The Trouble with Booth Babes

E3 was this week and I was surprised to see the coverage mentioning “booth babes” which I recalled had been banned by the conference in 2006, presumably because they were seen us un-serious and unprofessional. I was disappointed to learn of the change, because the return of the booth babes marks a step backwards for women in video games.

Booth babes are conventionally attractive, scantily clad women hired by (in this case) game companies to draw attention to their booths. These women are usually professional models, spokesmodels specifically, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the game company. They are the gaming version of a bikini clad woman lying on the hood of a car in a car commercial.

There’s a special subset of “booth babes” who are paid cosplayers. They aren’t as common, and aren’t as problematic as the pure booth babes. If as you read this you find yourself thinking, but what about the cosplayers, please hold that thought. They aren’t the focus of this essay.

I’m not going to talk about the objectification of women in general here, or about the problem of the very existence of booth babes, because that would make this post entirely too TLDR, but about the effect of booth babes on the women attending the conference as professionals.

The purpose of a booth babe is to draw attention to the booth. Specifically, to draw male attention. The hidden message there is that female attention doesn’t matter. If you are a woman at the game convention, you are not the intended audience. You are Other. You don’t belong.

The second major problem of booth babes for women attending professionally is that they create the expectation that women in gaming exist only for male delectation. First, your opinion, lady, as a gamer doesn’t matter, and second, your purpose here is to stand around and be pretty. If you’re not pretty, then you’re invisible, or mocked. If you are pretty, than god help you.

You might think that this is just delicate ladies and their delicate lady feelings who need to get over it. I disagree. A hostile environment for women in gaming keeps women out of the game industry, out of gaming, and harms both women, who are missing out on something fun and awesome, and the industry, which is missing out on the creative input of half the people.

Creating the expectation that women in the gaming industry are there as sex objects can lead to some pretty dark things, and have a real, professional impact. Take for example the case of Jade Raymond, a game producer who aggressively promoted her game. For her great crime of doing her job while being attractive and female, she was mocked in an extremely explicit sexual comic.

Booth babes are a symptom of a sexist attitudes in the gaming industry, but they also serve to perpetuate them.

As a counter-example to E3, PAX doesn’t allow booth babes (although some of the exhibitionists really push it) precisely because the organizers understand their impact on the community. Although the Penny Arcade guys aren’t perfect examples of pro-feminist dudes, on the subject of booth babes, they get it.

It’s about time the exhibitor’s caught up with their fans, who are on the whole a lot less sexist and dickish than the marketing geniuses who are still stuck in the 50s, putting a bikini babe on the roof of the car.