Despite controversy, 'booth babes' still prowl E3

After "Hot Coffee" scandal, gaming trade show said days of scantily clad models were through. Ahem. Photos: 'Booth babes' then and now

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.

Booth babes

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," meaning it was intended for consumers ages 17 and up. After "Hot Coffee," its rating was changed to "AO," or 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 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 E3Expo 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 "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."

But to some, that's nothing more than talk.

"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.  

Clarification: An original version of this story misrepresented the original rating of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." The game was originally rated "M," meaning it was intended for consumers ages 17 and up.
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