I had work on my mind, and my mind on a woman, and so one Saturday morning this summer, I woke up, said, “fuck it!” and got on the first train out of town to the largest video games convention in the world. The train pulled out of Berlin to Leipzig, and I was on my way to the Games Convention, not only the largest trade show for the video game industry, not only “Europe’s summer experience of the year,” according to the website, but also the Mecca for gamers both European and international. “Playing is quite simply part of human nature,” read the brochure I picked up from the Berlin electronics store at which I purchased my ticket the Tuesday before the trip, “it’s only the toys that have changed over the course of time.” I was excited! Two months of Russian study and one month of thesis and fellowship preparation threatened to make Tim a dull boy, after all, and I was genuinely curiously to see how the video game industry had changed since I last took games seriously.
Full disclosure: I used to be a gamer. It all started with my parents’ unwise birthday gift of an SNES sometime in elementary school, and while I got started with titles like “Super Mario World,” I was on to bigger and better adventures. I was a Nintendo fan boy for sometime, and for the majority of middle school and the 9th and 10thgrade, “going over to someone’s house” was usually a euphemism for playing the multiplayer mode of “Goldeneye” and doing as little physical activity as possible. I remember how I was the toast of the town in 6th grade when I was able to get an N64 earlier because my grandfather had access to the base exchange in California; going home every day for several hours of “Super Mario 64” was made sweeter by knowing that, while the rabble outside the gates had to rush to Toys “R” Us to play the games for twenty minutes before the consoles automatically reset, I had the game all to myself, could save to my heart’s desire, and that I could explore this vivid world Japanese programmers had slaved to create.
With maturity came newer games. The Nintendo systems of the 1990s were classics, no doubt, but they had their limits: I remember being appalled when the SNES version of “Mortal Kombat” had characters bleeding “sweat” – just the blood sprites from the more violent arcade version crappily-colored grey – even when they had their heads ripped off and were upper-cutted into somersaulting, hundred-foot plummets onto spike-beds Vlad would have approved of. It wasn’t just about violence, though. “Goldeneye” and the “Mario” games were great, but my true love quickly became Squaresoft’s games: “Final Fantasy 6,” (well, 3 at the time, but if you’re really into games, you would know it was actually the sixth) “Chrono Trigger,” and “Secret of Mana.” There was, on the one hand, so much strategy: as much as I loved Robo’s theme music best of all in the “Chrono” games, he wasn’t much of a versatile fighter (not enough elemental magic), and anyone who thinks that Gau wasn’t the best character in Final Fantasy 6 hasn’t spent enough time with the game. But on the other hand, these games actually had story; it was like living in a novel. Sure, “Secret of Mana” never had good plots, but the time travel of “Crono Trigger,” the Victorian industrial setting of “Final Fantasy 6” with the magic, the sweet but cut-short love plot between Cloud and Aeris in “Final Fantasy 7” – who needed Disney films to set up unrealistic expectations when you had video games? Anyone who watches me closely in Firestone will see that I occasionally sneak away from essays to play Final Fantasy on my computer, if just for a few minutes, and these games were and are as much a part of my cultural literacy as “The Simpsons” was for many of my friends.
That said, I had really given up video games for good as high school came to an end. I had found a new obsession – how to convince Princeton to take a student who only started to work hard his junior year and was otherwise a middling writer, football player, and clarinetist? – and while my friends made the trip to a nearby LAN center for hours of “Battlefield 1942” or “Diablo II” (OK, I played a lot of “Diablo II”) I locked myself in my room to edit my own essays for the fifth time, to triple-think whom I had asked for recommendation letters, and to steel myself for my inevitable destiny at Berkeley, or even Irvine if things were catastrophic. The good news from Princeton came in December, and there was the free time of senior spring, but having been away from the womb for so long, video games held less of an attraction, and I really have not played them often since.
As I boarded the train towards Leipzig, then, I was coming not so much to sample the new video games, but because I was interested in seeing what the average character of the modern gamer is. What needs was he satisfying by playing his game? What did his choice of games say about his character? Was there any grand point to derive about this next generation of those born in the 90s by taking in geek culture at its finest? These were some of the questions I had in mind as I headed towards Leipzig, and after a day in Leipzig, I think I have some answers, but the day was surreal enough that I feel obligated to commit it to paper, at any rate.
