>PAX, 01

>tl;dr This is about booth babes at PAX.

I have so much good to say about PAX. My memories of it will be about learning to use a Kinect, the way developers looked me in the eye and explained, with glee, the learning theories they used in the creation of their games, the dissonant way it felt when almost everyone I could see had a fist in the air changing “We have control! We keep you safe! We are your hope!” But, before I get there, I have something else to talk about.

I arrived Friday later than I wanted to. I was determined to see the keynote. I ran up the stairs to the main theater, not noticing anything between where I was and where I wanted to be. I confused the poor people around me in line as I took off my rain pants in line. It was only after the first two panels of the day that I had time to look around and really see what the layout of the BCEC (Boston Convention and Events Center) was like.

Right by the front door was a booth(?) for Bioshock. It was set up for people to take their picture with this giant monster breaking through a brick wall. There was a woman in pseudo-Victorian clothing–all corsets and velvet.

The first thing that ran through my head wasn’t about how cool it was. “Aren’t booth babes banned at PAX?” I asked myself.

I remember when PAX announced that they would have no booth babes. This was, I think, their first year. I spent about twenty minutes looking for the original announcement before giving up. I thought this was pretty neat and promptly forgot about it. I remembered it, standing in the large entrance. I wondered if the policy had changed. Listening to the people around me talk, it sounded like booth babes were still banned.

I’m not sure if Bioshock girl counted as a booth babe. She was pretty well dressed, and I have a soft spot for cosplayers. But, she wasn’t really a cosplayer, she was a professional model in a costume. I wasn’t sure how this made me feel. I filed this under “things to think more about later” and went to meet up with JL, who drove down from Michigan with some college friends. He told me about the Sprint Girls who, according to him, were wearing dresses down to -here- with hems up to -here-.

Down in the Expo Hall, I got to meet all sorts of people. Booths at PAX, and booths in general, seem to fit into overlapping categories in terms of staffing.

  1. Booths staffed by members of the company
  2. Booths staffed by professional models
  3. Booths staffed by volunteers
  4. Booths staffed by all (or mostly) men
  5. Booths staffed by all (or mostly) women
  6. Booths staffed by people in uniforms or costumes
  7. Booths staffed by women in uniforms or costumes and men in regular clothes

(I’m not going to talk about gender inequality here, even though it is tempting.) I met some developers and producers. There were hobbyists and enthusiasts. Community managers and paid models, usually referred to as ‘booth babes.’ When I checked out the Kinect booth—which was really like a multibooth with different people staffing different games—one of the Frag Dolls (sponsored by Ubisoft) was there teaching people how to play games. A very nice Harmonix employee regaled me with stories of how much he loves games (and Pete and Pete), before giving me a BA(1) Dance Central t-shirt. They had people who worked for the company in regular clothes and Frag Doll Cadettes, which I think are very similar to a professional model.

In 2010, Penny Arcade conducted a survey (2) on their No Booth Babe policy. The results included the following comments:

Things we’re going to formally message in our “booth babe” policy:

  • Rep needs to be trained/educated about the product (81%)
  • Anything that is considered “partial nudity” is banned (43%)
  • However, cosplayed characters are allowed to wear revealing outfits, assuming it is true to the source game (68%)
  • No messaging that specifically calls out body parts (47%)

I’ll -assume- this is, basically, the official policy–I couldn’t find another one. “Reps” need to be trained, have some clothes on or be cosplaying, and not “call out specific body parts.” I’m not sure what that last one means, so I will ignore it.

The booth babes at PAX fit into these guidelines. I saw the Turtle Beach Girls, the Frag Doll Girls, the Sprint Girls, the Duke Nukem Girls, and the Dragon’s Nest Girls. All of the girls were knowledgeable. Most of them liked games, including the ones who were representing non-gaming products. Even the Duke Nukem Girls, in their sexy schoolgirl outfits(3), came from the company Charisma +2, a modeling company specializing in “True Gamer Models.” They were, I hear, knowledgeable and excited to be there.(4) (Photo is probably not actually a booth babe, but I couldn’t find any CC photos of ones.)

However, a lot of people were still upset about the presence of both the Duke Nukem Girls and Booth Babes in general. PAX released an official statement on March 11 concerning the Duke Nukem Girls using their twitter stream, conveniently named Official_PAX.

