Surprise! I'm Not A Booth Babe

I’d love to see more women at each con I attend. I just want them to be there as actual attendees or developers, not human props.
Publish date:
March 23, 2012
work, video games, gender politics, booth babes

With the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East right around the corner, (and because Lesley asked me so nicely), I thought it timely to write about the “booth babe” phenomenon in gamer culture. Settle in dear reader friends, because this is going to be a looong read.

As Lesley described, “booth babes” are promotional models, prevalent in many major convention spaces. She describes their purpose and presence well: “Booth babes are essentially marketing bait: They are hired to work a specific event, to dangle tantalizingly from whatever hook-shaped product or service they're being paid to promote.” While the stereotypical image of a “babe” indicates a scantily clad woman, this is not always the case.

Since entering the “real world” (i.e. working jobs that actually pay my bills) almost a decade ago, I’ve spent the bulk of my career in male dominated industries and fields. Somehow a liberal arts degree and an MA in Irish Studies lead to a career in the tech and games industries.

My previous experience, my work life prior to video games, is an important preface, because when I talk about the problematic nature of “booth babes,” I’m often met with comments about how their presence in high tech culture is “the norm,” or “the way things are.” (Usually the person telling me this is an older man who has never worked in either of my fields).

While I’ve encountered “babes” or promotional models at tattoo conventions, car shows, or even, in one case, an antiques market, I spent three years in the high tech field without ever running into one despite attending my own fair share of conferences and events. (Caveat: I’ve never been to CES which I know is filled with booth babes). While my colleagues in the games industry have been far kinder to me than some of the good old boys in my old profession (for example no one has ever just assumed that I’m a secretary because I’m blonde or tried to make out with me, after hours on company time), the experience has not been the same with the client base, gamers themselves.

One of my biggest pet peeves in terms of the way video games as an industry and culture are discussed by mainstream media is the conflation of the actual industry - the studios, people, and professionals that make games - and the games community - the people who play, buy, and write about games. I use the term "community" as a blanket to cover everyone from games journalists to professional gamers to your average joe(sephine) who plays games from time to time to blow off steam.

When I talk about my experiences, especially those involving misogyny, I’m addressing interactions with the community and culture of gaming. Is the industry implicated in all of this? Sure, we are, after all, setting the tone with the games we make and market, but I have never, EVER, had a professional colleague treat me in any way close to the way members of the community have. (In fact, part of what drew me to this profession is the incredibly progressive nature of most game developers that I met).

I love love working in video games. And by and large I’d say I love the majority of the games’ community that I interact with. Not only do I get to work on products that I’m passionate about (hello, I DREAMED of making the games that I currently work on when I was a little kid), but I get to meet, work with, and interact with really incredible people. (I actually first met Lesley and her hubby, Dennis, at PAX East).

I mean really, who else gets to wake up in the morning and go to work with all of their friends...and get great health insurance to boot?

I first started speaking publicly about the issue of booth babes during a panel I ran at last year’s PAX East. Titled “The Other Us,” the panel tackled issues of gender in the gaming community using reactions to a review by a woman journalist, Abbie Heppe, as a case study and starting point. (You can read one of my favorite recaps of the panel and find a link to a video of it here).

During the panel, an audience member brought up the issue of booth babes, and another panelist brought up the fact that he’d witnessed the effect that their presence has had on me, his colleague at shows. Well, specifically, he was aware of the fact that I’d been groped and harassed, at one of my first major press events.*

PAX itself has a no booth babes policy, which I’ve always appreciated, (and which makes it, among many other reasons, my favorite event to attend each year). As I understand it though, the policy involves voluntary compliance, and, as I, and other attendees have seen, there are ways to skirt it. For example, “cosplay” is totally acceptable - and discerning the line between cosplay and “babe” can be difficult (as it was in the case of a group of models staffing the Duke Nukem Forever booth last year).

