When you're at a geek convention, what attracts you to a particular booth? Is it familiarity with what's being shown? Is it the free stuff? What about the ladies giving away the free stuff? Whether you call them promotional models or "booth babes," these women (and they are almost always women), are a constant source of controversy at major gaming events.
The ever-growing debate surrounding gender concerns in gaming has led to a critique of marketing practices that use sex to sell games and tech. Proponents say that sex sells, and they're just playing to their (mostly straight guy) consumer base. Critics argue that a reliance on booth babes alienates women who are both consumers and industry employees. Games writer Kate Cox commented on the phenomenon last year in an article for Kotaku: "...a booth that wants to attract my attention by waving the promise of women at me is, in fact, saying loud and clear that they don't want my attention at all."
We spoke with a woman who numbered among a shrinking population of booth babes at E3 to see what she thought about the way the industry was moving. Michelle (pictured above, far left) was representing the Hansel & Gretel movie's DVD/Blu-Ray release. That's right. A movie, not a game.
While she doesn't play video games herself, Michelle said, she enjoys a good round of Apples to Apples now and then. Michelle had only received a positive reaction from E3 attendees, but she is aware of a growing backlash towards promo models. Even so, she doesn't let it faze her too much.
"I wouldn't judge anyone based on their profession, so I would expect the same," she said. And she doesn't seem to think the booth babe phenomenon is going away anytime soon: "There's a reason that we're hired...It works."
In a bit of social commentary, the IndieCade booth, which showcased independent creators, offered a different approach: booth bros! Myles Nye from Wise Guys Events created a large, physical game called E3GoMania, in which players answer trivia questions relating to video game history. Players get to move pieces forward on a game board (a mat). The goal is to be the first to reach the other side. Here's the kicker--the "pieces" are actual men in skintight clothes and literally objectified.
Nye has strong feelings on the subject of promotional models: "I see women being used as promotional objects for games. We all share a feeling of being grossed out. I'm a feminist and couldn't come another year to E3 without adding my voice."
Interestingly enough, Myles and his team faced some hurdles in getting his game approved for the show floor--namely, the expo's acceptance of the booth bros' clothing. Their initial idea was to have the bros be shirtless, but organizers would not approve it, since partial nudity is not allowed.
...Let that sink in for a second.
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Myles brought his vision to the IndieCade with the help of sponsors such as scholar and game co-producer Celia Pearce and game designer Brenda Romero. Their influence was reflected in the game's trivia questions, many of which involved the history of gender in gaming. Nye is looking into the possibility of showing the game at next year's Game Developers' Conference.
The booth babe (and bro) population at E3 and other conventions is dwindling, with some conventions even adopting policies banning booth babes in favor of professional cosplayers, or--novel concept--employees who actually have a hand in working on the titles. This shift within marketing plans is emblematic of a continuing shift in gamer demographics and industry hiring practices. In a world where almost half the gamer population is female, according to the ESA, and there are plenty of women in the industry in prominent positions, it is encouraging to see more companies opting for inclusivity, social commentary, and letting the products speak for themselves.