LOS ANGELES--If you came to E3 this year worried that the so-called "booth babes" wouldn't be here strutting their stuff, you already know you had nothing to fear. That's because, while the scantily clad women may be a tad less scantily clad at E3 2006 than in years past, they're still very much in evidence, and they're still showing a lot of skin.
In January, the Entertainment Software Association, which runs E3, caused a stir in the video game world by announcing that it would no longer tolerate the barely covered women--hired by game publishers to attract men to their E3 booths--unless they put on more clothes.
The booth babes had prowled the halls at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where E3 is held each year, in costumes meant to invoke various video game characters--costumes that in many cases were little more than bikinis. Booth babes have been such an attraction for many E3 attendees that there's even a fan site, E3 Girls, which sports the tagline "it's not about the games."
The ESA's announcement followed increased criticism that the video game industry was marketing sexual content to kids. The complaints were largely a response to the so-called "Hot Coffee" scandal, in which it was discovered that the popular game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas included sexual content, despite its being rated for under-18 audiences. The game was originally rated M for Mature, meaning it was intended for consumers ages 17 and up. After "Hot Coffee," its rating was changed to AO for adults only.
And now, with E3 in full swing, it's clear that the game publishers are working hard to ensure that booth babes are still on the show floor, are still posing for sexy pictures with adoring show attendees, and are still trying to get away with as much visible skin as possible.
Reuters reported in January that E3 rules state that "material, including live models, conduct that is sexually explicit and/or sexually provocative, including but not limited to nudity, partial nudity and bathing suit bottoms, are prohibited on the show floor." From its perspective, the ESA said nothing has changed from past years except that it now plans to ensure that its rules are followed. That means, presumably, that in previous years it was letting game companies slide when it came to the dress code.
"The E3 dress-code rules remain identical to what they have been for the past several years and are similar to dress-code policies of the vast majority of other major trade shows," Doug Lowenstein, ESA president, said in an e-mail statement to CNET News.com. "What's new in 2006 is an update and strengthening of the show's enforcement policies for these rules, which was communicated to exhibitors as a routine update."
"I think the definition of 'booth babes' is really vague," said Susan Corben, vice president of marketing at Nyko Technologies, whose booth babe program at E3 is now in its third year. "They're trying to address blatant sexuality being marketed to minors. It's making a political statement regarding their position on sexuality in games."
Corben said that for E3 2006, Nyko had to have its booth babes' outfits approved by show organizers. And indeed, the Nyko outfits are clearly toned down from a year earlier. In 2005, the Nyko models were on the floor in very short wraparound skirts and form-fitting tops that ended just below their breasts. This year, the Nyko models are showing just as much leg, but they're wearing regular white shorts and T-shirts that entirely cover their midsections.
Corben said Nyko and other game companies were told that violations of the dress code would subject offending publishers to $5,000 fines. But she scoffed at the notion that such penalties would be a problem for those receiving them, especially because some companies spent six figures on their booths and as much as $50,000 on the signs for those booths alone.
Booth babe programs are "a lot more cost-effective, and I think publishers recognize that," said Corben. "Your (return on investment) is infinitely greater...I think a lot of people think the whole (policy) stunt was a joke." Indeed, on the show floor, men were still lining up to take pictures of booth babes, just as in years past. And while the women's outfits may be showing a little bit less skin, there doesn't seem to be any sense that the women are selling sex any less.
"Honestly, this is exactly what I'm here for," Channa DeSilva, a Los Angeles game tester, said of the booth babes. "I would not be able to do this conference without pretty females to talk to."
DeSilva, who stood in line for about 10 minutes to have his picture taken with four women posing at publisher Tecmo's booth, laughed at the idea that booth babes were any less in evidence this year. And without prompting, he quickly pulled out his digital camera to show off a series of pictures of nothing but the dressed-down young women.
To some of the women at the center of the controversy, the ESA's policy may well be much ado about nothing. "I just think it's silly," said Lana Kinnear, a fourth-year E3 model working this time around for Sapphire Technology. "All the body parts were covered. People wear less at the beach."
Further, said Kinnear, who was wearing a skintight full-body suit, the booth babes are only real-life representations of the game characters they're supposed to be invoking. "The video games (all) have half-naked people in them," she said.
Stephanie Arellano, a second-year model working for Vivendi Games and promoting its Free Style street basketball game, agreed.
"What we're wearing is reflective of the games," said Arellano. "Last year, I was dressed as (Lara Croft from Tomb Raider), with the boobs and everything."
But Arellano said she was happy that E3 is trying to crack down on the more extreme side of the booth-babe spectrum.
"I think it's great that they're cutting down on the nudity part of it," she said. "Last year, a lot of the women were practically nude. This year, it's being a (character from) the game, so you don't have to be nude. It's more clothing. It's more classy."
That said, Arellano doesn't think the ESA's enforcement policy has changed things all that dramatically. And she explained the publishers have an incentive to keep on bringing the underdressed women to E3.
"I don't think it's changed to the other end of the spectrum," Arellano said. "It's just calmed down. Like anything, sex sells. It's kind of like, we're never going to be covered up like a nun. They want sexy, (just) not raunchy."
CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.