Boarding the train, I noticed some changes from my last trips around Germany. I had gone to Leipzig for a museum visit the previous weekend then; the train I took that time, as well as this time, began in Berlin (in the northeastern corner of Germany) before making a pit stop in Leipzig (eastern Germany) before tracing the eastern border of the country through Nürnberg before ending in Munich several hours later. There were reserved seats both times, and I never had a problem finding an empty seat, but I did notice this time that the vast majority of seats were on the way to Leipzig, too. The passengers were different, as well. On previous trips, the Germans I sat with did not look too different from Americans, but I was transfixed during this trip by a large (about 5’10”, 220 pound) fifteen year-old German who sat down the aisle from me and who wore a too-big-for-him-but-it-covered-the-fat black sweatshirt with a Slipknot patch affixed to the left sleeve. He had symmetrically bad acne on both of his cheeks, and while he was too young for facial hair to have really begun, the outline of a neckbeard was forming. (The more neckbeards I saw in Leipzig that day, the happier I was I had shaven that morning). It was only 9:00 AM and I was still running fine on my breakfast of yogurt and müsli, but he pulled out a sandwich whose main ingredient seemed to be bread, and wolfed down the large loaf before falling asleep in his XXL jeans with an unreasonable number of pockets and straps. Next to me (I sat alone in a four-person compartment) sat another overweight adolesecent, this time in an blue t-shirt large enough to conceal his man-breasts, but he was carrying some fried fish from the German version of Long John Silver’s with him, and as he downed those and a half-liter of Sprite during the hour train trip to Leipzig, he wasn’t helping his cause much. He read the latest Harry Potter book on the way to the convention.
Soon, though, our hour of traveling by fields of grain and windmills (both modern and medieval) in the plains of Saxony came to an end, and we arrived at the Leipzig Central Train Station (Hauptbahnhof). It was time to get to the Convention Center. I opted to following the fat kid (the first one) through the tunnels of the train station, since I figured he and his friends would know where to go, but I thought better than to place my fate in the hands of adolescent gamers, and found a platform where I could take a five-minute regional train to the Convention Center. I could tell by the crowd on the platform that I was in the right place. To my right, there stood a young man a few years younger than I wearing a positively titanic white t-shirt that said “Big Boss Salidim: King Bass Tim. TN-CLAN.” He had an Atlanta Hawks baseball cap on, tilted about fifty degrees to the side with the sticker still on it, and even though his shirt obscured a good half of his baggy jeans, there he was, dressed to match his other “clan” members. (A clan, in modern video game-ese, is just a group of players who regularly play together in multi-player games, who may or may not be friends in real life; they often share booty from kills in role-playing games, and may have “clan wars” with other clans in any game that allows for fighting, and as I saw at Leipzig, many of them do not leave their clan ties behind when the computer turns off). At any rate, this young man was talking with his parents, who had presumably insisted on coming with him to the convention. They were not dressed in clan gear.
Other than the clan member, there were some younger kids, and I decided to talk to them. Two of them weren’t particularly talkative, but one, wearing an egg-colored UMBRO sweatshirt with no undershirt, a cheap gold necklace, and white tube socks with his Reebok sneakers, had the pity to hold a conversation in German with me. He was from Berlin, probably on the same train I had come on, and this was his first games convention. “What’s the top attraction [Hauptattraktion] for you here?” I asked. “ESL,” he responded without making eye contact. As he explained, ESL (European Sports League) was the largest competitive online gaming league in Europe; the regulatory body, it sounded like, for games like “Counterstrike” and “World of Warcraft.” The Games Convention was as good a place as any to meet up with infamous clan rivals and talk shop with other players from your game of choice, but he was here “mostly to see World of Conflict,” an alternate history action game in which the Soviet Union does not collapse and instead launches simultaneous invasions of Central Europe and California as a gambit to stay in power. “And what about any of the books?” I asked. I had seen advertisements for “Starcraft” novels, for new stories and spinoffs from “Diablo” that promised to extend the plot of these games into games into oblivion. “Nein,” he said, “we’re here for the games.” Our train arrived, he pulled Harry Potter out of his backpack, and we were on our way to the Games Convention.
As I walked the half-kilometer from the Convention Center to the halls themselves, I began to pay more attention to the physiognomy and background of the average visitor here. For one, there certainly were a lot of them. Throughout the day at the Games Convention, I had a hard time getting on to any machine, and even the lesser games required a ten to fifteen minute wait to play. I had honed my skill of fidgeting and giving physical cues to the tune of “God, this guy has been playing forever” during my days of waiting for “Mario Kart” at Best Buy while I horded enough money for the next N64 installment, but this was a popular convention. The wait for a ten-minute run of “Starcraft 2” or “World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King” (“Wrath of the Lich King” would make a great subtitle for an academic paper) must have been at least three hours, but no one seemed disappointed to wait so long; they were among their own, and they were happy.
But what did they look like? Fat, certainly. Baggy jeans were the order of the day for this crowd that was almost uniformly white and under twenty years of age, but many of them had followed the time-honored fat-kid strategy of wearing baggier clothes on top, as well, and so even though it was a warm August day, I saw many chubby adolescents sweating out the walk in an unnecessary windbreaker while they carried their backpack full of Snickers bars and pineapple juice. Then there was the other strategy: maybe if I just stuff all of this video-game-produced chub into a tighter package, it will look better? So there were some taller gamers walking to the halls in awkwardly tight jeans, and sweatshirts with no room for rotation at the arm; their torsos reminded me of those cheap pillows that have become popular nowadays, the kind filled with sand that are impossible to really get a squeeze on. I felt like if I had tried to pinch one of these young men’s stomachs, the fat would have just gone – well, somewhere. I don’t know where, but Leipzig made it clear to me that video gaming probably isn’t good for your health, and may very well be bad for it.
