, answering my questions with a small amount of defensiveness (I had to begin each interview with the words, "Look, I’m not hitting on you. I’m a reporter working on a story…really.") They are not friendly enough to speak on the record, some said if they spoke up they would be fired, but they were more than willing to discuss their feelings towards the issue of using sex at trade shows to garner attention.

There are agencies around the country (the most specific example I heard was a vague "In Georgia") that make their money supplying models for trade show exhibitors. The models at E3 had all signed up for one of these talent agencies at some time in their past. Many of them made a steady income from modeling at trade shows of one sort or another. Given E3’s location is Los Angeles this year, each and every one of the young women I spoke with declared herself an actress, and was doing the modeling as a means of paying the rent until she got a break.

And pay the rent it does. One young woman who told me her acting career to date had consisted of mostly TV work as an ‘extra,’ or body doubling in a movie (having her body parts used in place of a stars when the star wasn’t actively needed) for $100 per day. At E3, they said they made enough during the three days of trade show work that they could pay their rent for the next two months. A few were willing to whisper salary figures in my head, and let me tell you it is more than most of us make in a week let me assure you.

Given those wage scales I can see why they want to remain anonymous. A model from a Kentia Hall booth told me she could use the exposure that commenting publicly for GiN would bring her, but she feared losing her meal ticket more. So we promised to keep their names a secret, and they promised to tell us what really goes on in what is starting to sound like this industry's dirty little secret.

The girls as a whole told me that working as a model at E3 is one of the easier jobs they have. The men are polite and not grabby, take more pictures than most but almost NEVER get up the nerve to ask them out (something that is frowned upon by the girls and their agencies).

And the worst shows on the trade show circuit? According to the girls they most hate sales and marketing shows that take place in night clubs. Dressing in skimpy clothes and passing out free drinks while surrounded by drunken sales weasels becomes a challenge between needing money and being raped.

Early on the first day of E3, one young women told me she’d been given a difficult time by the person managing her booth because her nipples weren’t staying hard enough in her outfit. None of the others girls I talked with could top that story, but universally I was told that there wasn’t anything surprising about it happening. The general sense I got was that the models were not at all pleased nor surprised by such statements, but chalked it up to doing what’s necessary to earn their living.

One question I asked each woman I interviewed was, "Do you feel it’s demeaning or objectifying to women?" Most didn’t think so, or at least didn’t think it was any worse than the normal roles available for young women in the movie and TV world. The most telling comment I got was, "I’ve been doing this for so long I’m numb. But, if I think about it, yes, yes it is strange." Then, her break over, she cupped her breasts ("so they’ll sit higher" she told me) and trudged back to her post.

THE MEN WHO HIRE

I understand what motivates the companies that use these young women. They need attention from the conference attendees — and young, buxom women are an easy way to get people into their booth. Never mind that if a car dealership did this sort of bait and switch someone would go to jail. The best thing I can say to the men who gravitate towards these women like loadstones to a magnet is: Gentlemen, I've talked to more of these women than you could ever hope to, and none of them are going to even date you, much less give you any action.

And bait and switch is really what it comes down to, isn't it? When CDV has women in leather bikinis (with whips for God's sake) literally roping men into their booth, why is there an assumption that the men are at all interested in CDV's products? If the product is strong enough, even in as crowded a marketplace as the game industry, shouldn't firms have the confidence that they'll succeed?

In any market excessive publicity stunts and advertising only serves to make those who know marketing aware that there is no real difference in the products available to the consumer. The products that CAN compete based upon their quality DO so. They have no need to exploit young women to promote their products because the marketplace will find them.

The truly innovative material at E3 didn't resort to cheap gimmicks, it just quietly picks up coverage through the media and gains market share. Companies with products that can't compete on their merits (akin to the automobile and beer industries and their mammoth ad budgets) are forced to rely on pushing farther and farther outside the bounds of good taste to garner attention for their games.

So what does that say about Gathering of Developers?

Without a doubt, GoD was the farthest thing from good taste at E3. Not only did they have attractive young women walking around in jeans that exposed their buttocks, but they had strippers (their term, not mine) dancing on stage and climbing poles using only their thighs.

