published Saturday, June 15th, 2013

In video game world, sexism still an issue

Janina Gavankar plays "Watch Dogs" at the Ubisoft booth at E3 in Los Angeles.
Janina Gavankar plays "Watch Dogs" at the Ubisoft booth at E3 in Los Angeles.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LOS ANGELES — When it comes to video games, it still felt like a man’s world at E3.

One look at the crowded halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center this past week, and it was easy to see that most attendees of the Electronic Entertainment Expo were men. Yes, plenty of women were at E3, which wrapped up on Thursday. But some were there as so-called “booth babes” — female models hired to hype products and attract attendees to exhibitors’ displays on the show floor.

The presence of scantily clad women hawking games and gizmos seemed in particular contrast to a report released this week by the Entertainment Software Association, which organizes the gaming industry’s annual trade show. It found that 45 percent of the entire gaming population is now women, and women make up 46 percent of the most frequent game buyers.

“The line to the bathroom is pretty short compared to the men’s bathroom, which is great for us as product demonstrators here,” said Jess Sylvia of Nyko. “However, I think the thing is E3 is not a consumer event. It’s a trade event, and as much as women love to game and are buying 45 percent of the market, the industry is still men, primarily.”

There were noticeably fewer “booth babes” roaming E3 this week than in previous years, though exhibitors such as Snail Games, Hyperkin and Atlus still featured women with plunging necklines or body-hugging clothes at their booths.

Yet Michael Gallagher, president of the ESA, believes E3 does respect and embrace women, noting there’s even a dress code forbidding too much skin.

“Each exhibitor makes a decision whether they choose to use models or not,” he said. “The choice to do that is then regulated by standards that we use, much like trade shows do around the country and around the calendar. Those standards have not interfered with the enjoyment of E3 by men and women alike during the time that I’ve been here.”

While the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas similarly features provocative models, the gamer-centric Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle and Boston has outlawed “booth babes.” Meanwhile, some of this year’s E3 exhibitors, such as SemiFormal Studios and 100% Indie, bucked conventions with “booth bros” — male models in shirtless ensembles or skintight superhero garb.

The disconnect between the gaming audience and their portrayal seemingly extended to the virtual world, too. For every female protagonist like Bayonetta on display at E3, there were dozens of Mario Brothers. But that could be changing, even in genres like the first-person shooter, a realm once considered to only be populated by adrenaline-fueled dudes.

“Battlefield 4,” the latest installment in Electronic Arts’ military shooter franchise, won’t allow gamers to play as women in the game’s multiplayer mode when it’s released later this year. Yet Peter Moore, chief operating officer of EA, suggested the single-player campaign of “Battlefield 4” would feature a female protagonist on the front lines.

“It ties into the real world,” said Moore. “If you follow real-world politics, the attitude has changed, certainly in the United States, over the last 12 months. Women being allowed to get on the front lines is something they wanted as active servicepersons, and us showing a strong female character in the ‘Battlefield 4’ narrative is a part of that.”

There were a few other examples of female power at E3, too. Princess Peach, once merely the most kidnapped woman in the Mushroom Kingdom, served as a playable character in Nintendo’s “Super Mario 3D World.” And EA announced it was working on a sequel to “Mirror’s Edge,” which focuses on a free-running female lead character named Faith.

“I really enjoy writing for women,” said David Cage, creator of the PlayStation 3 game “Beyond: Two Souls,” which features actress Ellen Page as the heroine. “I like female characters because they can be very strong and very tough, but they can cry and be very sensitive. They have a palette of emotions that’s much wider than with male characters.”

Yet the issue remains a sensitive one, as evidenced by reaction to some trash-talking between two male and female Microsoft employees duking it out in the fighting game “Killer Instinct” on stage during the company’s E3 presentation on Monday. Many interpreted a comment made by the male producer as a joke about rape. Microsoft later apologized and called it offensive.

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