We had arrived! I already had my ticket, but I saw people lining up, and where there were adolescents lining up, surely there was something good, and so a quick show of my driver’s license later, I had my red wristband, reserved for the (few) people here more than eighteen years old, granting them admission to all the stands in all of the halls. According to the main Games Convention pamphlet, this was a new invention for this year. As the disclaimer for my 18+ band read, “the double-barreled action of a game like “Killzone 2” isn’t for kids!” The poor peons with the green armband, for those twelve years or younger, “can look forward to age-appropriate [altersgerechte] titles like the role-playing game “Blue Dragon.” They’re not going to see any violent shooters or bloody horror games – and for good reason!” I was proud to wear the red band, but I soon noticed that many gamers younger than I had simply not waited in line for the band, and since no one was checking, I was not too distressed when mine fell off just minutes later. As I was soon to see, there were many things inside the halls a mere band wouldn’t protect me from.
The first stop was, logically, Hall 5, probably the best hall of the convention and the home for current video game titans Microsoft and Nintendo. Microsoft’s entry into the video game market is a recent development to this writer who remembers the days of debating whether Genesis or Super Nintendo was the superior system, but as I walked around the faux beaches of “Xbox 360 Island,” I liked what I saw. There were the next generation of guitar games, where a player strummed a faux guitar along with music on the screen; the cords of nostalgia tugged at me as I saw an updated version of four-player Bomberman multiplayer. I played the SNES version weekly as a middle-schooler, and still occasionally meet with former roommates to play when both my need for a confidence-booster and my tolerance for getting controllers thrown at me are high. The line was too long, though, and I wasn’t really here to play video games, besides. What most struck me were the Microsoft workers milling around the “island” – a raised platform of Astroturf with some sand, X-Box 360s, and plasma screen TVs thrown on it to make for a comfy gaming center. Unlike the gamers they served and doled out advice to (although I imagine they knew less about some of the products than some of the creatures here today), they were almost all beautiful. None of the girls working the Microsoft island must have been more than twenty-five years old, and they were all dressed in white top, white Capri outfits that did more for their fit bodies than either of the aforementioned sweatshirt looks. They were all either Scandinavian-looking blond beasts, or more olive-colored Spanish-looking girls, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that they outnumber their male counterparts, all handsome, fit German men in their early twenties dressed in male versions of the white-on-white outfit. Elsewhere at Nintendo’s stand, I saw the same fashion philosophy in action: again, a mix of Nordic and Latin girls and Central European guys, although there the girls seemed to have a mandatory pastel-colored scarf as belt to complete the ensemble, while the men all wore baby-blue belts and smart glasses to round it all off. They knew what they were talking about when it came to video games, they liked to show that they played video games, and they were sexy and cool. Life was great!
I moved on to the Nintendo stand, and here the main attraction was the Wii, Nintendo’s answer to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3. Nintendo has, wisely I think, tried to make the Wii as customizable to the user as possible: I saw a Penelope Cruz look-alike demonstrating to a short, ugly girl dressed up in Gothic gear how to design her avatar for all of her future Wii activities: select your hair length here, your skin tone there, your eyebrows here, your height there, and after some endless customization, you had a cartoon character that looked like you; when you went online, you could meet other people in a Wii forum and start conversations with them based on how their avatars looked, and they with you for the same reasons, but this wasn’t just limited to signing on to the system. As people sampled the Wii’s sports games (boxing and tennis seemed to be the big hits), your Wii character was the one in the boxing match; rather than being forced to take over some blaxploitation character in your pursuit of boxing glory, you could now box your friends – and enemies – using not just the Wii’s three-dimensional controller, but also your own avatar. Personalization, it seemed to me, was making my old SNES friends of Crono, Aeris, and Cloud obsolete. Why not, after all, just insert yourself into a game? If the popularity of online role playing games at Leipzig was any indication, people didn’t care much if their games had any fixed plot: what they wanted was to be immersed into a game world, and the more it was about them, the less it was about any black man with a gatling gun for an arm (Barrett of “Final Fantasy 7”) or a world-traveling gambler with an airship (Setzer of “Final Fantasy 6”) or the gigantic stuffed animal controlled by a robotic cat (Cait Sith of “Final Fantasy 7”) – well, then, all the better. Traditional characters, it seems to me, are out; immersiveness and narcissistic plot are in.
