[22 July 2008]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
LOS ANGELES - I came in search of my inner geek. But was it too late? Gone were the booth babes, flame-eaters and pyrotechnics.
The $40 billion video game industry’s annual convention used to be a house party gone wild - with mom and dad away.
This year’s E3 Media & Business Summit, held last week in the downtown convention center, is a serious affair, as if parents suddenly imposed maturity, slimmed down to 4,500 invitees only - versus 80,000 public attendees in 2006.
“It was strippers, drugs, fire-breathers and there were explosions going off. It was crazy,” Relic Entertainment producer Mark Noseworthy, 28, said of past gatherings.
Even minors got in on the action.
“It was awesome. I used to base my entire year on E3,” said Michael Quiroz, 24, a marketing associate working one of the rare booths still featuring young models in miniskirts and futuristic red wigs.
“I’ve been coming since I was 16, but don’t tell the organizers,” he whispered.
Business had ranked a distant second to rockin’. But with global sales expected to reach $68 billion by 2012, an industry built on boyhood playtime has been forced to grow up.
“The show had become out of hand,” said Michael Gallagher, CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that organizes the conference.
“What you’re seeing is a hangover from that old, bigger show and an adjustment to this summit format, which is invitation-only and very intimate, efficient and productive,” Gallagher said.
The average gamer is now 35 years old, and adult women account for 33 percent of all gamers. (Boys 17 or younger make up just 18 percent of gamers.) Nintendo executive Cammie Dunaway added that digital toys are more than recreational and educational: They also can be therapeutic, such as Wii games enticing physical movement from couch potatoes and even seniors in nursing homes. It’s called Wiihabilitation (pronounced “we-habilitation”).
There were hundreds of media representatives at last week’s conference, mostly 20- and 30-something men in T-shirts and jeans specializing in trade news and game reviews on Web sites and blogs.
“That’s because you journalists don’t have the competence in (writing about) games,” said Gamereactor magazine’s Claus Reichel, 41, of Copenhagen, explaining why “mainstream” journalists were outnumbered. He quit his civil engineering career 14 years ago to write about video games.
“If you don’t have this knowledge, gamers will see through that,” Reichel said. He observed how conference-goers are now only 90 percent male: “As you can see, there are a lot of women as opposed to 10 years ago.”
In publisher THQ’s demonstration room, game designer Jonny Ebbert, 37, of Relic Entertainment was joined by Noseworthy in showing how to play their “Dawn of War II,” which requires players to build raw recruits into an elite strike force to save the galaxy.
“We try to up the brutality of it - in a contextual way,” Ebbert said as blood flowed on the computer screen. “We make it visceral and added camera shakes.”
The American Medical Association says video games have an educational benefit but calls for further study on whether they can cause aggressive and addictive behavior.
Addictive is the fun, but it won’t cause bad behavior, the two designers contended.
It wasn’t all business: If gaming seeks a bridge between nerd and cool, he could be Gerard Williams, 25, a New York City rapper with a YouTube serial who calls himself the Hip Hop Gamer.
Wearing a World Wrestling Entertainment belt with a spinner buckle and wrestler John Cena’s name, Williams rapped in the media lunchroom: “I got more gore than the ‘Gears of War.’‘’
(Michael Martinez is a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune.)