Media : Game theory 

Sexual politics goes digital

Last week, in his annual address to the E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles, the president of the Electronic Software Association (ESA) celebrated the importance of video games. Arguing that “video games are the rock-and-roll music for the digital generation,” Doug Lowenstein proposed that “Halo and The Sims and Zelda are their Grateful Dead and their Rolling Stones.”

As one who is fond of both the Dead and The Sims, I wish that Lowenstein’s analogy were true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work.

During the 1960s and 1970s, rock-and-roll fueled youth movements that challenged dominant power structures. Cultural activists (hippies) and political activists (yippies) sometimes disagreed, but their shared music focused on questioning authority, expanding consciousness, and mapping out new social arrangements.

In marked contrast to this history, video games have been closely tethered to corporate America and the military-industrial complex ever since they were first introduced at Brookhaven National Laboratory. There have been remarkable experiments within these parameters, but the industry is relatively conservative overall.

Scion xB. Mountain Dew. The G4 gaming channel. Desperate Housewives, Scarface and Dirty Harry. Fold in a healthy supply of guns and “booth babes,” and E3 might as well be called “Hegemony with a Capital ‘H.’”

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, “booth babes” are highly attractive women that gaming companies hire to promote their products.

Last year’s promotional models were extremely risqué, and many suspected that they would be banned this year. However, the ESA had merely threatened to fine exhibitors $5,000 if their spokeswomen displayed “nudity, partial nudity, bikini bottoms or any sexually explicit or provocative conduct.”

This year, little changed. Models were still promoting the season’s new offerings in short skirts and revealing tops. The exhibit for the Conan game was a typical example of Freudian excess: men lined up to receive a giant inflatable broadsword and posed for Polaroid snapshots with scantily clad models draped over each arm.

Musing on the freakiness of the booth babes, I couldn’t stop thinking about high school.

Do you remember sub-cultural groupings from high school? Nerds played Dungeons and Dragons at lunchtime. Aspiring entrepreneurs developed business plans for Junior Achievement. Second-tier jocks struggled to cloak deep-seated insecurities with macho bravado.

Surveying the E3 showrooms, it seemed as if these three groups had conspired to get back at the cheerleaders who ignored them during high school. Nerds develop and play the games. Slick entrepreneurs write the checks, and the jocks have become middle managers who cloak their insecurities with macho bravado. Once members of opposing factions, these men are treated well by an industry that places them on top and women near the bottom.

Many people mistakenly think that the booth babe controversy is a politically correct reaction to female sexuality. Yet, the real problem is the deeply sexist industry that hires these women to pose with gamers.

Women buy approximately half of the gaming software sold in the United States, but they only account for 12.5 percent of the gaming industry. Institutional barriers continue to block women’s progress within the gaming workplace.

As a college teacher who hopes to see female students someday landing jobs in the game industry, the booth-babe scene is a disturbing reminder of the ways the industry keeps women in their place.

Meanwhile, outside the convention center, the U.S. Army celebrated a caricatured type of masculinity. Camouflage-clad soldiers publicized America’s Army, highlighting the benefits of military service. The booth was little more than a recruiting center aimed at young men between the ages of 15 and 25.

This is the current state of our cultural landscape, and this is why Lowenstein’s comparison to the birth of rock-and-roll seems so far-fetched.

In the 1960s, there were no recruiting stations to be found anywhere near Woodstock, the Fillmore Auditorium or Golden Gate Park. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was not a strong corporate presence at the Grateful Dead shows.

As Jack Black reminded his students in School of Rock, “If you want to rock, you gotta feel it in your guts. You gotta break the rules. You gotta get mad at the man.”

E3 was an adventure, and I look forward to reporting highlights in forthcoming columns. However, the most important thing I learned at E3 is that the Man still has his hand on the joystick.


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