I was getting tired, so I said down at a leather couch (the same white hue as the Penelope Cruz look-alike’s capirs) and picked up a Nintendo DS tethered to the furniture: finally, some time to actually see how video games had changed first hand. I had owned a Game Boy and played “Pokémon: Blue Version” when popular thought dictated that the game was just for children, and so I had some experience with handhelds, but as I tried to operate this monstrosity, I soon understood why my Dad had been so bad every time I challenged him to a race of Mario Kart in the past. More than having two screens (hence its name: Dual Screen) the DS had not just the usual array of Game Boy-style buttons on the front, but several triggers on the back, and yet no matter what I seemed to press, I couldn’t get anything to happen. “Berühren! Berühren!” yelled a stereotype of a professor on the screen. “Touch! Touch!” Well, no shit, but what? Finally, I just tried pressing the screen – it turns out the DS was also a touchscreen – and we started to get somewhere. Trying to use some of the new controllers at the Games Convention made me feel old.
There was good reason why my DS had been the untouched one. As I bumbled with my fingers to get back to the main screen of the game, “English Training,” I began to see that Nintendo was beginning not to limit itself to just entertainment. This was a German game for people looking to improve their English, and it took advantage of all of the DS’ features: as I made my way to “exercises” (Übungen), I noticed the stylus lying on the couch that belonged to the DS. Suddenly the handheld started talking to me.
“Good afternoon,” it said to me in a charming female South British accent. The thing could talk, and with a British accent! Not bad. As a set of prompts and the voice explained to me, I was to get a German sentence on the screen, but hear the English translation, and then I would have to write the sentence on the screen using the stylus. “I don’t like dogs;” “May I smoke?” “That’s cool!” (Das ist ja stark!) The handwriting recognition software wasn’t great, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever need to say those three sentences in that order, but games – if you called it a game – were needed to keep up with the flood of entertainment every year. Even though this was the biggest games convention in the world, video games today have become a largely English-speaking venture. Of course, there were the days of bad translations from the Japanese for the Final Fantasy games, but many of the most popular games at the convention seemed to primarily operate in English; sure, the sexy things back at the Nintendo stand had told you how to work “Wii Bowling,” but the point was that the instructions were in English (or Japanese, if you wanted), and there wasn’t always room for even fairly-widely spoken (and affluent) languages like German or French in these games. This might partly explain the popularity of massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), games like “World of Warcraft” and “Dark Age of Camelot” where clan members get together to go on quests in a medieval world and occasionally raid other races’ bases. I remember looking over a massive “Warcraft III” tournament during a presentation later in the today to see a flood of German chat going over the game’s chat window: “Mal angreifen?” (“So, should we launch the attack?”
Time to move on, though, I left the Nintendo and Microsoft stands and made my way towards the stand of Rockstar Games, the company that makes the controversial, violent (and also American-centric) “Grand Theft Auto” series of video games, titles in which the player assumes the life of a petty street criminal in a “Miami Vice”-esque “Vice City,” or in the upcoming “Grand Theft Auto 4,” a Gotham City obviously based on Manhattan: hence the “Getalife” building on the game’s Park Avenue. Before I got there, though, I had to make my way against a rush of more pimples, neckbears, and other curiosities. Many of the gamers milling the convention now wore flashing LED necklaces they had gotten from some new MMORPG, and there were always new characters to meet as you wandered the floor: there came a pair of men, no more than five feet tall each, dressed in ogre costumes; here walked by a seven-foot-tall giant (I shouldn’t have to explain this, but I’m being metaphoric here); his black hair fell behind him in a giant ponytail, he wore all-black, and he held the hand of a four-and-a-half foot tall girl dressed in a black houndtooth sweater with obviously-dyed hair. One kid who bumped into me had a blow-up bazooka slung over his back, but the winner for costumes was a twenty-something German who had spray-painted all of her surplus from the days of the GDR to create a future soldier ensemble; she wore a metallic silver gas mask, goggles, had hair so caked with gel it looked crispy, and had put together some aluminum siding and several scopes to make a fake gigantic rifle, at least eight feet long. She carried the contraption over her back, but was gracious enough to kneel for the masses (myself included) who wanted to see her pose with the thing, and when I saw her later in the day, she still walked tall in her knee-length leather boots and pants with enough straps and hooks for a lifetime. But I was on my way to the Rockstar boot. Time to catch up on a lingering “Vice City” addiction. Time to –
There was a topless woman next to me. I noticed that the flow of people had stopped and was now massing around where I stood, and with good reason: here there stood a short, cute, blond in her mid-twenties wearing nothing but a thong and red body paint saying something about “Reality Service,” but this was an all-male crowd, and they were here for the tits. Several male body guards milled around and kept the look out while geek after geek photographed the woman’s painted-over perky B-cups.
