Neighbors for a Week
A long overdue essay about the breakout mainstreaming of video games from their temporary LA headquarters at the 2002 E3 (the boffo industry tradeshow) and its emulation of a city that sunk its hooks into middle America years before, Las Vegas. Under the influence of beer.by Dave McAwesome
Route 15 to Las Vegas is a dark road lit only by the tail lights of the cars ahead. There are hundreds of us. Escaping LA for the 24-hour party that is Las Vegas.
The Los Angeles Convention Center closed a few hours ago. The seventh annual Electronic Entertainment Expo was almost over, and, instead of heading to the must-go Sony party that night, I am speeding through a desert universe for the city on the edge of . . . "Heaven," says my passenger, the only PR guy in LA who hasn't pitched me anything today.
Numb with caffeine and Tylenol, we spot a light shooting into the sky. It's either the Luxor Hotel and Casino or the Electronic Arts booth at E3. At this point, nothing would surprise me. EA had a movie screen-size monitor flashing scenes for games that wouldn't hit shelves for several months. The speakers, I can confidently say, were unmistakably working. My questions during the tour consisted mostly of, "What?"
There is no question that E3 spoiled my Vegas jaunt.
It is 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Sin City, and we're tooling around the main drag. A scale Eiffel Tower dominates the block on my left as we approach a miniature New York skyline. Light bulbs cover every inch of architecture. What is designed to wow and entice, however, falls flat next to the half-pipe Activision erected to showcase the real life talents of the respective Michael Jordans of skateboarding and stunt biking, Tony Hawk and Matt Hoffman. I had watched Tony Hawk pull off a few neat tricks and bail on another as I walked to my next appointment.
Thursday night, a couple of PR reps drove me to Anaheim after I had spent 12 hours at the show. We made it for the bottom of the fourth (apparently, PR companies don't issue maps to their employees). The crowd was small, and even the Angels' rally monkey, a cheering chimp the team uses instead of the incessant organ heard in most stadia, could muster only so much excitement from the sparse crowd--a mere hiccup compared to the barbeque Gathering of Developers cooked up in a parking lot across the street from the convention center. A bevy of scantily clad models hosted the event while a line of hungry young men stretching around the block peeked through holes in the fence.
One does not attend E3. One enters the maw of the beast and prays to the nearest god that he is not too roughly chewed upon.
The video game industry is well aware of its status. It is not the basement community many once chided. It has mainstream tastes and a mainstream audience. It's an interactive Hollywood, and while the stars and starlets crowd Cannes, pixel people hit E3.
This was my first trip to both E3 (a trade show for the video game industry--oh, excuse me, the interactive entertainment industry) and a Nevada city better defined to me by Hunter Thompson than the cornerstone-laying mafiosos who discovered a use for nigh inhabitable, parched desert. It was a surprise therefore--or perhaps a relief--that the illuminated pearl necklace of the Vegas strip shone a milder luster than the chattering electric highways around the convention booths at E3.
By 2004, you'd be hard pressed to find a blockbuster movie release that didn't have a video game attached for simultaneous commercial launch. In some cases (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil) video games could be the source of the movie altogether. News magazines began devoting huge feature stories to games. Television ratings dropped as more young collegians and professionals tossed in their Madden disks for a few games. (People continued not to watch Dan Rather, but I suspect that had nothing to do with video games.)
On the show floor in 2002, exhibition booths buzzed with excitement about online gaming, virtual communities, pulling games out of the basement and into the living room. PR flacks harpooned members of the press and ushered us through line-up after line-up of games, most of which were scheduled to hit stores in the few weeks between Halloween and Christmas. At Company A's booth, I learned their shockingly good news that Game X would indeed be the blow-out, supercool, blockbuster title for Christmas. Twenty minutes later at Company B's booth, I learned more epoch-shattering positivity that, in fact, Game Y would be the record-breaking sales leader during the coming holiday season.
In Vegas, the evening has settled, predictably enough, in a strip club. The PR guy, a couple of his friends and I settle by the bar to continue the savage blitzkrieg on our respective livers. Every woman who passes us, each wearing less clothing than the previous, showers us with compliments. Steve, the only sane one among us, reminds, "This is about money. They will say whatever you want for money." We're too sauced for such clear-headed logic. My PR friend and his buddy take a few girls into a private room. I remain with the naysayer by the bar in the blind hope that his sober rationality will slow my rapidly spinning head. It didn't. I was soon captivated by a 20-nothing blond sliding down a pole on a nearby mini-stage.
Video games and Vegas are mainstream. They are the objects of families with 2.4 children. To keep the edge, there is a feeling of subtle impropriety without any real impropriety. The only shock at the Gathering of Developers parking lot was not the models, but the length of the line of gullible guys, itching for a glimpse of boobage they could just as easily see walking down Sunset on a weekend night. Even in the strip club, how better to diffuse the wanderlust of imagination than to listen to Steve: "This is about money. They are only interested in your money." Sobering, indeed (metaphorically, certainly not literally).
All this hype, and at the end of the night I'm left with nothing but a hangover.
See part II as I was left for dead in Vegas.