Then, just to make this really over the top, these women (the guys on stage called them angels) would take a giveaway t-Shirt, rub it on their breasts or crotch, or lick it seductively. They would then incite the crowd of mostly young boys (though you had to be 21 to get in, so I suppose they were technically men) to riot while throwing out the shirts. Minor scuffles did break out in the crowd. Add to that midgets on stage with condom-filled hats, trailers parked all around, free beer and food, boxing nuns that fought and then stripped and a lesbian couple kissing on the big screen and you have all that is wrong with society. You also have GoD Games' pitiful cry for attention.

Shall I infer that there's absolutely NOTHING that GoD is going to publish this year that will have an impact on the marketplace based upon its own merits? Instead GoD is going to ramp up the marketing push to generate the appropriate buzz to move copies to the consumers? What's next, GoD, hookers and blow to 16 year olds with every box?

Not every company resorted to girls in tight pants to sell games. Her Interactive was showing off their fifth Nancy Drew title at the show, Treasure in the Royal Tower. Her Interactive took a more subtle marketing approach at the show, letting the content speak for itself. And officials said the approach worked because even the hardcore gamers would come up and play the titles, often asking about the suitability of the game for their sisters, daughters or nieces. When asked about the use of scantily clad women at the show by other companies Her Interactive officials said they have seen it all before.

"That style of marketing has worked for boy gamers over and over again," said Megan Gaiser, president of Her Interactive. "But for us, the games are good and we let them sell themselves. For us, content is queen."

Granted, Her Interactive is going after a different market, but they seemed to have no trouble getting people to check out their titles. And when folks left the booth, they knew what they had seen and what they were interested in buying after the show. The only girl they remembered was Nancy Drew.

"Nancy Drew is smart, gutsy, resourceful, clever and ultimately successful," said Gaiser. "Nancy Drew is someone we can look up to, and we are helping to bring girls to the computer at age 10, when they normally start to drift away from it. The game is for girls, but is not girly. We are very un-Barbie."

But most companies were not interested in showing off the content of their games. Sex sells I guess. I've just given GoD a couple of paragraphs worth of coverage due to the company's pavilion outside the convention center. Mission accomplished, cynically enough, but at what price? On the face of it, the exploitation of women is a bad thing.

Yes, I'm happy the girls are being paid well, but I think the price paid in reinforcing the treatment of women as exclusively objects of sexual gratification is too high for the gain. How about these firms try to drop some of their marketing budget towards the development of better, more innovative and ground breaking games?

FANBOYS FEED THE FIRE

There's a certain something about humans acting as a group. It can be the best thing (Tiananmen Square) or the worst (the LA Riots). But either way, when crowds of people gather wondrous or disastrous things can occur. From what I saw at E3, we're trending towards the worst.

In his pre-show media briefing, IDSA president Doug Lowenstein, in an attempt to show the broadening demographic base for the computer games industry, told us that 39 percent of gamers were now women.

You couldn't prove it by the crowds I saw at E3. Yes, there were women there, but the vast majority of them were exhibitors. If 39 percent of the fanboy gamer types there were women, they were hiding in some sort of underground bunker scared to come out and face the hormone-drenched incited-to-riot hordes of men sent over the top by the models.

You see, I don't BELIEVE that 39 percent of gamers are women. Further to that, the exhibitors I spoke with don't believe it, and the models ABSOLUTELY don't believe it. The people who are playing, the media who are covering, and most people who are making games are male. Face it. No amount of spin is going to change that fact.

If 39 percent of the gamers in the United States were female, wouldn't it be logical that we'd see at least SOME beefcake running around in loincloths screaming like Tarzan beating their chests? But I saw a grand total of two men filling the ‘model' role at E3. And both of them were passing out magazines before the exhibit hall opened on the first day, and cleared out immediately. The only other men there were either celebrities (Colby, from survivor, or some WWF wrestlers) or they were dressed up in huge ‘character' outfits that wouldn't let you know there was an actual person inside.

