The 1998 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), held in Atlanta this past weekend, did something completely unexpected: It began to grow up.
E3 is to the computer and video game industry what COMDEX is to the computer world -- a chance for companies to show off what's just out and what's coming up. Distributors come; small developers looking for distributors come; the media come; job hopefuls come; and celebrities come to promote new games (you could catch Gillian Anderson at the "X-Files" booth or Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar de la Hoya playing the new boxing game from Electronic Arts).
Walking the E3 floor is a lot like dropping acid and going to an arcade: Suddenly you're actually in the middle of a game universe where lights flash, game voices surround you and everything is four times as big as it should be. Companies with games to show go all out to draw attention to their booths, giving away T-shirts and prizes and setting up unbelievably elaborate booths. Konami -- promoting what was arguably the game of the show, a 3-D shooter adventure for the Sony Playstation titled "Metal Gear Solid" -- created a military embankment replete with buff men and women holding really big guns guarding the entrance and a synthesized voice warning you about the danger ahead. Some of the biggest exhibitors, Sony and Nintendo, created whole worlds inside their booths, big enough to get really lost in.
However, the vastness of the booths themselves is an indication of just how big a business games have become, how important selling hundreds of thousands of games is and how much money is at stake. This is now a $10 billion industry: hence the giant marketing push and amazing booths. But among many attendees and longtime gamers, there was a small sense of disappointment this year -- or perhaps disillusionment -- at the feeling of maturity on the march.
Growing up in the gaming world is not necessarily considered a good thing, and the number of suits seen -- not only at the show itself, but also at the related parties and events -- was cause for some consternation. Games aren't supposed to be for grown-ups.
But gamers are becoming grown-ups. Kids who spent the '80s with Mario and Donkey Kong are now heading into their 20s. Fifteen- to 18-year-olds are still prime targets for gaming companies, but the first generations of hard-core gamers, the ones who've been playing since they could push buttons, are becoming adults and entering the work force (often, of course, in the game industry in some form or another).
Even the phenomenon of "booth babes" (or "booth bimbos," if you're feeling more expressive) is experiencing some subtle shifts. As recently as last year, scantily clad women wandered the show floor, drawing attention to certain games by what they weren't wearing. And while you could hardly say there were fewer half-naked women at this year's E3, they seemed to spend more time in their booths than wandering the floor.
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One rumor had it that the IDSA (the Interactive Digital Software Association, which is responsible for the show) had regulated the traffic of the babes, limiting them to their respective booths. However, IDSA spokespeople denied any such regulation, saying simply that the association charged a fee for permission for someone to walk the floor distributing freebies, just like last year.
Not that there weren't still women in what could be construed as degrading positions -- the caged dancer gyrating while a DJ spun records, the shadow dancers at MGM's "Tomorrow Never Dies" section and the bouncing Eidos women with white T-shirts stretched so tightly across their chests that you couldn't miss their nipples. (As they flung T-shirts into a large crowd of men fixed before the Eidos booth, they shouted "Who has the best booth?" at the crowd -- but I swear it sounded like "Who has the best boobs?" I kept waiting for the three girls to line up and have the crowd judge.)
Still, some subtle shifts have occurred in the realm of games and their tortured relationship with women. Christina Kerzner of GT Interactive, the company behind the notoriously politically incorrect "Duke Nukem" games, pointed out that the woman modeling at their racing game wore a jumpsuit, and that while the ones in the "Duke" section were costumed like Vegas show girls, "at least their breasts were real."
Another longtime industry vet, a woman, offered the suggestion that the booth-babe syndrome had gotten more "sophisticated." Years ago, it was simply cute, cheerleaderlike girls handing out goodies, she argued -- but today it's matured into the frank sexuality of the Eidos girls. In her view, the star of Eidos' "Tomb Raider," Lara Croft, took the traditional video-game vixen to new levels -- she may be busty, but she's also been featured in fashion magazines, given interviews and may yet make her film debut in a "Tomb Raider" movie. Still, even Lara (animated on a video screen) and the Eidos girls stayed in their own booth -- you had to go find them.
More interesting yet, one of the greatest E3 rumors -- one that played perfectly into adolescent male fantasies -- was debunked for me this year. It's long been said that at a certain party given by a certain company, the upstairs VIP room holds a den of sin featuring prostitutes for selected press members and special friends of the company. At the party, you can actually see beautiful women upstairs, languorously sipping cocktails and gazing down with inviting eyes. As it turns out, a friend with carte blanche to enter this room at will told me there was only one difference between the upstairs and downstairs rooms: When downstairs ran out of alcohol, upstairs still had plenty. As for the women, well, apparently they just know where the good drinks are. No fantasy -- just plain old ordinary business reality.
Next year E3 is going back to Los Angeles, where the first two conventions were held back in the golden, olden days -- three and four years ago. There's a sense that the move might reinvigorate the show, bring back some youthful freshness and excitement.
Jason, a "beyond hard-core" gamer by his own account, e-mailed me a week or two before this year's show opened. He's 15, trying to start his own game magazine, and wanted advice on how to get interviews with the big guys in the industry and tickets to the parties. We corresponded for a while, planning his attack, when it suddenly struck me that his age would make it impossible for him to go to the alcohol-laden events or even get on the "You must be 18 to enter" E3 show floor.
When I pointed that out to him, he instantly replied: "I have a fake ID (even a edited birth certificate! My Dad even helped! He encouraged me! I got cool parents), not that it matters, the brochures for E3 said 'NO ONE UNDER 18 ADMITTED!' and I saw little kids, so THEY don't care about that part, I guess ... Can I sneak in [to the parties]? I'm good at that."
Maybe there's hope for E3 yet.