Electronic Empire Expo: The First World Problem of E3

Thursday, 3:50pm. South Hall, Electronic Entertainment Expo.

“Like I said over Twitter,” a colleague tells me over the hack-and-slash din of the Square Enix fortress behind us, “Nothing says ‘first world’ like a job where you delete bad images from 4chan for a living.”

He’s got a point, and maybe I do complain about my job too much. There is indeed something distinctly “first world” about being a moderator for a casual MMO, or for that matter, a journalist for a gaming website, grappling with the noise and pulsating lights and body heat of a crowded expo floor. Even so, I’m gagging.

I have a good reason as to why. I’ve recently finished rereading Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter’s Games of Empire, which argues for a closer examination of the intersections of imperialism and electronic entertainment. It’s a much more complex book than I can hope to unpack here, but its application to E3 is not simply implied, it’s explicit.

Why are virtual games the media of Empire, integral to and expressive of it as no other? They originated in the U.S. military-industrial complex, the nuclear-armed core of capital’s global domination, to which they remain umbilically connected. They were created by the hard-to-control hacker knowledge of a new type of intellectual worker, immaterial labor, vital to a fresh phase of capitalist expansion. […] At the same time, games themselves are an expensive consumer commodity that the global poor can access only illicitly, demonstrating the massive inequalities of this regime. (Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, University of Minnesota Press, 2009, pg xxix)

Capitalist imperialism, far from being the remote, abstract Marxian concept of collectivist rhetoric, is all around us here at E3. Crossing a hail of simulated gunfire and a press of bodies caught in a carnivalesque daze just to get to my friend’s table at the food court, I reflected on why the hell I thought it was a good idea to come to this thing in the first place, apart from getting to meet a friend. He’s having a better time of it than me, his eyes shining as he describes some of what he’s heard and seen in one private screening or another. Cool stuff, really: inclusivity in XCOM and the sort of positive gains we should rightly care about as proper liberals, but all it does is give me a massive McKenzie Wark (ala Gamer Theory) moment. I picture an enormous machine — no, an entire mechanized ecosystem, Wark’s The CaveTM made large, refining and finessing itself into a more effective system of control. Give us your women, your minorities, your LGBTQ — we’ll stick them in uniforms and let them gun down the same faceless, amalgamated enemies as their straight white male counterparts, and isn’t that progressive of us?

Provided with minimal comment: the first page of results on a Google image search of ‘E3’.

I have touched upon this in the past, reflecting on the inherent classism of electronic games in such areas as perceived fairness and accessibility. But there is a far larger system of class bias at work with games, namely the one that has to be engaged in just to facilitate the existence of this article. A society that affords enough leisure for the creation and consumption of games is one thing but a culture that additionally affords us the free time and mental energy to have critical, philosophical discussions on the subject? Is there anything more first world than that?

The military origins of simulations, the monasticism of hacker culture, the bad-boy arcade ambiance, testosterone niche marketing, developers’ hiring of experienced (hence male) players, game capital’s risk-averse adherence to proven shooting, sports, fighting and facing formulae–all combined to form a self-replicating culture whose sexual politics were coded into every Game Boy handheld, every Duke Nukem double entendre, and every booth babe at industry conferences, where women appeared only as imperiled princesses and imperiling vixens, a male head-start program, building and consolidating the gender stratification within immaterial labor. (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, pg 20)

Designed with the tacit or explicit support of the U.S. military, core games in particular can’t help but reproduce the attitudes and myths of imperialism: territorial dominance, technological ascendance, meritocratism, social fluidity, white male chauvinism. Empire reproduces itself fractally, including within each iteration it provides arms for the oppression of the lower masses. That war games like the ones I had to race past to meet a friend are the opiate of choice of middle- and under-classes alike seems to persist without any apparent self-consciousness or irony. The whites of Silicon Valley produce military fetishware for the blacks and latinos of low-income urban households, and we all speak so breathlessly of graphics processors and $100 controllers, without a thought to Brazilian coltan mines or computer salvage dumps in impoverished China.

