In Defense of ‘Booth Babes’ at E3 (Sort Of)

By | 3 years ago 

If you are an avid gamer and follower of all things E3, you may have noticed a lot of post-conference articles from gaming journalists condemning the show. It seems to be a yearly exercise in naval gazing with one of the major complaints being the existence of the “booth babe.”

For whatever reason, this argument has been especially en vogue this year, reaching a new apex of contempt amongst many of the most “seasoned” gaming journalists.

At Game Rant, we generally try to avoid becoming involved with faux controversy and stick to gaming news, reviews, and previews, but the public focus and condemnation of the show as prepubescent male fantasy run amuck because it had models dressed provocatively is mindboggling. Especially when one considers this is not a new phenomenon and exists throughout the entertainment industry.

Because of “booth babes,” E3 now apparently needs to be fixed, killed, or labeled a non-industry event. Articles have noted how offensive “booth babes” are to women, how they potentially damage business opportunities, why they reinforce the immature gamer stereotype, and how they offend even some males’ sensibilities. Some journalists speak of the dehumanization and objectification of women and their horror and revulsion that they and “normal female gamers” have to endure such an experience.

All the while, these same journalists continually use the term “booth babe,” a clearly sexist and derogatory phrase that implies the individuals in question are merely objects that offer nothing beyond their looks, and they criticize those individuals who clearly have no problem with the presence of models.

Booth babe E3 2012

The power of "booth babes" in action.

One such respected writer wrote an opinion piece about the potential loss of business due to publishers’ use of booth models. The research upon which he mainly relied came from the ESA annual fact sheet, which stated in general terms that 53% of the gamer population was male and 47% were female. Therefore, the argument goes, publishers risk offending 47% of the marketplace by using provocatively dressed women to market their games.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and statistics are notoriously shaky to rely upon when the supporting data is not revealed as well. The study cited that, “[m]ore than 2,000 nationally representative households” were used as the data pool, a rather small sample size to use for a country of over 300 million people, but that was far from its only weakness. The specific questions asked of the survey participants are unknown, and more importantly, the definition of the word “gamer” or “video game” is not defined in the study results. Other mainstream studies have suffered from the same problem.

Anecdotally, more women, especially those in the younger demographic, do appear to be playing “hardcore” titles during this console generation, but it’s doubtful that even the most optimistic assessment would put that amount at 47%. Many of the female gamers cited by the ESA clearly come from the nontraditional pool, playing casual and mobile games. In 2008, a Nielsen study showed that women over the age of 25 years old made up the largest block of PC game players “accounting for 46.2 percent of all players and 54.6 percent of all game play minutes in December 2008.” However, the most played games on the PC were pre-installed games from Microsoft, with the most played game being “Solitaire with over 17 million players for the month of December 2008.”

Since then, the popularity of mobile and social games have exploded, leading Zynga’s Director of Brand Advertising, Manny Anekal, to brag that the 40 year-old mom is the new hardcore gamer. Which begs the question: Is the event targeting consumers that play games like Solitaire, Farmville, and Words with Friends, so that this large gaming sector could be potentially offended by booth models? Of course not, and the stated business impact of their presence at E3 is overstated at best.

Furthermore, E3 is not open to the general public but to a select audience:

In 2012, leading computer and video game companies, business partners, media and industry analysts from over 100 countries will converge on the Los Angeles Convention Center.

E3 2012 will welcome software developers, buyers and retailers, programmers, distributors, entertainment industry representatives, financiers and venture capitalists, importers and exporters, manufacturers, resellers, researchers, educators, financial and industry analysts and worldwide electronic and print media.

Accordingly, those arguing that the presence of models at E3 sends the wrong message to the public at large about the industry and could hurt video game business amongst women seem to be overlooking a few critical factors: a) none of the gaming public is actually present at E3; and b) E3 events and the booths from the show are seen by a sliver of the population. Thus, the impact here is minimal at best.

Not to mention the fact that “pretty girls” are used for marketing purposes in every entertainment subgenre imaginable: cheerleaders, ring girls, dancers at sporting events, commercials, movies, car shows, magazines, etc. For better or worse, sex as a marketing tool does work, and you better believe there would be “booth dudes” at E3 if that was an effective way to generate press coverage or business opportunities.

Lollipop Chainsaw PAX East Jessica Nigri Cosplay Juliet Starling

Some argue that such blatant exploitation of the lizard brain should be banned since it has nothing to do with gaming, is in bad taste, and that it is offensive to other women at the show. While all three accusations may be true, should censorship end with the models based upon these arguments? Shouldn’t female cosplayers supporting a particular product be banned as well? One argument has been posed that a cosplayer should be exempt because they are at least tied to the product in a personally direct way, but that didn’t stop people from being offended by Jessica Nigiri’s Lollipop Chainsaw costume at PAX East, and she was eventually told to change clothes. Plus, cosplayer outfits are often more provocative then those worn by booth models.

And why shouldn’t “sexy” female reporters be restricted as well? Sure, they may be real gamers but unlike the models, these journalists are actually seen by the public, and as such, are ambassadors of the gaming industry. Think that’s overreaching? Then watch this video (somewhat NSFW) of a report about a PlayStation 3 pornography app (!) shown off at E3 this year that garnered little controversy:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFRx9Uy7uUE

Granted, the video was filmed in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but is the presence of booth models at the show more offensive or sexist than the marketing of a porn app through provocative on screen personalities?

Here is another “interesting” report from a game journalist playing the new Harry Potter game on the Kinect in an rather unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your point of view) outfit:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqGZT9xlGag

Are such videos any less reliant on titillation than models? No, and that’s the problem when the press tries to become the arbiter of “good taste.” Where should the censorship start and end? One person’s line in the sand is another’s safe zone, and all minds are never going to agree on what should be allowed.

The real irony of this tempest in a teapot is that there is so much focus on these booth employees instead of actual sexism in the GAMES, which actually make it into the public arena. Games like Bayonetta, Dead or Alive, and Lollipop Chainsaw are much more supportive of the male fantasy argument than a few women trying to entice some E3 attendees to check out their product, but the backlash these titles have received has been minor in comparison.

Ultimately, banning booth models fails to correct sexism in video games or the industry itself and doesn’t do anything to move the needle sales-wise. The move is a feckless request that only soothes the minds of those embarrassed by the boy’s club mentality that currently does exist.

That’s not to say that a serious analysis of sexism in the industry isn’t long overdue (and this documentary by Anita Sarkeesian looks to do just that), but let’s not put a band-aid over a gaping wound and expect to be cured.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment below, but let’s keep it civil.

[ADDENDUM]

This article by Katie Williams of Kotaku Australia wherein she recounts being treated dismissively by public relations employees at E3 is just damn heartbreaking. Both blatant and subtle sexual discrimination against women act as a major barrier to entry and upward mobility in the industry and prevent the mechanism for real substantial change from ever occurring. Exposing this and other similar types of despicable behavior is where the focus should be rather than singularly blaming booth models for E3’s deficiencies.

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