Friday, May 12, 2006

Son et Lumière

Today I attended E3, the definitive videogame trade show, thanks to Jon Goldman of Foundation 9 Entertainment. I've blogged about F9's Getting Up, a videogame about spraypainting, tagging, stenciling, and street art, as a representation of how virtual urban environments invite certain activities that subvert the rules of conventional civic spaces.

Foundation 9 also produces the Age of Empires series, which makes claims for being a tool for teaching history and modeling the impact of particular military, economic, and social policies in virtual nation-states.

It will be interesting to see if F9's upcoming videogame, The Da Vinci Code, generates controversy and reaction from the faithful or if the videogame audience -- unlike the film audience -- is assumed to be largely secular.

E3 was a surreal experience for a bookish academic like myself, although I have always secretly enjoyed attending large conventions and trade shows, since those gatherings are an excellent place to study public rhetoric. For example, I have attended both the National Tattoo Convention and the National Rifle Association Convention in the past.

It reminded me most of attending the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions convention years ago, because there were so many elements from "themed environments" in evidence. I shuffled down the stairs of a gangster's mansion, was herded behind security doors for a top-secret military briefing, strolled down a bombed-out French street complete with "GLACES" sign, wandered between pirate cages, and stood gawking in front of a huge skateboarding half-pipe as skateboarders whizzed by.

The gender imbalance at E3 was much worse than I had anticipated. I had seen huge crowds of gamers at the Video Games Live! concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but the live orchestrations of videogame theme music attracted citizens from many LA subcultures. Consequently, I was surprised to see such a single-gender group at E3. In some crowds of over fifty people I was the only female spectator! Luckily, it meant that I never had to experience a restroom line either. Of course, there were some women dressed as nurses or prostitutes or lab technicians or dominatrixes, but that didn't seem to improve the testosterone factor any. In contrast, the World of Warcraft area was remarkably diverse: lots of women, a multiracial assortment of players, and even several people in wheelchairs. I looked over their shoulders to check that they were actual gamers rather than token plants.

Despite the long line for the Nintendo pavilion, my people-watching indicated that Guitar Hero for the Sony Playstation 2 was definitely the game with the greatest crowd appeal. Other manufacturers were clearly trying to push the agenda of gaming as a spectactor sport, an enterprise described in last years' stories like the New York Times' "Virtual Stars Compete for Real Money" and NPR's "Gamer Fatal1ty Makes a Living by Winning."

Of course, the Guitar Hero paradigm invites manual activity as well as fan spectatorship. The lower budget displays in the Kentia Hall was full of a range of innovative input devices for more digital variety and even bodily motion. "Button masher" was clearly a negative term in game play, even with standard input devices.

Noneless, the crickets seemed to be chirping in the void near the television-inspired games like Desperate Housewives, so the media strategy described in the Los Angeles Times ("Wanna Be a Desperate Housewife? Meet the Video Game") may not be working. In the LA Times story the MIT MediaLab's Henry Jenkins suggests that the level of character development and audience familiarity with alternative plots and branching scenarios would make TV watchers of shows like The Sopranos and 24 easier game converts than film audiences. Yet, as Ian Bogost points out in his work on exergaming, the space of passive television watching and the space of active game play may be mutually exclusive.

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