Only Empire can produce problems like a game industry convention. Only Empire produces something like E3, a three-day waking nightmare half carnival of lights and half technosexual orgy. A woman lounges in a bed (barely) dressed in black vinyl lingerie as adult men form a semi-circle around her to take pictures on their smartphones. A suited marketing executive desperate to offload his surplus of crappy plastic giveaways pushes two iron-on patches into my hand, which is two more than I asked for. On Tuesday, I peek over the shoulder of the young man in front of me while I wait my turn to play Metal Gear Solid 3D, and I can only do this because when I say “young man” I actually mean “pubescent boy,” proving that despite the expo’s insistence that this is a conference for adult professionals this is, as always, something those on the show floor are more than happy to turn a blind eye towards. On Wednesday, I am too sick to leave bed. On Thursday, I would not have left the house if I didn’t have a friend waiting and it wasn’t just a mile up the road from my student apartment.

Even then I could hardly escape the spirit of the conference. The force of spectacle aside, the game industry is something that persists continuously around me, as palpable as the fog of Silent Hill. In the days leading up to E3, Microsoft held its Xbox 360 presser a scant two blocks from my house. USC, touted as the best game design school in the nation at the moment, hosts an EA-funded magnet program led by an EA-endowed chair. (Which is not to criticize the woman herself, Tracy Fullerton, as anything but a force for good — but I’m more interested in the apparatus that she and I by default are a part of, which is highly commercial in nature.).

USC has most famously produced Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany, whose Journey was perhaps the only pure thing to be found on the E3 show floor this year but even they feel more like an exception than a rule. And lest we forget, for all their abstract beauty and naturalist, ecological messages, both flOw and Flower are sold at a profit as PSN exclusives. Their latest, Journey, plays the game as much as Modern Warfare 3, albeit in its own way. If E3 is the belly of the beast, USC is its mouth, capturing and breaking down incoming talent into little digestible bits that suit its purpose.

As a product of two film schools, one Hollywood-minded and the other Sundance-minded, I’ve recently begun to ask: Where are the indie game schools? Where is the crosstown counterpart to USC’s EA-funded Interactive Media department, a UCLA program teaching copyleft and digital liberation as much as 3D modeling and programming? It needs to happen. If not now, then soon. Very soon.

I can’t fault my friend or the other journos and critics swarming the expo floor for simply loving what they love. I too enjoy my $60 digital toys made at the horrendous expense of human and natural resources and yet discarded as easily as used tissues. I am nothing if not a citizen of Empire myself. So while I am glad we have a gaming culture, I wish it was a more globally conscious one.

By exodus we mean not an escape on a spaceship to another planet but a social transformation that exits Empire. It suggests a process of overcoming Empire not by seizing power but by subtracting support from its institutions and, at the same time, creating other ones.


“Another world is possible” was a popular activist slogan at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is also, in a different register, a gamer slogan, for all games involve the social production of possible worlds. (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, pgs 218-219)

E3 is a first world problem. Yet it reflects some of the most far-reaching global issues our high tech society is able to inflict on the rest of the Earth. For all the self-gratifying expense of E3, the light and sound shows, the slick expensive hardware developed against a backdrop of Foxconn factory fires, the booth babes are just a tiny symptom of this whole exploitative scene. The fact that expo organizers have gone back to this carnival format after their abortive attempt a few years back to downsize and sober up the event signals all we need to know about industry priorities, about as much as the following video clip (via GameSetWatch) shows:

I’ve personally never attended E3, and fellow reporters claim that it’s not worth the headache. Apparently, seeing excited nerds literally run into each other to grab that last show exclusive tchotchke loses its humor after the seventh or eight collision. Especially when they’re fellow game journalists. (Matthew Hawkins, “E3 or Chuck E. Cheese’s? You Be the Judge”, GameSetWatch, 9 June 2011)

As someone who did go, I withhold judgment of individual journalists. What I am concerned with, however, is the entire hedonistic, animalistic culture E3 aids and abets in an economic and social time where this really is not called for. Granted, I am struggling to imagine a time when it would be appropriate.