I’m Spartacus: Booth babes and the Perpetual Quest for Integrity in the Games Industry

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On October 3rd 2012, Eurogamer co-founder and managing director Ruper Loman announced via the website’s chat forums that “booth babes” – females hired to draw crowds to their attributed exhibition stands – were no longer welcome at the annual Eurogamer Expo. In case there was anything ambivalent about his comments, Loman signed off with the following statement: “For future shows we will be issuing formal guidelines: Booth babes are Not OK.”

I am fortunate enough to have been writing about videogames professionally for several years now. Because I’ve never really understood that odd desire that many of my peers have – to populate your social circle with as many people as possible who all do the same job as you – and because hardly anybody reads the copy that I produce, this is an industry that I’ve never particularly felt a part of. I have to confess that this is exactly the way that I like it, Electronic Theatre Imagebut when everyone with a similar job description decides to get simultaneously mad or indignant about something, the resulting stream of firebrand rhetoric becomes absolutely impossible to avoid.

Before Virgin Media’s booth babes had their legs re-sheathed at the 2012 Eurogamer Expo, there had already been at least two similar industry hoo-has this year, both of which also centred around charges of sexism. These “scandals” didn’t incur plentiful polite discussion beneath one opinion piece… they incurred a light smattering of (occasionally) polite discussion beneath innumerable opinion pieces. What I found nauseating about all of these articles is that they were always exactly the same: different shades of the same opinion. The whole thing was about nothing more than mere one-upmanship. You think you were offended? Well, wait until you get a load of how offended I was…

I’ve decided to treat this article in the same way that I tend to treat random encounters with complete strangers, so I’ll tactlessly shoehorn in the following statement: I once had a 4-year relationship with a Turkish girl who worked for prolonged periods as a catwalk model. On several occasions, in an attempt to help pay her way through university, she contemplated signing up to a modelling agency that specialised in catering for events in the, “ technology and gadget sector.”

In the end she never signed on with one of those organisations, but there’s something quite spectacularly offensive about the prospect of those opportunities no longer existing for her. What’s inherently wrong with all of these incensed opinion pieces is that there’s a dearth of actual facts in them. Almost everything that has been written on the subject – in the past month, at least – is based solely around hare-brained assumptions about other people. Even Rab Florence’sElectronic Theatre Image fantastically entertaining Eurogamer diatribe – click here to read that in full – resorts to signing off with a furious outburst involving a scenario that’s totally imaginary:

“Have you ever seen some gamer dude getting his photo taken with a Booth Babe? Some chunky, pale guy, grinning as he puts an arm around the waist of a beautiful young girl. A moment captured forever, of this guy and this girl. The guy is probably a good guy. A good friend, a kind person. A good son. He’ll be a good dad one day. But in that moment? When that photo is being taken? He’s not posing for a photo beside a person. He’s posing for a photo with a thing he’s seen. A beautiful, unattainable thing. An object.”

Turning something innocent into something vaguely sinister is a technique that the British tabloids love to employ, because it does an outstanding job of instantly winding people up. I could cap this piece with a mirrored version of the above, in which I speculate about a loveable, mentally handicapped fellow, who is collecting booth babe photographs solely because his late mother used to be in a similar line of work. Both of these images are fundamentally dishonest, but for the record, people who see other people as objects aren’t sexists: they’re psychopaths.

Rab’s article also expresses the (apparently very popular) opinion that booth babes are an antiquated thing that “we’ve all left behind”; as if finding women attractive is something that’s now only allowed to happen when we’re locked away in the privacy of our own homes. I don’t walk around this stupid world like a monk: I find women attractive all day, every day. It’s nothing more complicated than simple, pain-in-the-neck human nature… many apologies. I’m never encouraged to rape or belittle beautiful women just because they happen to be provocatively dressed and/or sharing the same air as me, but this “movement” seems designed to protect men who are. I’ve never posed for a photograph with a booth babe, nor have I ever been encouraged to enter one of their booths because of their banter. But if booth babes are good for business – and they’re clearly good for business – then why do so many people, who seem to share my general apathy towards them, feel the need to stomp them out regardless?

If you’ve ever wandered around the hellish, Technicolour puke museum of Ibiza’s West End, you’ll know that the main strip is populated predominantly by pretty girls, all attempting to ensare drunken pink men into the bar that’s paying their wages. For a couple of weeks, many summers ago, my aforementioned ex was one of these girls, and every day I nervously expected her to come home with horror stories. In the end, it was an experience that she actively enjoyed – she liked the attention and was never once groped or aggressed – and her only reservation was that, despite her constant enquiries, her boss wasn’t massively interested in implementing a way for her to raise some kind of alarm if something did go wrong.