I liked it! But not just for the obvious reasons. As I walked around the Games Convention more and more, the more clear it became to me how important sex and unrealistic expectations towards females were to the video game industry’s advertising. I suspect that the vast majority of females not at this convention made their decision not to come before showing up, but the spectacles on hand today would have driven away, certainly offended, a less-than-demanding feminist. I’m now convinced that racing games exist not because any programmers, video game executives, or even gamers actually think that they’re fun; at all but one racing game stand I visited, there was invariably a pair of female models doing – well, something. At the most benign, a new “Need for Speed” game in the Convention Center’s entry way offered every willing male the chance to be handcuffed and beaten with a police baton by two Asian-looking things with slightly more than a B-cup. At another game, I don’t remember the name, four fake tits – them, or their two fake-tanned bearers – writhed on the hood of a car, spread their legs while wearing skimpy bikinis, and beckoned for any gawking males to come and gently spank them – it was a long working day, so no hard hits. I didn’t partake, but I heard two Germans behind me commenting on the whole affair.
“Say, that’s a nice car.”
“Yes, a nice, nice car.”
“You like the car? Yes, very nice. Me too!”
Liquids were also popular. At a third car game, two ugly carrots of big-boobs women strutted around a yellow Japanese spots car with bottles of Windex in one hand, a sponge in the other. They were each wearing bright yellow bikinis that barely covered their breasts, and there was also some leash theme going on; one of the models wore a chain of gold that started as a G-string around her lower half, came up to form a chain-link necklace, and then fell over her back. No one grabbed the leash. Anyway, the show was about to start: the two woman started squirting the car down with the Windex, and while it was blue in the bottle, they got down to scrubbing and built up a healthy white foam. The leashed broad bent over at an unnecessarily-extreme angle to start wiping up the suds from the windshield with her sponge, but playtime had just started: the other one started to squirt her with the liquid. Splat! Fortunately, they kept any shots away from the eyes, but it was soon time to clean up, and so the two woman began to give each other a scrub-down with their sponges, trying to slake off the suds that now covered each woman’s torso, but these silly girls just didn’t get it. You had to scrub down. This was awesome!
Indeed, big tits were the order of the day. I walked by a stand of mannequins of video game characters later in the day, and while there was the ho-hum assortment of superheroes, raptors, robots, orcs, elves, zombies, pirates, shark-men, cats, gremlins, and cyborgs, what stood out was an inexplicable model of a blond woman with what fairly qualify as ginormous – “simply huge” – breasts. Each of these planets was bigger than her entire head, and the black patent leather top this mannequin was wearing had so much to stretch around the spheres that each half of the top could have well doubled as a winter hat for her. The thing had black leather gloves up to halfway up its elbow, but I’m pretty sure that each breast was wider than the waist, too.
— But I digress. Back to the topless woman. Row and row of men came up to photograph her, but there had to be a story behind this, so I went over to one of the few female employees staffing the stand. What was the story? What was “Reality Service?” As the girl my age (less buxom than any of the models, but easier to talk to, certainly) and the brochure she handed me explained, “Reality Service lets you take virtual objects from games like ‘World of Warcraft’ or ‘Second Life’ into your real life. We’re still in the Beta phase, but take this topless girl, for example. Let’s say you have a girlfriend in your second life, but –“ She gave a wink “. . . but let’s say this girlfriend is actually a man. I mean, it’s actually a man playing as a woman in the game. Problem: you want the woman, not the man. Well, what ‘Reality Service’ aims to do is to allow you to take these avatars home with you, to have them in your first – that is, real – life.”
“So what, they ship a prosti –“ I looked over to the topless woman again. “ . . .t hey ship a real woman to your house or something?”
“Well, we’re still working on that one. Right now the idea is just to send over a mannequin painted professionally like that character. But under the right conditions, and for the right person . . .” She handed me some pictures of sample objects the “Reality Service” team had been working on: swords that came from “World of Warcraft,” pendants and necklaces, and was that a Chrono Trigger? I looked more at the pamphlet: “Play with your personality, with your wishes, and your fantasy. Live your secret Second Life – make it your playground, free from all constraints. Discover Reality Service – it’ll be your bridge between your two lives. You become your avatar, your avatar becomes real.” And what did the female employee think of the whole topless woman scheme? I kind of appreciated it – it cut through the bullshit and made it clear that part of what was going on here was selling sex
“I’d have done it differently,” she said.
This was getting weird. I decided to skip the Rockstar Games stand, but as I walked by it in the direction of the Blizzard (“Starcraft” and “Warcraft”) the soundtrack in the air shifted from Moby, Justin Timberlake, and Infernal (“From Paris to Berlin”) to a 1981 song by The Who, “Eminence Front.” It seemed appropriate in light of what I had just listened to at “Reality Service:”
The sun shines
The spray flies as the speedboat glides
Forget they’re hiding
The girls smile
The snow packs as the skier tracks
Forget they’re hiding.
Behind an eminence front
Eminence front – It’s a put-on.
