E3 is where a grown man mocked me for not owning any Skylanders.
He spoke to his friend throughout the closed door demo of the new Skylanders game, a series he likes so much that he proudly announced himself to the four journalists in the room as “the guy with the Skylanders tattoo.” His constant chatter clearly distracted the game’s producer, who stopped his presentation a few times to stare this guy into silence like an elementary school teacher. At the end the panicked fan asked for two free Skylanders toys instead of the customary one, so that he’d have one to give to his daughter.
If you don’t know any kids, Skylanders are toys that can be scanned into a series of videogames as playable characters. The more toys you own, the more characters you can play as in the game. It might seem a little more exploitative than the typical toy-cartoon-merchandise matrix of old, but companies like money and parents often have jobs and kids exist to unite the two. This guy can apparently play as many different Skylanders when he cranks up his console, and it’s cool that he’s found something that makes him happy. A back-room meeting at E3 may not be the best place to hold that fandom up like a Roman standard, though.
I’m not trying to belittle anybody, but situations like these reveal one of the underlying problems with E3. It’s supposedly a trade show for professionals, but in tone and execution it treats everybody like a fan. The mood might grow more serious in closed door meetings with designers and executives, but from the press conferences to the elaborate booths to the free posters and shirts, E3 consistently fails to distinguish between those there to work and those there to get free keychains shaped like the Bat Symbol.
I won’t go into whether or not this is “disrespectful” to journalists and critics, but it’s certainly distracting. It’s hard to take notes on a demo when you can’t hear the speaker over the audience. It’s uncomfortable when mundane game announcements are met with thunderous applause at press conferences.
Worse yet it helps to undermine the very notion of “games journalism.” E3 press conferences are closed to the public, but contest winners, retail employees and enthusiast writers are sometimes granted access. When those private press conferences are regularly interrupted by ecstatic cheering, it becomes easier to question the impartiality of the press. And if you look at comments or any gaming message boards, or read the mission statement of any start-up gaming news site, you’ll quickly notice that almost nobody takes games journalism seriously, even other journalists. If you believe the internet, anybody who writes about games is a biased, fan-pandering sell-out drinking deep from the teat of the publishers’ promotional budgets.
Even though it’s the primary avenue for publishers to reveal new products and discuss them with the press, E3 reinforces misconceptions like that, and that’s because the industry itself doesn’t always take games journalism seriously. Legitimate journalists with national mainstream outlets sit in the same demos as enthusiast amateurs. Access levels certainly vary, and private interviews outside of the booths and off the show floor provide for more professional and in-depth coverage, but in booths and theaters throughout E3 a writer for the New York Times and an editor for Edge might vie for floorspace with the volunteer weekend editor of a WordPress site run by high schoolers. That might sound impressively egalitarian, but it makes it harder for the professionals to do their jobs, while also demeaning the value of professionalism itself.
This isn’t about exclusion or arrogance or anything like that. This is about recognizing the differences between professionals and fans. Overlooking that distinction is especially vexing to the press because E3 effectively reinforces the most tired and stereotypical notions of what it means to be a “gamer.”
E3 is thoroughly entrenched in the Dew and Doritos image that still clings tight to the public’s conception of gaming culture. Laypersons look at the “booth babes” of E3 and see something more juvenile and contemptible than the similar (and equally gross) spokesmodels found at car shows and other trade events, simply because the target market is generally assumed to be younger and full of men who haven’t grown out of a hobby that’s still considered kids’ stuff. E3 press conferences, those faceless and undying celebrations of blood and murder, are a blur of men in suits talking numbers and other, less immaculately groomed men in hoodies showing us the latest in virtual violence, all calibrated to appeal to the assumed bloodlust and territorial mentality of aggressive young men. If E3 wasn’t by default directed squarely at this most reductive and stereotypical concept of “gamers,” there probably wouldn’t have been a rape joke at Microsoft’s press briefing last week. And by conflating that view of the gaming audience with the press that covers the industry, both professional and amateur, E3 undercuts the authority and value of that press.
Last year I wrote that E3 is purer and more honest than fan conventions like PAX because E3 is always transparent in its attempt to sell us something (or, to be more accurate, everything). That is still true. E3 would do a better job of selling something to everybody if it was more strategic in how it deals with the press.
Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor and the games critic for the Boston Herald.