Or, more horrifyingly, women who work for the company presenting do not count. At last year’s PAX East I spoke to TWO women whose companies were using them as “booth babes” (literally advertising, “take photos with our booth babes”). One of them told me that she was actually the company’s office manager and she had been invited to the convention specifically to dress up and help the company subvert the policy.**

To PAX’s credit, they have been known to reprimand companies who do this sort of thing and have even, in some cases, escorted groups of babes and their product from the con. But still, how uncool to be asked, by your boss, to wear a tube top and miniskirt and pose for pictures with strangers? (The booth in question was run by a community outlet and not a development studio).

I certainly don’t blame the women hired to work as booth babes for the bad behavior of a few select assholes I’ve encountered.*** I do, however, blame the culture and attitudes that promote their use.

As Lesley pointed out in her GDC diaries, when the bulk of the women one sees in a male dominated space are there as nothing more than human props or marketing tools, it’s easy to make the leap that all women staffing booths are there for the same purpose. For women like me, who are present to discuss the games we’ve worked on, this provides several challenges and also makes the convention floor an unwelcome space for us.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see more women at each con I attend. I just want them to be there as actual attendees or developers, not being shown off like human props.

The use of booth babes in my industry bothers me because it discredits my own presence at conventions and creates situations that compromise my professional integrity. I also just don’t appreciate the way this type of “marketing” denigrates the community that I participate in and make products for.

Often, the models or promoters hired to work as booth babes are given no more than a few, if any, cursory bullet points about the product they’re representing. They don’t have the knowledge or background to have deep discussions about what they’re selling and nine times out of ten, their presence in the booth is an ill fit.

Since they’re usually the most visible women staffing booths at conventions, the presence of non-developer promotional staff sets a problematic standard that women don’t actively participate in the playing or making of games, peripherals, or other consumer technology. Need proof? Take a look at this blog post by Shawn King. Or just talk to any female developer for five minutes. Or google the “babes” hired to cosplay at the Duke Nukem Forever booth last year. Turns out they’re all actually hard core gamers - but their purpose at the con was as marketing bait, and neither the company that hired them, nor their own company for that matter, actually promoted their gaming knowledge or participation.

Most con-goers I spoke to wrote them off as “dumb girls” infiltrating “our (gamers) space” - which really sucks. This language, in and of itself, highlights a problem within our community about the way in which women are discussed or treated and especially the way women are viewed as less than equals and as outsiders in the games community. I mean, obviously, girls don’t play attractive girls are always dumb...right? (paraphrasing the internet here).

When I’ve spoken to fellow gamers about their issues with booth babes, I’ve found, surprisingly, that the most vocally opposed are often male-identified gamers. I hear over and over “they don’t belong here, they don’t play games, I can’t talk to them.”

When the women working the floor are written off, immediately, as not worth talking to, it lends to an attitude of models, promoters, and other female staff, developers included, being treated not as people but as, well, something less.

I’ve been mistaken for a promoter numerous times (and no, I really don’t think that’s a compliment). These encounters have ranged from the awkward (unwanted, surprise hugs, photos being taken without permission) to the disrespectful (“I’ll just wait for the guys who actually worked on the game to come back”), to the humiliating (the aforementioned groping).

In fact, so many of my women-identified colleagues have stories about being harassed or groped at cons, that if I counted these incidents up the number would probably seem like hyperbole. And it’s not just men that are culpable in treating development staff badly because they assume that women on the floor are booth babes. I’ve witnessed, on more than one occasion, female attendees referring to colleagues of mine as “dumb bitches,” or “stupid booth babes” without having even spoken to them.

There’s that assumption again - women staffing a booth must not be working on or making the product they’re representing.

Booth babes have to put up with a lot - and probably, by event’s end, end up taking just as much shit, if not more, than I do. I recognize that booth babes are there to do a job as well as I am, but we all deserve respect while we’re at work.