Our bb policy is cosplay of ingame chars is ok. We checked it out and asked DNF to cover up a bit but otherwise it’s within our guidelines.

While I didn’t see any covering up, they were actually well within their rights as per the policy and release dsurvey results—68% of people surveyed said they didn’t mind scantily clad booth babes as long as they were in costume. In fact, in general, naked people don’t bother me that much. In fact, scantily clad people outside of beaches don’t bother me that much either. I’ve seen music videos. I’ve been going to conventions long enough to see more than my share of underage girls showing off what their mama gave them. (In the sense of full disclosure, I will admit that I did in fact cosplay in short skirts and short shorts at cons when I too was underage. And when I was eighteen and had a positive physical self-image. That’s another story.)

Still, something about these “professional models,” as Mike Krahulik called them in an e-mail, felt wrong to me. I spent a lot of time thinking about what. I wanted to write about PAX in the context of booth babes before going on to talk about all the great stuff. In order to do this, I had to unpack how I felt. My feelings, I realized, are much like the double rainbow—no one knows what they mean.

I believe that there is something wrong with having booth babes at PAX. I want to find a way to make this argument properly—based around facts, flowing through connected points, and reasonable. I don’t want to rely on the outraged objections people were making, because I don’t think they are true, don’t feel ready to talk about them, or don’t think they were valid arguments. I looked at the things I don’t agree with and tried to find something I do.

1) I wasn’t uncomfortable by the clothing booth babes were wearing. (This is is where I talk about sexy clothes in public.)
Aside from the Duke Nukem girls, everyone was pretty well clothed. The Sprint Girls and the Turtle Beach Girls were showing some leg, but honestly it wasn’t any more than I was used to seeing at the gym in college. (Girls wore some short running shorts at the gym in college.) The Duke Nukem Girls, while ridiculous (sorry, I couldn’t find a CC-licensed photo), were okay from a policy perspective. These school girl body guards are, I hear, present in the game. The girls there were, as far as I can tell, honestly excited to be there and not in a way that made it seem like they “had daddy issues” or were being taken advantage of. The Duke Nukem Girls bothered me just as much as all of the other Booth-Staffers-For-Hire.

2) I can’t talk about the objectification of women in this context. (This is the section on feminism.)
Booth babes, people say, objectify women. They pander. They treat people like they are idiots. I know a lot of people who have strong responses against the sexualization of women in contexts like gaming. Hell, a lot of them have strong responses against the sexualization (and exploitation) of anyone in things nearly any context. I don’t feel ready or educated enough to talk about any of these publicly. People have been making these arguments for years and there are still games with girls in sexy schoolgirl outfits and booths with girls in sexy schoolgirl outfits (not that there is anything objectively wrong with a plaid skirt). These arguments aren’t working. This isn’t just about women; even if there were booth bros—yes, even if someone was dressed as post-Crisis Tim Drake Robin—I wouldn’t feel as though this was okay.
Some people I talked to regarded the idea of “booth bros” in this context as a way of neutralizing the field. “Guys get something, girls get something, and guys who dig guys get something.” However, other people emphasized that for them this didn’t solve the actual issue. They still saw it as institutionalized inequality—not just because there would be booth babes and then booth bros to keep the people-who-dig-dudes quiet. In fact, it was argued to me, that reinforces the idea that they are unequal. It was explained that the root of the issue here was that it reinforces an overall societal view that people aren’t equal, women are not as competent as men, it is okay to sexualize women in a blanket way, and that men need to be pandered to in this way in order to sell them things. It’s an argument I can see the reasons for, but it’s not one I find especially compelling concerning booth babes at PAX. It’s not the visceral reason booth babes bother me. And I don’t know enough about it to make a good argument from that perspective. Also, I don’t want to see my five readers (Hi, Mom and Dad!) turn this into a flame war over feminism, as often seems to happen in these cases, because of reason a) Upon greater reflection, it could be an intellectual reason why I am bothered by booth babes, but it is not currently a visceral one.

3) Who’s to blame? (This is where I express confusion over Penny Arcade’s comments.)
I feel like I would have been less bothered if there had been no actual anti-booth babe policy. I would have just thought “look, there goes big companies being jerks again.” There was an official policy that allowed some behaviors and “professional models,” but I couldn’t find it–only things that alluded to it. The survey on which the policy was based, and the revamp of the policy, took place in 2010. In 2011 Mike Krahulik said that they were “not allowing booth babes” at PAX.

