Written by: Alejandro Rodriguez, Special to CC2K
Samus Aran is one of my favorite video games characters, but since I didn’t own a Nintendo console until the Nintendo 64, I never knew the guy in the awesome space suit was a woman.
I can only imagine what it was like for gamers when they first saw the reveal at the end of Metroid. At least a few minds were blown that day, and it’s easy to see why. Samus was the first strong female video game character that wasn’t just a feminized carbon copy of her male counter-part. (Sorry Ms. Pac-Man)
The revelation pushed the boundaries of how women were portrayed in video games. Remember, this was a time when video games had just been brought into the mainstream thanks to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Before Metroid, the idea of a lead woman in an action video game seemed ridiculous; women stuck to the role of damsel in distress and rarely did any of the fighting.
While modern video games helped create some iconic female heroes, they still suffer from the same problems any male-dominated industry would face. For every Chun-Li, you see about a dozen other female characters that just stand in the background as the boys do all the work.
It certainly doesn’t help that many of these women are still being used exclusively as sexual objects. Even with strong female characters in games like Last of Us, Mirror’s Edge, and Beyond Good and Evil, the video game industry still cranks out overly sexualized women in title after title.
In a community that compares its victories to rape and holds open contempt toward any female fan who is discovering gaming, I can’t imagine how difficult it is for a woman to feel welcome. What makes things worse is that some of the more vocal fans come off as misogynists, maybe due to the anonymity of online interaction.
If the community is so childish and unwilling to change, I wondered how the industry treated the models at their biggest event of the year, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Labeled ‘Booth Babes’, they are used as eye candy to get journalists interested in new games.
This got me wondering exactly how these women are treated at E3. Anyone can step onto a video game forum and see that there is a sense of hostility towards women in the gaming landscape, but does the sexism from the forums follow to E3 itself?
I was surprised to hear the results from a couple of the booth babes that I interviewed at this year’s E3. While the community may be a bit childish, the industry as a whole is far more professional.
Sarah Sevy, 29, has worked E3 for a few years. In the past she has worked for companies such as Nintendo, but this year she’s working for Wargaming.net. While she understands that being a ‘booth babe’ can be a double-edged sword, she doesn’t feel any resentment towards her role.
“It’s not the best term, but in a way it’s very flattering because it means we’re pretty and cute,” Sevy says. “But it also puts us down in a way, where people think we don’t know anything about gaming and that we’re kind of stupid.”
I can’t say that I’ve never had that preconceived notion of the “ditzy booth babe” in the past. When I was younger (and dumber) I thought of booth babes as eye candy who didn’t know the first thing about the video games they were trying to hock. Yet these women do enjoy video games just as much as any male gamer.
Perhaps the problem is that they don’t find much pleasure in playing the same mainstream video games that most young male gamers do. While games like Battlefield and Assassin’s Creed might get the most exposure, booth babes seem to love puzzle games and old-school platformers even more. Their lack of interest for violent modern titles may be off-putting to some, but this doesn’t make them any less of a gamer.
When interviewing the women of E3, I feared I would discover countless incidents of sexism, harassment, and misogyny from the male community. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that the problem wasn’t as rampant as I thought. True, any harassment towards booth babes is unsettling, but I felt a glimmer of hope when most of the women I interviewed had nothing but positive things to say about their employers and the experiences at E3.
This may be a case where a few bad apples ruin the bunch and that the gaming industry is a lot more professional than the gaming community. It also doesn’t hurt that E3 has made it more difficult for anyone who isn’t part of the industry to attend. While the professionals can handle themselves, it could be a different story for an employee at the electronics section of Wal-Mart who has always seen E3 as one big video game party.
Priscila De La Cruz, 23, worked as both a model and journalist for YouRiding at this year’s E3. She understands the problem with the term ‘booth babe,’ but she had a great time at E3 for the most part.
Unfortunately she was one of the women I interviewed who did have an altercation with some creepers at the expo. After confronting them on their behavior, she was able to enjoy E3 with no problem.
“As women in the industry, we don’t have to represent ourselves as a piece of skin anymore,” De La Cruz says. “Now, we are actually involved in the industry, and people come to us and want to know what we think about it and not just look at us and say ‘Hey, is she wearing short-shorts or can I see her cleavage?’”
Not all women at E3 are scantily clad. The women working at Nintendo’s booth looked nothing like a typical booth babe. Instead they were just there to interact with you and help you better understand the game you were playing.
As outraged as I am by some in the online gaming community, I find solace in knowing that the people in the industry—the professionals—aren’t as bad as I thought they would be.
This doesn’t change the way that women are portrayed in a lot of video games, but change takes time and hopefully companies will come to realize that women want to play video games just as much as their male counter-parts. I mean, it can’t be that difficult to animate women into a video game.