While models may be hired to pose for photos or to goof around with con-goers, that’s not why I’m there. If I’m demoing a game and some asshole hops up on stage, in my personal space, putting his hands all over me in front of a crowd, it makes it 100% impossible for me to do my job (and actually, I know handsy assholes make it harder for promoters to do their work too). It also compromises my safety and immediately takes the focus away from my work or my product.

But there's another aspect to the use of "booth babes" at any event, but especially fan-focused or fan run events like PAX that I also find really troublesome. As gamers, I, like Lesley, think we should be really PO'd at the companies that use "babes."

Any company that hires a booth babe is telling YOU, the person coming up to their booth, that they don't believe that you can have an interaction with a reasonably attractive person of your own volition. They're perpetuating this awful stereotype that we as gamers are social miscreants who can't interact with or even attract the attention of conventionally "hot" or "interesting" people on our own.

Instead, these companies tell us that they're happy to PAY one of these people to tolerate our presence for a few minutes (I won't even get into all the other assumptions that the use of "babes" makes about gamers as a community).

I’ve talked (perhaps at too great a length) about how the presence of booth babes discredits my own presence as a professional in the industry. I'd like to add here that it also discredits all of us as gamers, geeks, and games enthusiasts.

It’s actually been my experience that the companies using “booth babes” are usually not studios promoting games (the DNF example notwithstanding) but are largely companies promoting third party accessories. I understand that sex sells, and hey, I’m not a prude -- I enjoy a bit of creative, sexy edginess in advertising just as much as the next person -- but seriously, I feel like the use of booth babes is often just pure laziness on the part of the company using them. (Some booths hire actresses to cosplay as characters from their games, which I think, in some cases can be awesome and creative, others just hire attractive young women to hand out swag).

I mean seriously, in the games community at least, your average con-goer is so knowledgeable about the stuff they use, they’re not going to buy a third rate product just because a model showed it to them.

And if it really were true that we needed a third party gaming accessory company to pay a hot model to hang around with any of us, so many of the awesome fan-run events in geek-dom and video games wouldn't exist. It's obvious from the sheer number of attendees at these, as well as all of the relationships forged there, that we're all social beings, and for the most part we have our shit together.

At the end of the day, I’m still a part of a comparatively young industry. Despite evidence to the contrary, there’s still this very prevalent stereotype that the average gamer is a white, straight male in his twenties, so marketing tends to gear towards that demographic.

I am hopeful that as more women enter the industry and assume leadership positions, the products we make will change and grow up with us (we’re already seeing snippets of this with the inclusion of stronger, better designed women characters and inclusions of same-sex romances in game narratives). I think as gamer culture grows up we’ll find (hopefully) that the consumer base will demand more and demand better of the industry and its affiliates.

As I always do, I’ll wrap up with some follow up questions for my fellow xoJaners. Do you think booth babes are an effective marketing tool? Do you notice their presence at events, are you bothered by it? Have you ever worked as a promotional model or “booth babe?” Please give us your perspective! (or hit me up on twitter, I’d love to chat).

Finally, if you’re on the east coast, or traveling, will I see you at PAX East this year? I’ll be hosting this little shindig before the event starts.

PS - if you’re interested to see other takes and perspectives on this issue, here are some other posts to check out:


* For a variety of reasons I won’t and can’t go into any further details about this, so please don’t ask.

** Needless to say I’m not going to out this woman who spoke to me casually and obviously off the record.

*** I hate to even insert this, but having spoken and written about the issues of booth babes numerous times, I find that I need to address it. Nearly every time that I’ve talked about this issue I’ve been accused, by men and women alike, of hating booth babes or being jealous of them. Although I don’t agree with their use at the conventions I attend, I certainly don’t begrudge the women who make their living as models their professions. In fact, at a number of events, I’ve found myself hanging out or grabbing drinks with “babes” in our off time. When you’re the only women around and you’re sick of being oggled (or creepy hugged) it makes for good bonding.