4) This isn’t about free speech. (This is where I sound kind of crazy.)
One pro-booth babe argument floating about was that restricting booth babes is restricting free speech. It’s censorship. Censorship, in all forms, is wrong, right? I am going to say something that I think isn’t entirely true: Advertising is not art. Booth babes are advertising. They are not art. I actually think some advertising is very close to art, some of it arguably is art. But saying you can’t advertise in a specific way is, I believe, fundamentally different than actually censoring. No one is saying they can’t loudly market their product, just that they can’t do it with hot girls. I mean, isn’t that one of the points of PBS?

5) Maybe it is about pandering. (This is where I get to my point.)
This is where I landed after considering everything else, trying to narrow down what actually bothered, and still bothers, me about the booth babes.

For me, PAX was a chance to get back in touch with the gamer I used to be. I got to try out games! I got to dream about a fantastical future that will likely never be where I have a 360 and can play Bastion, Bioshock, Fallout, and all those other games I haven’t gotten to play in years but dreamed about. For the first time since we got rid of our television in college, I really knew what was going on in the world of video games! I was at PAX to be involved with video games. (And to see The Protomen, but we’ll talk about that in The Future.)

I didn’t want to feel like people were trying to sell me something—which they obviously were—I wanted to feel like people were excited about their new game and they wanted to talk to me about it, teach me about it, and let me try it out. I wanted to know why it was special and cool, what new things it did, the ideas put into it. I didn’t want to feel like a walking consumer, even though that’s kind of what I was. At least in the eyes of some people.

Advertising is a very tricky thing. In the early 20th century, Edward Bernays completely changed the way we view advertising. Before him, advertising had focused on what was good about products. It explained the features of a car or a shampoo. In short, it was boring.The New York Times called him the “father of public relations.” He took advertising into the streets with campaigns like Torches of Freedom, took advantage of the suffrage movement, turning cigarette smoking into a point of freedom. Bernays was instrumental in creating a world where we are not people, we are consumers. From him, and people like him, advertising became the all consuming experience we have now. It’s not just about selling a product based on the product, it’s about selling an experience and belief of a life surrounding the product. From explicit advertising we see telling us how great a game is, to which cars were the Autobots in the post-2000 Transformers movies, advertising is all around us. The bags containing the programs at PAX were stuffed with advertisements, and the book itself was funded from the adverts in it.

We are constantly being exposed to advertising. Arguably, the Harmonix panel I went to was a form of advertising: it convinced me that the Harmonix people are pretty cool and that if I am going to spend money on game related things, giving it to them might be good. The expo hall can be looked at in two ways: it is a haven of advertising, or it is a place to learn about and experience new technologies and games.

This is one of those tricky areas where I have to ask about the role advertising has at places like PAX—it helps fund the event and basically, in various forms, creates most of the content. I fall back on the wise words of Dr. G. Alec Stewart when he said to me “M, sometimes intentions matter more than the outcome.” Exhibitors go to expos for the sake of drumming up press, garnering attention, and convincing people to become consumers of their products. However, the approaches they take, sharing things versus pandering, are what matter when looking at how advertising fits into events like PAX.

Booth babes and cosplayers are a good case for looking at how intentions matter. Cosplayers are, unintentionally, advertising. They are advertising themselves, their skills, but they’re also walking advertisements for the things they took inspiration from. However, they are choosing the designs they use and the way they present themselves. People who dress scandalously in the real world, the world outside of expos, do this too, but they choose it. They aren’t choosing it for pay, they’re choosing it for themselves.

Professional models at these events turn something people do because they love it into something people do because they get paid to. The professional models are choosing to do this—in some cases in part because they too love games—but that doesn’t change the fact they are getting paid to be the advertisement.

Not everything people choose to do is okay. We as a society believe it’s not okay to kill and eat someone, even if they’re cool with it. Similarly, while we as a society have a sort of mocking treatment towards kinky sex–and an open admonishment towards it in the public sphere–we recognize some people do this at home when we don’t have to see. We take an almost parental approach of “if I didn’t see my child do this bad thing you say they did, then I will assume they didn’t do this bad thing.” At some level, in this equation, people -are- being used in a public space.

