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At L.A.'s E3 Summit: The Business of Beautiful Killing Games

Bloodlust is everywhere at the E3 gaming-business summit — bloodlust and nerds. Over in the Los Angeles Convention Center’s Showcase Pavilion arcade, the nerds watch the girls (all five of them) cluster around the Capcom booth, playing a sheep-abduction game called Flock. Cute little cotton-ball puffs of sheep bop around an island as you herd them with a flying saucer. The girls squeal, “Oh, no! Oh, no!” as their wayward sheep tumble off the island’s edge into the ocean. Ladies, if you are looking for a guy who hasn’t seen sunlight for several months but can bust through level 20 of World of Warcraft like an iceberg through the Titanic, get thee to E3.

Waiting for the Entertainment Software Association CEO to give his keynote speech, a man and a woman, both in business suits, kill time leafing through a booklet on computer- and video-game-industry demographics. In the past, E3, formerly known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo, has been a 60,000-person melee. It has since been calved into two separate events, one in the summer exclusively for media-reporter/business-developer types and one in October for the proletariat. So even though we’ve been warned that it’s first come, first served at the events, there are plenty of empty chairs in the hall.

“Who buys video games? The average age is 40?” the woman recites. “I guess it’s parents buying them.” Bits of their conversation drift over, drowned out by the music, some peppy mix of Seal’s “Dreaming in Metaphors.”

“I went to this last year and I was, like, I’m not coming back,” the man sighs. “I’ve been talking about mobile content all day.”

“Yeah, I’ve been talking about mobile content too.” The woman yawns loudly.

He looks at her in a predatory way. “Who’ve you been talking to?”

“The average gamer is 35 years old,” a tanned, hale CEO Michael Gallagher says. Gallagher believes we are entering a Golden Age of games, an age when Halo 3 makes more money in its first day of sales than the final Harry Potter book. “Write [to Washington] to support our policy interests,” he advises the group, when video-game critics “lay at our feet” every societal ill, from violence to obesity.

Yes, indeed, write to Washington so we can all kill zombies in peace.

Most of the attendees are locked away in conference rooms and hotel suites doing virtual battle and being pitched to in close quarters by the likes of Atari and Nintendo. In the Take-Two Interactive suite, the monitor is so large and so bright that one guy wears sunglasses to cut the glare. Or maybe he just wants to look cool. Hard to say. In any case, killing things proper is under way. Take-Two’s subsidiary, 2K, makes the hugely popular BioShock and Borderlands games. The new BioShock for PS3 has gorgeously moody graphics and sound that make you feel like you’re underwater while you kill. Borderlands, known as “the game with a million guns,” loads up, and we hop into a vehicle for a mission on an alien terrain. It doesn’t really matter what the mission is. The point is the guns. The point is always the guns.

Our demonstrator is using a gun with poison, so he can shoot bad guys in the head and melt their faces off. “He’s still sizzling!” someone yells as a guy’s face explodes in a blast of green. Sizzling literally, not metaphorically. “How’s he yelling without a face?” asks someone else, a journalist, presumably, concerned with facts.

I feel like I’m watching a snuff film — guilty, grossed out, eyes glued to the carnage. The victims’ anguished cries of pain are really, really good. “Aaagghheeeeeeahheeeeeah!” is only a distant approximation. Like spoken Chinese, the subtleties are all tonal. A guy in the back of the room snickers absurdly each time someone dies onscreen.

“Let me make sure he’s dead,” says the demonstrator. He shoots what remains of, uh, the remains. Blam! “Now he’s dead.”

Over at the Konami press conference, the bigwigs have flown out Koji Igarashi himself, master game designer, creator of Castlevania, from Tokyo. Speaking through a translator, he explains Castlevania’s complex premise to the uninitiated. Essentially, Dracula and his minions fight the forces of good. You must kill him. Unless you are him (a playable Dracula is one of the new developments revealed at E3), in which case you kill everyone else. This fall, you’ll be doing that on the Wii.

A little later, I happen into the “serious” games section of the arcade. Serious games are those that are developed for purposes other than pure entertainment, purposes like, say, education. I quickly fall in love with a National Science Foundation–funded game called WolfQuest. Players take on the role of a lone wolf trying to survive in Yellowstone National Forest. All the wolf behaviors are modeled on those of actual wolves. Except for the parts where the wolves talk to each other in English. The guy at the booth and I take turns hunting elk. He chases an elk up a hill. “Kill him, kill him, go for it, bite,” I say as he closes in. “Why isn’t it bloodier when you bite the elk in the butt?”

“Well,” he says, half-apologetic, half-admonishing, “when a wolf kills an elk in real life, it’s just not all that bloody.”