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Fantasies of E3

By Annalee Newitz

SHE LOOKED tired and frantic. "Hey boys!" the woman onstage yelled into the microphone clinging to her head. "Do you wanna see the babes?" Behind her, a tremendous video screen was projecting images of the Tecmo Games logo and Dead or Alive 3, a fighting game with lots of sexy ninja girls.

The crowd, packed with sweaty game fans carrying shiny bags of slick promo leaflets, roared something that sounded like approval. "C'mon, let's hear it again!" shouted the woman. "When you get excited, I get excited!" The crowd yelled a little louder, especially when three scantily clad girls came out onstage dressed as new characters from Dead or Alive.

Still, that show wasn't as good as the one I'd seen earlier for Auto Assault, which treated us to two sweaty girls in G-strings playing with a flaming hula hoop (yes, it was really on fire), backed by a thrashy rock band.

I had a lot of fantasies while I was in Los Angeles at E3, one of the world's largest video-game conventions. The first fantasy was inspired by all the hired girl flesh everywhere on the expo floor. Conference attendees were largely young and male, and most of the game companies had shelled out a lot of cash to have shapely women dress like zombies, warriors or just plain booth babes (uniform: cropped T-shirt and short shorts) to lure the boys into booths that glittered with logos, game consoles and giant-screen trailers for new offerings.

But there was no need to lure anybody. The games and blaring soundtracks would have worked well enough. Instead, the babes were treated the way little kids treat the people dressed as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck at Disneyland: as photo opportunities. Every few feet, I'd see a grinning, sweaty nerd in an extra-large T-shirt posing for his buddies with each arm wrapped around a girl whose gladiator armor was not going to protect her against breast or upper thigh wounds.

So I started fantasizing that all the men in suits were also there for the same reason the babes were. Every time I saw a clot of game executives in ties, I would pretend they were eye candy, then hold up my camera phone and take a picture of them.

Later, I expanded my fantasy to include all men. At one booth, a war game was being advertised by a huge guy in a military outfit who stood stony-faced on top of a full-size Jeep with a fake gun. "OK, now look sexy," I directed him as I took his picture. He glared at me. "No, sexy and pouty," I said. He furrowed his brow even more, shifted the gun in his hands and refused to blow kisses.

My other major fantasy at E3 was that everyone attending was as much involved in the creative process of video games as the companies and developers. You see, I'm accustomed to science-fiction and hacker conventions, where it's much harder to tell the difference between promoters and consumers. The guy with the cool new software might be pimping it to somebody who has written his own cool software. Or the comic-book writer might be autographing a comic book for someone who draws her own comic books, too. Or Buffy creator Joss Whedon might be shaking hands with a fan dressed as a character from his new movie.

But at E3, none of the attendees seemed like creators. They weren't designing their own fan games; they weren't hacking. They were just consuming. In my fantasy, though, they were all dressed like their favorite characters from Star Craft or Soul Caliber. They were ninja elves and mecha warriors and crazy, disco-dancing party animals from the Sims. They were building fan expansions for the games and making up new stories about old Quake quests.

As I watched the bored-looking "babes" strut across the stage at the Tecmo booth, I thought about what the industry has done when fans have occasionally tried to take creative ownership of the games they adore. Recently, a bunch of college kids set up a site called NinjaHackers.com, where they shared home-brewed "skins" for the players of a Tecmo volleyball game.

The skins were free and gave players more options for dressing (or undressing) the game characters. But of course Tecmo threatened to sue. Even though these skins were hardly a substantive replacement for the game—indeed, you'd have to buy the game to use them—the company wouldn't stand for it.

I'm not saying E3 wasn't spectacular, because it's hard to resist shiny pictures of exploding things. But one day, I hope to find myself at a video-game convention run by fans—especially ones who know that you don't need booth babes to sell awesome games. Or at least, you need babes in suits and ties as well as bikinis.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who can't wait to play Quake IV.

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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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