TITS AND ASS. THAT IS THE DOMINANT IMPRESSION one takes away from the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the world's largest showcase for interactive entertainment. Amid the gunshots and explosions, the fuzzy cartoon characters making hydraulic leaps and bonking each other's heads, the roar of virtual football players and virtual engines, the brightly lit signs advertising the wares of nearly 400 exhibitors -- game publishers, console makers, entertainment companies and cell-phone corporations -- it is the people, not the products, that stand out.
The crowd at the Los Angeles Convention Center for E3 2001 is an insanely heterogeneous mix of five militantly homogeneous groups. Dressed in three-piece suits or golf-club casual, the Businessmen -- salesmen, executives, professionals -- confidently stroll the floor and gather in packs, exchanging haughty confidences and staged laughter. The Talent -- programmers, game designers, masters of computer graphics -- are reformed geeks. Their dress is California casual: shorts, T-shirts and mussed, longish hair. They are essentially styleless individuals suffering from a sartorial hangover after years of obsessing on sci-fi or video games or Dungeons & Dragons, or whatever hobby it was that brought them from adolescence to adulthood. The Journalists look a lot like the Talent, only one guesses they grew up obsessed with more passive media -- books, movies, music, drugs -- and they cover up their lack of style with blah blouses and buttoned-up shirts.
The Fanboys are unrepentant geeks of the highest order. When laughter erupts among a group of Fanboys, it is in the lingua franca of the awkward -- a croaking guffaw, humor as hyperventilation. In past years, I'm told, the Fanboys would show up as "game clans," costumed as their favorite video-game characters -- Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy IX's Zidane Tribal, Metal Gear Solid's Solid Snake. E3 has since cracked down on them. It has officially limited admittance to press and industry attendees, and while there is less extreme geekdom on display, it seems many Fanboys have gotten around the new rule by attending as writers for fly-by-night fan sites and Internet-only publications. The costumes remain. One group of kids, representatives of the "Nintendojo," prowl the convention in a uniform of extra-large T-shirts and Rising Sun headbands. (Think Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.)
"If you think this is bad, you should see the scene at CES," I overhear one of the Businessmen say, referring to the Consumer Electronics Show, a home-tech exhibition that takes place annually in Las Vegas. "The prostitutes have a field day giving handjobs to geekus Americus." There's little sign of anything quite that seedy at E3 (beyond a notable concentration of advance men from local strip clubs passing out handbills), though a few of the displays do seem fuel for one fetish or another. At the family-friendly Nintendo pagoda -- the largest in the hall -- most of the games feature squat, furry creatures to the exclusion of other life forms: battling furballs, battling plumbers, battling mushrooms, battling turtles. Nintendo has long held a dominant market share among younger gamers, but the convention attendees are supposed to be of age. Here, the fuzzy cuddlies bouncing off each other's bellies, heads and chests take on more perverse implications.
Vendors spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on their booths at E3. After shelling out for the necessities -- a large-screen projection or a monitor bank that displays the year's most promising product on dozens of test consoles so passersby can try out the games -- exhibitors offer attractions that will rise above the din of the convention. There are live carnival barkers, DJs and elaborate stage sets; a life-size military van bursting through a brick wall; for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, a full-size half-pipe and dozens of skateboarders and bikers doing tricks. Mainly, though, the exhibitors use Cheesecake, the convention's final archetype. For Sony's EverQuest, a gaggle of tan women have dressed up as Valkyries or savages or gladiators -- a pack of anachronistic warrior women in suede miniskirts and bikini tops. S&M is a big theme. There is a sci-fi dominatrix, an Egyptian dominatrix, a medieval dominatrix, a paramilitary dominatrix, all of them in shiny black leather with strategic cutouts that display all manner of virtual, surgically enhanced, machine-tanned flesh.
Next to the booth for one game, a California blond with mirrored shades and diamond earrings poses in front of a police car. She sports a provocative new look for the security professional -- a gray top tied off above the navel à la Daisy Duke, a black miniskirt and knee-high boots. The Fanboys line up, wrapping their arms around her to pose for Polaroids. She points her plastic revolver at each of their heads, cocks the trigger and smiles for the camera. Blam!