It’s an eminence front
It’s an eminence front – It’s a put-on
Back to our story. I had jostled through the crowds to get a good look at Blizzard’s “Starcraft 2;” as mentioned, a huge line snaked around for ten minutes of glory, while on the other side people could wait just as long, perhaps longer, to try out the newest expansion pack to the MMORPG “World of Warcraft.” Above me, plasma screens noted that Blizzard programmers would be coming by later today to show off the single-player version of “Starcraft 2,” while something called a “Live Raid” was going to be televised later today: an in-game broadcasting of several elite players hunting down and killing an especially strong boss monster. The gamers who collapsed into the chairs for ten minutes of ecstasy behind their headphones did not look too different from the other ones I had seen today: just ahead of me, a skinny guy with a pathetic mustache and a t-shirt from the “Highfall Festival” (August 17-19, top shows Billy Talent and the Kaiser Chiefs) elected to play as the psychic cyborg race of the Protoss, while next to him a man with two tiers of love handles went to play as the futuristic human race, the Terrans (stress on the first syllable in English, on the second in German). He wore a shirt that simply said “Boris” on the back and depicted a barbarian warrior standing on a cliff who fought a fire-breathing dragon. His (the man, not the barbarian’s) hair style was interesting: he had buzzed off all but the top four inches or so of his pelt, and that he had gathered up into a small gelled ponytail which stood up straight, Pisa-style.
If the gamers here looked similar to the ones elsewhere, the people working the Blizzard booth were certainly different. To start with the males for a change, they would have definitely been beaten up by either the Nintendo or Microsoft guys. Shorter, skinnier, and some with a patch of cheek pimples threatening to bloom, they never quite filled out their t-shirts, their pants were their own rather than part of some company ensemble, and their shoes were this side of nerdy rather than the white patent-leather pieces on the Nintendo Spaniards or the Microsoft Nordics. And here was one girl, cute, but in the bookish way: unlike the stunners at Nintendo, she was skinnier, and she wasn’t ever going to match up to the “Reality Service” woman in that department, but between the bobby pins, the day-unwashed brown hair, the horn-rimmed glasses, and the dark-blue Chuck Taylors, she was a welcome turn from the silicone armies of the day thus far.
But if I was to be a real gamer, there was no time for women – or at least for actually talking to them. What did this bleached-hair kid of about sixteen from Hannover standing next to me have to say about Blizzard’s products of the day?
“Excuse me,” I said. “What brought you to the Games Convention?” He squints at me between the layers of fat-flesh and raises up a big acrylic bag that says “UNREAL TOURNAMENT 3.”
“This.” I ask him why he’s looking at Starcraft. What does he like about Unreal Tournament that he doesn’t get from a game like Starcraft 2?
“Unreal,” he says, “you just have to react. Starcraft multiplayer, you have to think too much. But I’m here for the single-player demonstration. I do like the story of ‘Starcraft.’ Unreal, they try to make a single-player mode, but no one plays that game for the story.”
As I soon see, he’s right. I make my way out of Hall 5 and move on (again logically) to Hall 3, which doesn’t have any attractions on the level of Nintendo or Microsoft; it seems to be more devoted to multi-player games and hardware. I’m tired, and pay three dollars for the same number of bites of fried potatoes and ketchup, and sit in a convenient “Chill Out Zone” (in which constantly plays “The Shadow” by The Prodigy) before getting up to make the rounds of this hall, too. I walk by several rows of something called “case modification;” many PC gamers these days, it turns out, aren’t satisfied to play on just anything. No, the computer itself has to be fast, but more than that, why settle for a non-descript white or black plastic box. Here several companies show off their best models: one German group has gutted a 1960s East German television set and stuck a computer CPU inside, another company shows off its “Zen” model – a computer case themed like Japanese sliding doors – and there is even the bright idea of a computer with an aquarium put out to the public; a dead goldfish floats at the top of the not-quite-clean water.
But this hall seems devoted to multiplayer games above all, and I take my spot along with the other observers to observe a clan war in action. They’re playing “Warcraft 3,” and I’m first struck by their uniforms: it’s a match between “Kings” and what looks like the “Warcraft 3” Yakuza, and between the one Kings member wearing a big ring of cubic zirconia, and the Japanese kids who barely fill out their team jerseys (sponsored by Fujitsu and Sega), I’m wont to dismiss any appellation of what goes on here as sport. But I give it a chance, and I’m surprised at what I see. To be sure, none of the people playing “Warcraft 3” actually moves – most of them sit perfectly erect the entire time they play (matches usually run close to an hour), and their fingers are absolutely flying. When I played games like “Warcraft 3,” I only used the keyboard to scroll around the screen and maybe occasionally put together a group of Hydralisks, or, if I was feeling risky, Zergoliths. But the Yakuza member who stands off to the side with a tragic broken left hand in a cast does so with good reason: these youths today play real-time strategy games like “Warcraft 3” mostly with their keyboard, having memorized all the keystrokes necessary to command a medieval army of zombies and ogres at light speed, and it is really something to observe these kids, some a decade younger than I, sit perfectly still while a flurry of activity goes on on their computer screens. It’s crazy!