And that bothers me. This isn’t what it’s supposed to be about.

John Drake, over at Harmonix, tweeted on the issues. He said:

Dear #PAX exhibitors – as a gamer, fellow exhibitor, and dev, any use of booth babes is not in the spirit of pax. No excuses. It’s bullshit.

(Brought to you by the Twitter Feed of @johntdrake, who I would like to say very nice things about based on this tweet, but I’m afraid I might run into him some day (because he appears to be local) and then have to fess up to this fact.)

Mr. Drake is right. As I like to think about it, and I might be very wrong, PAX is about video games. It’s about nerdy things. It’s about community. It is about the things that connect a bunch of wildly different people to one another. It’s a chance to have people get your shirts from obscure webcomics. It’s a chance to try out new games. It’s a place where it’s okay to talk to a stranger, to ask to get in on a game, or to offer to share a cookie. (Okay, maybe not the last one.) It’s all those wonderful things about being a geek or a nerd that make you feel happy inside.

There’s nothing actually wrong with professional models demonstrating products or manning booths in general. However, it’s “not in the spirit”of this particular event. A portion of the community doesn’t seem to want professional models, of any type, manning booths at PAX. Instead of following through with an outright ban, this grey area has turned the community against itself rather than allowing it to focus on what really matters—the community.

Professional models are like everyone else: some of them are wonderful, some of them are jerks. They have just as much a right to earn a living in their chosen profession as anyone else. However, in the context of PAX professional models are a symbol. For some people this symbol stands for objectification, being a minority—an often less respected minority—within their community, unwanted sexualization, or fighting over what many feel are unreasonable expectations of women. For some it stands for treating fans like they’re idiots or nothing but bundles of easy to manipulate hormones. For some this stands for inequality, or the creation of negative environments.(5) For me, it stands for people forgetting that this isn’t supposed to be about blatantly selling products—-it’s supposed to be about sneakily selling products by making me feel welcome and convincing me to try out your awesome games. They represent a community forgetting itself.(6) Professional models stand for many things, just in this case those things don’t seem to be very good.

(1) In 2009, Penny Arcade ran a survey about gamer demographics that had a sample size of 38,350. In 2010, when they did their booth babe survey, it had a sample size of 6,313. Since 69,500 people officially attended PAX East 2011, I actually think that sample size is kind of pathetic. I -think- it would be pretty cool to have a few demographic/preference related questions attached to the ordering form as a middle skippable step. (I don’t think participation in such things should be mandatory.) It could include such wonderful questions as “What kinds of events are you most excited about?” to help with room allocation (which the forums seem to think was a problem), and “Should ‘booth babes’ be banned outright?”

(2) Bad Ass

(3) okay, I get why it’s sexy, and I do love plaid, but the emulation of school girls in that context seems a little strange. See some article somewhere about how men like women who remind them of young girls

(4) The application for Charisma +2 includes questions about gaming that request fairly detailed answers. Model profiles have them talking about their gaming experience, and a whole lot of them include cosplay shots.

(5) In writing this I got a lot of criticism for not wanting to talk about gender politics, so I decided to mention them in the footnotes. I was told a story about a Harmonix game designer who would sometimes man their booth. She said she gets told “oh, I’ll wait for
one of the guys who actually works for the studio to come back” when working events. I was told this story with the implied message that things like booth babes—and the depiction of women in games, movies, society, etc—leads to these sort of perceptions. While there are women in male-dominated fields, those women are treated as though they as less competent or somehow “not real.”

(6) Why I think PAX should ban booth babes in 140 characters of less: The people who actually suffer by not having booth babes are the booth babes. More people seem to suffer with them there.

Note: I am still intending on attending PAX 2012. I just wanted to talk and think about how I felt concerning booth babes and this seemed like a good way to do it. PAX was pretty amazing. I think that if the community really doesn’t want booth babes (or booth bros) at PAX 2012, and are vocal about it in a constructive way, than there won’t be booth babes in 2012. In my experiene, PA guys, while sometimes appearing to be jerks, are -generally- pretty good about making people feel welcome. After all, Mike Krahulik said “We want PAX to be a place where everyone feels welcome…[and] contrary to what they might think, I’m not a complete asshole.”

Photo by Fristle (Michael Myers), http://www.flickr.com/people/fristle/

1 thought on “>PAX, 01

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