PAX East has come and gone, and with it quite a few great memories of yet another great gaming event. We’re lucky to have it in Boston. I wanted to highlight a minor controversy that erupted during the convention, concerning the use of models (so called “booth babes”) within the individual game exhibits–because the organizers at Penny Arcade have previously stated that booth babes aren’t acceptable at PAX.
The company that got most of the attention regarding booth babes at PAX was Gearbox, the maker of the upcoming Duke Nukem Forever game. For those curious, my wife took a picture of me at the show with the ladies working the Gearbox booth. You can draw your own conclusions from this.
Duke Nukem has a bit of a tradition regarding the presentation of women within the game, which Gearbox explains as a theme of misogyny that is essential to the game’s design. I think it’s possible to treat subjects like misogyny intelligently within a game through satire–and I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if Duke Nukem does a good job of this–but instead wanted to discuss the role of women in the marketing of games and whether it’s gone too far.
I engaged a few people on my Twitter feed about how they felt about the use of attractive women at PAX. The complaints generally fell into one of two categories:
- That booth babes represent an unacceptable level of using sex to sell, or objectifying women as sex objects.
- That booth babes aren’t in the spirit of PAX–and that anyone working at an exhibit should be able to discuss the game intelligently with you, and should probably be people working for the game company (developers or well-informed marketing staff).
Frankly, I have trouble with the first point. I don’t know how one could establish rules about it. Shouldn’t a game company be allowed to have people appear in costumes present within the game? As far as I know, the models shown above are relevant to the actual content of Duke Nukem. Establishing rules such as “they need to be employees of the game company” strike me as artificial. Creating guidelines regarding how revealing the costumes can be, or whether they adequately reflect the game content, or whether the models are too attractive–all such ideas seem terribly fraught with rules that even a beginning game designer would see easy ways around.
On the other hand, I’m quite sympathetic to the second point. If I go to an exhibit at PAX (or any trade show) I want to speak to the developers of a game I’m interested in. They should be able to tell me what I can expect from the game experience. The models in the Gearbox booth weren’t available for any conversation, so I have no idea whether they could have spoken with me about the game. I would have been very curious to have a conversation with them about how they felt about the portrayal of women in the game. [Update: as a commenter indicated below, the models working for Gearbox are in fact real gamers, and work for an outfit called Charisma+2. Although I didn't get a chance to talk to them, apparently they are actually quite knowledgeable.]
Games are about communities, and PAX is a huge community you can tap into. A trade show booth is an opportunity to engage with your community in a new and unique way–to allow your customers to briefly enter the world of the game. I think costumes have a place–as do attractive individuals of either gender. Let’s face it; I enjoy some nice eye candy as much as the next hot-blooded American. But I share the concern that if this trend continues, there won’t be much one can really learn from the exhibits at PAX.
A thought for game marketers: more Renaissance Faire; less Madison Avenue?