As the match comes to an end – a decisive victory for Kings over the Japanese – I am struck by the clan solidarity I see here. Another pair of orcs – or were they trolls? — walks by me, but many of the youth in this hall travel in packs, wearing custom-designed t-shirts that mark their clan affiliation. There goes the “PK” clan – an abbreviation for something I can’t make out from the blue text on their orange T-shirts – and here comes a fellow with a cardboard sign on a post sticking out from his backpack. It says:
This is a “World of Warcraft” reference, for in that game, characters walk around the world with their character’s names over their heads and a clan affiliation underneath that in brackets. Maybe this kid is just looking for other members of the Raven Clan, but if so, why not just exchange cell phone numbers? For a game that costs $20 just to buy, and requires a $15 monthly fee, he has the money.
Granted: there are more characters here than just the clan members, fat kids, big-breasted women, and orcs. There’s not a lot for me in Hall 3, so I walk by the BMX stunt show (“From Paris to Berlin” is playing again), but I make sure not to bump into the parents wheeling their handicapped child around the halls of the Leipzig Convention Center today. Having been a fat kid once myself, I can’t help but feel a bit disgusted at all the mammals today sitting in chairs with headphones and eating candy in between trips to their fantasy world. Between the costumes that people wear (there go several fourteen-year olds dressed as rabbits)I am struck by how much all of this is about living in a fantasy world and acting out a second life of crime, medieval rape and plunder, or crime in a modern city of vice. But having turned to reality towards the tail end of high school, I can’t help but think that these kids are missing out on – well, real life. There may be the occasionally genuinely geek-cute girl, like at the Blizzard stand, but most everyone today travels around in packs with their adolescent friends, while there are many pairs of forty-year old single men (no real muscle definition, bad spiked hair, and brownish-red moustaches), and I don’t think a lot of the people here have lives outside of their video games. For the handicapped parents and his loving parents – if taking your child to the Leipzig Games Convention is love – at least fate had denied him the chance to participate in this real world, or at least to a large degree. His signing up for a “second life” seemed more warranted to me.
But as I move on to Hall 4, the second-to-last hall of the convention, it’s clear that video games are more than just a male affair. My red wristband, having entitled me to ultra-violence, great tits, and the squirt-down over the sports car, contrasted with the yellow band (six years old and younger) mentioned in the Games Convention’s flyers: “So young and already a gamer. The Games Convention has a ton of cool [coolen] titles for the youngest of visitors. The yellow band, then, means: ‘here comes some new blood into the gaming community!’” More than dispensing with the useless bands, the organizers today had set aside an entire Hall, dubbed “GC-Family,” loaded with games specifically targeted at younger children, not to mention forums for parents and teachers on video game violence when the right age was to introduce video games into your child’s life, and I even saw one eight-year old reading not Harry Potter, but the latest extension to the Starcraft plot in novel form. What did the games industry have in store for children?
As it turned out, this was a hall mostly directed towards young girls. Just ahead of me, there was a pink playhouse set up, and while one moustachioed father watched his two six-year old daughters play pink Nintendo DSs together (he abstained, but Nintendo does make more manly white and black models), another girl, some years older, played a game called “Top Model.” She was in one of the earlier stages of the game right now as the computer-generated, blemish-free face of a beautiful blond with great cheekbones came on the screen and waited there for the girl not just to change her makeup, but change her facial features entirely. I watched as the girl selected the “powder” tool, changing the cursor into a powder puff, and now it was time to select from five different colors: a rouge touch, or perhaps something more turquoise. After that, she was on to the nails (here only the choice between varying shades of red and pink, although you could give yourself a manicure), and then to eyebrows and eyelashes and eyebrows (after watching this girl sift through two screens of different eyelash options, I begin to realize how easy men have it when getting dressed up). Then came hair: the model on the screen already had a nice auburn wave, but how about some layers? The girl playing the game, who wore a pink Barbie shirt and Velcro shoes, had just straight blond hair in a ponytail herself, but the possibilities were endless.
Now for the photo shoot. After getting her model’s look just right (the model looked nothing like the girl playing the game, nor do I suspect she will grow into that look), a new set of options replaced the old hairstyle, nail, and eyelash dials on the left side of the screen. On the one hand, you had to select your model’s pose (wardrobe selection had come earlier, apparently): would you choose to sit with your legs crossed on a bench, and if so, what would your head angle be? Up with the “seductive look” button on, or down and disinterested to go for more of the angry model look? There were five different types of beds on whose edge your model could sit, but if you weren’t that kind of girl, there was always the choice of showing some leg and putting one foot up on a chair. There was lighting to think of: how to best array the cameras to get the best flash, assuming you were taking it indoors and hadn’t selected the outdoor photo shoot. And if you were doing a black and white shoot, or, God forbid, sepia, well, then, that changed everything. I had been watching “Top Model” for at least ten minutes – I wonder how many males secretly purchase this game – and it was time for me to move on, but the girl remained transfixed.