For the record, I whole-heartedly applaud Rupert Loman’s decision to usher some of this year’s booth babes into the 18+ area of the expo. It is now very much a family-friendly event, and the concept of women brandishing QR codes on their backsides is not only astonishingly tacky, it’s inappropriate. But blanket-banning an entire sub-section of paid workers as a response isn’t just disingenuous, it’s downright bloody creepy. If issues are raised about inappropriate dress, deal with them. If workers are being mistreated by punters, investigate. If employers are forcing unwilling staff to wear racy clothing, then find a company that isn’t doing that. And if these girls are happy to wear hotpants – and there isn’t a QR code emblazoned on the arse – then what exactly is the problem? You don’t buy hotpants from Ann Summers, you buy hotpants from Primark. They sell because some girls like to wear them. This whole thing calls to mind a discussion that I had with a decidedly bellendian friend of mine a while back, in which he argued that Lollipop Chainsaw was sexist, exclusively because the outfit that Juliet Starling wore throughout it was pandering to perverts. It’s mandatory attire for tens of thousands of pre-teen girls in America, I told him. He wasn’t interested. He was upset because some imaginary pervert – but not him, not ever – was probably going to get some kind of sexual kick out of it.

Earlier this year, I attended a press event in London in which booth babes – along with a few of their male doppelgangers – were out in force. The male quarter of this demographic were universally useless; tasked with manning demo pods housing software that nobody had seen before, none of them had bothered to ask their employer for any extra information, so in most cases, they did little more than covertly express how much they didn’t want to be there. On the other hand, their female counterparts were impressive in the extreme; enthusiastic, knowledgeable about the product they were tasked with promoting, and eager to chat with anybody who dared to ask them a question. As I left the event, one of these ladies was in the middle of giving an interview to a German journalist, carefully answering questions that were clearly intended to have been directed at a developer.

She was wearing the following: smart shoes, black trousers and a branded, tight-fitting T-shirt. I’m more than happy to admit that she was one of the most beautiful women that I’ve ever laid my eyes upon, but was she technically a “booth babe”? Did the lack of revealing dress excuse her from that description? Would the extra mile that she went to, professionally, be enough to earn her a place at next year’s Eurogamer Expo? What’s more, is Rupert Loman going to stand at the Expo gates next year policing his prim new dress code? And if our only aim here is to protect the children, will the dress code apply to cosplayers too? These questions bring attention to what is really bothering me about all of this: this is an extremely complicated issue, and just because you’re paid to write periodical opinion pieces for a living doesn’t mean that discussion is free to be completely ruled out.

“It’s about the bigger picture”

No it isn’t; it’s about a revenue stream for young women that a band of self-righteous people are trying rather desperately to destroy altogether. Eurogamer is an influential outfit – deservedly so – but if others follow suit in this area, what exactly has been achieved? It’s very revealing that countless games journalists, so desperate to present themselves to the world as tub-thumping liberals at every available opportunity, don’t realise that they’re essentially gunning for what is, when you lay it down flat, nothing more than puritanical censorship. Championing the misguided idea that the female form corrupts, somehow. That it’s their responsibility to protect under-sexed gamers from women that aren’t biologically related to them. That sex itself is beneath them. That the poor, self-conscious petals who work as booth babes don’t have any idea what the hell they’re doing, and desperately need to be saved.

I’ve always been utterly fascinated by the concept of the “moral panic”, not least because those movements are always based on nowt more substantial than frenzied hot air. When I was fifteen years old – and this is a true story, by the way – a senior staff member at my school successfully lobbied for me to be expelled, because she’d heard a rumour that I had repeatedly viewed a pirated copy of Oliver Stone’sElectronic Theatre Image film Natural Born Killers. That sounds utterly ridiculous in hindsight, but nobody thinks straight when they’re neck-deep in the shit, and back then, Natural Born Killers was a recruitment film designed expressly to turn troubled young men into serial killers. Common sense didn’t exist, and mob mentality ruled all.

In this situation, one thing is for certain: almost nobody appears to give a damn about the actual people involved here. Everyone’s keen to pontificate about imaginary sexism, about the prospect of corrupted children, and about how we can all celebrate now because the games industry has finally de-shackled itself from its own seedy past. But a small handful of jobs – until now filled by young women – no longer exist as a result of all this, and the only people who don’t matter in – and have never been invited to – this discussion are those very same people. How on earth is that not sexist?

Look at him. Look at that games journalist. Look into his eyes. Imagine what’s going through his mind as he writes that blog post on the brilliance of babe-free gaming expos. “Pardon me my darling, but your line of work makes me feel terribly uncomfortable, so I have gone to the trouble of terminating your employment… please, don’t thank me. Now, I think it’s time for you to cover up and disappear behind the deli counter at Sainsbury’s, there’s a good girl…”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

I’ll sign off with a few rather macabre words from VG247’s Patrick Garrett who, after likening booth babes to the cancerous effects of breathing in second-hand cigarette smoke – yes, really – went on to reveal that the real issue here wasn’t exploitation or sexism, but the fact that he felt that he was being patronised…

“Make us bend over and shoot our asses because you’re a perennially erect, two-footed penis. You have no brain: you will buy this product because we marketed at your biology like an 0898 number in the back of a ‘lads’ mag. Women are asses you want to f*ck. You’re a f*ck-rod. Now give us some money.”

Weep for him.


About the Author: Chet Roivas has been writing about games professionally for several years, and now contributes primarily to the zavvi.com blog.

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