So it's women being models (read that: sex objects) for men at E3 and nothing else. It is mostly younger men drooling over the girls. The older guys on the exhibit hall floor are mostly high enough in the corporate food chain of their firms that they don't have the time to browse the floor looking for unapproachable women to lust after.

These young men could be found anywhere the women were. Whether it's getting their picture taken with the Everquest Elf Babe, chatting up the Aquanox twins or talking firearms with the DreamGun camo-clad girls, there they were, falling into the trap that had been laid for them. Taking pictures of women they'd never dream of talking to in real life and trying to chat them up was some sport.

Even at that, when confronted with really aggressively decked out girls, like the aforementioned CDV bikini team, or the strippers from the company that I shall not name again, the boys (not men, these children were never men) mostly stand and gape or take pictures. It's only a small amount who ever get up the nerve to approach these women. Female sexuality is an intimidating thing to young men, unknown and unknowable.

It's far safer for them to stand back and let others take the chances than risk being put down themselves. They protect their egos by standing off and claiming they would NEVER go out with a slut like that. But they never think of the fact that, by even being drawn into this sort of thing, these young men are surrendering themselves up to the manipulations of powerful corporations (I almost said Corporate America there, but too many Korean and Japanese firms participated).

As for the boys who DO get up the nerve to talk? The ones who tried to dance with the strippers or give their business card to a model? What can I say? They have no chance. They should be bright enough to know they have no chance. What is wrong with them that they don't realize that? Don't the guys with MEDIA on their badges know that the only reason the women are paying attention to them is that exact same MEDIA badge? I know it's funny to say things like, "I just want to be used by her" but it degrades both the user and the used to participate in this sort of thing.

HARMING THE INDUSTRY

I can hear the question now, "You're just spoiling the fun! Shut up man! Who are we hurting?" You're hurting those girls, you're hurting this industry, and you're hurting me.

You hurt the girls by contributing to their ever decreasing opinion of (and cynicism towards) men. One might think that all women are already completely jaded about men, but mostly we're joking. What we're generating here is a group of women who are constantly having their noses rubbed in the fact that men see them as nothing other than sex objects. Have you ever once even tried to meet one of these girls in a non-come on setting? I did and I found that like all people (and that's what they are: people. Not Booth Babes, not Demo Damsels, not Software Sluts) they have their pluses and minuses, their good and bad points. Most of the ones I talked with were easy to sympathize with and were friendly once they knew they could let their guard down a bit.

But the boys drooling over them, taking their pictures and being influenced by them literally see the women as nothing other than sex appeal in high heels.

You hurt the industry because it takes attention away from the true creativity and fun of making and playing games. That's what it's supposed to be about, right? But now I'm spending 2,000 words discussing gender inequity in the industry instead of talking about how cool some new toy will be in the next six months. And there are many cool items that will be coming out over the course of the year. But instead I'm distracted by the injustice of distracting me with the girls rather than the games.

And it harms me. It angers me when I see a man with a MEDIA badge pointing it out over and over to a girl in a feeble attempt to impress her. Being in the media is a profession. I run an online magazine about games, nothing else. Everyone with a MEDIA badge should be there as a professional. By attempting to leverage that into getting lucky (and I saw several trying) all they're showing is that they have nothing even remotely resembling journalistic ethics. And if it influences their coverage (Ooo"this Company had beautiful babes! I LIKE their game!) they should be in some other line of work. More than one man asked me NOT to take his picture with the models so his wife wouldn't find out, and if that doesn't make my point I don't know what does.

President Lowenstein asked the media to end the stereotype that only teenage boys play computer games. I submit that perhaps the best way to accomplish this is by cleaning up E3. Real media types are more influenced by what they observe than by what someone says. If a person says that games are mostly played by normal, family-type gamers – not teenage boys – and turns around to see a circus of beautiful women pulling young men into booths using whips and wonder bras, what do you think they are going to believe is the truth?

E3 should be about innovation. It should be about the games. Lets make sure that the very thing E3 is supposed to promote is not lost in a fury of silicone and peep shows.

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