Feb. 2, 2006 -- It's one of the sleazier sides of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, but it's also one of the biggest draws: "booth babes." Booth babes are the beautiful and leggy models and actresses hired to wear not much at all to attract drooling gamers to a company's booth.
But after a year that saw the video-game industry under fire from a number of directions, the Entertainment Software Association -- the group that holds E3 -- has announced that it will be more strictly enforcing the rules on what spokeswomen can wear to the trade show.
"I wouldn't say it's totally unique to this industry, I think a lot of conferences employ attractive women to hock wares," Greg Kasavin said. "I guess where the ESA is drawing a line is that they're trying to put a definition to what constitutes scantily clad and what's borderline offensive." Kasavin is the editor in chief of the popular video-game Web site, Gamespot.com.
As attendees head to this year's show, many are asking whether they'll be walking into the same loud, brash and provocative environment they're used to or into a more puritanical expo with a kinder, gentler disposition?
'It's Like Being on Another Planet'
Walking into the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo is like leaving Earth and landing on a planet where geeks rule. Video games are played by beautiful girls who want to hang out with a gamer who really knows how to handle a joystick.
The expo is the largest video- and computer-trade show in the country. Every spring, tens of thousands of industry professionals, buyers and journalists descend on the Los Angeles Convention Center to get a glimpse of the latest and greatest games and gear.
"It's sensory overload," Kasavin said. "E3's noisy and crowded, and it's got huge signs blasting messages and lots of loud music playing, all competing for attention."
And one of the most popular ways to draw a crowd at E3 is through the use of scantily clad and often head-turning spokeswomen, commonly called "booth babes."
Booth babes have become such a part of E3 that many Web sites that report on the event also feature photo galleries of the spokeswomen. They're often among the most popular features -- especially for those who can't get in.
'Not My Favorite Term'
Dyanamaria Leifsson has strapped on rocket packs and wielded oversized futuristic guns as a spokeswoman at E3 for the last two years, and she says it's a proven way to generate some buzz.
"We are a means to draw in the attention of trade-show goers," the Los Angeles-based model said in an e-mail interview. "There's a human interface that is harder to ignore than a blinking marquee."
Leifsson sees her role as being just another flashing billboard -- one that specifically caters to the industry's top demographic.
"It happens that the vast majority of E3 attendees are males," she wrote. "Of course you're going to want to turn the targeted heads in the direction of your product."
Most people acknowledge that Leifsson and her colleagues are effective. Booth babes have become one of the event's more popular attractions. They're often stopped for autographs and asked to pose for photos with fans. Diehard gamers can come up with even more creative ways to show their appreciation of the spokeswomen.
Once when she was dressed up as a game character for an event, Leifsson said: "One of the guests asked if I would step on his head and point my gun at him for a picture."
"I'd say that was out of the ordinary."
Most of the time they're polite and rarely do things that get out of hand. But Leifsson said "booth babe" was a term she could live without.
"Not my favorite term, but I guess it could be worse," she said.
Go Too Far and You May Get Fined
In recent years, the show has become littered with women in bikinis and high heels, not to mention revealing medieval and futuristic armor. And while the sight of these geeky but gorgeous ladies may not pose a problem for those on the showroom floor, many say it doesn't help to improve the image of a maturing industry trying to shake off some negative stereotypes.
With E3 2006 just a few months away, the association has sent out a gentle reminder -- along with the threat of fines -- to exhibitors that there is a limit to what is acceptable.
E3 officials say they are not changing the rules on booth babes, just clarifying them.
"The E3Expo dress-code policy is the same as it has been for the past several years and is similar to the policies of the vast majority of other major trade shows," E3 show director Mary Dolaher said in a statement.
What is new in 2006 "is an update and clarification of the enforcement policies; as we do from time to time, we have taken steps to ensure that exhibitors are familiar with the policy and how it will be enforced," she said.
The "clarification" comes after a year that saw several states attempt to pass laws targeting certain types of video games and after a scandal around alleged hidden material found in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."
According to reports, the E3 exhibitors' handbook says spokeswomen wearing sexually explicit and/or sexually provocative clothing are prohibited. Nudity, partial nudity, and bathing-suit bottoms that were once seen as almost standard booth-babe attire will now land an exhibitor in hot water.
Companies that refuse to comply will first be slapped with a verbal warning, then a $5,000 fine that's due on the spot.
"Some of these are huge companies that are paying millions just to be at E3," Kasavin said, "so I don't know if a $5,000 fine is going to deter them."
Trying to Clean Up the Industry's Image
"I think that E3 is saying: 'Come on, let's dial it back a bit. It's a trade show; it's not a public show. It's designed for the industry and its related industries to communicate about things,'" said John Davison, editorial director for Ziff Davis Media Game Group. "Not having the booth babes isn't going to make any difference."
Davison says the event is supposed to be one for the industry, even though you might not know it once your feet hit the main halls.
He and others think the ESA is trying to help reshape the image of a business that many of its critics really know nothing about.
"The ESA seems to be under a lot of pressure these days to clean up the image of games and to at least demonstrate that the video-game industry is responsible in regulating itself," Kasavin said. Cracking down on booth babes may send a signal to the industry's critics, showing them that game makers can take issues of taste into account, he says.
"I think it does help to show that standards are more important now than maybe they were before."