Fortunately, there was some reality to be had at just the next stand. Here, Mädchen (“Girl”), a German fashion magazine that targets young female adolescents, had rolled in the “Makeover Bus,” and five stylists from Mädchen were on call to give any girl brave enough the change in look “Top Model” had offered. There was an hour and a half wait for this, but I don’t think that any of the attendant parents minded; they simply collapsed in the bean bags of the nearby Chill-Out Zone to awake to their new Mädchen girl cum daughter. Next to the Mädchen bus, young girls (the oldest here must have been fifteen) could get their picture taken, and then see how modern photo-editing technology could remove any unsightly blemishes: the girls here were less acne-free than their male counterparts, but hell, new photo editing software was always an answer in search of a question, and they had found it here.
Time to move on to the last hall; there wasn’t much here for me. We were back to the main attractions, for while Nintendo and Microsoft were left to duke it out in Hall 5, here, in Hall 2, Sony dominated the show, with Electronic Arts rounding out the show floor. (Although, it should be noted, there was not a Madden commercial in sight). I thought I had seen my share of trolls for the day, but as soon as I walked into a hall, a huge poster hung above me: WARHAMMER ONLINE: AGE OF RECKONING (another good subtitle for academic papers). Below it there dueled orcs and goblins, dark knights and paladins, elementalists and animal trainers, something called Shadow Warriors and creatures more elfish. There was the now-usual row upon row of computers for which hordes of young gamers waited: “Warhammer” was another MMORPG designed to compete with “World of Warcraft,” and while the universe it takes place in seems essentially identical to that of “Warcraft,” the event organizers were doing quite well for themselves today, with huge lines and a bigger crowd on the other side of the poster. It seemed like an event was about to start there, so I moseyed through the neckbeards and sixteen-year-old girls dressed as “Warcraft”’s Night Elf race.
Two English-speaking game developers were up on stage touting the game. “I know you’ve been waiting a long time for WARHAMMER, and we think the game you’re gonna play today isn’t going to let you down. NOW – I want to show you some of the races in this game, but before I do, who wants a WARHAMMER t-shirt?” It was the same tired act I had seen at every other stand today, but the crowd went nuts.
“I can’t HE-EAR you!!!” shouted the man on stage. “If you really want these t-shirts, I want you to shout out with me: WAR!”
“WAR!” T-shirts went flying into the audience, but I was too far back in the horde to have a decent shot at any of them.
“One more time! WAR!”
“WAR!” This time, a bikini on stage threw several handfuls of t-shirts back into the sweaty crowd.
“NOW! Who wants to learn more about the new features we’ve implemented for all of the awesome races in WARHAMMER?”
“All right! Now, what do you want to see? Elf, or Orc?”
“I can’t HE-EAR you!!! Elf, or ORC!”
“ORC!” A three-minute demonstration on the Orc race of Warhammer followed: I can now distinguish between a normal, run-of-the-mill Orc, a Black Orc (smarter and more organized than the normal Orcs), Savage Orcs (whose preferred method of transportation is the razorback hog), and that’s to say nothing of Goblins, Snotlings, Hobgoblins, and Gnoblars.
“Thanks, everyone!” yelled the developers on stage. “We’ll be back in an hour with more on the account features of Warhammer – AGE OF RECKONING!”
“ORC!” yelled the crowd.
The last stop of the day was for a game called “Fallout: Ultimate Carnage.” Back in eighth grade, my friends and I occasionally played a Playstation game called “Destruction Derby” – what it sounds like it is – but I wanted to see how this particular genre of automobile game, in which the goal isn’t to attract bikini-clad women, but rather to achieve ultimate carnage, had changed in the several years since those lost Saturday afternoons. I was impressed. On the one screen, I saw a fifteen year-old playing a feature called “High Jump.” The point here was to have your character navigate a rocket car down a narrow ramp upon which there lay barrels of flammable oil; you had to swerve around the obstacles while also (hopefully) accelerating to about 90 miles an hour, and finally, salvation lay at the end of the strip: a jerky and short uphill ramp that led your car into a “V”-shaped concrete barrier. Your character, not wearing a seatbelt, then crashed through the windshield, flying hundreds of feet into the air towards a large chain link mesh fence, marked “200 feet,” “300 feet,” and so on. The goal of the game was to launch the body as high as possible, and if you were really lucky, you could get the corpse to fly through the holes in the mesh, although that took some work: most of the time, limbs snagged on it, and the body just fell the couple hundred feet or so to the ground. The game didn’t feature any blood.
Other than “High Jump,” “Fallout: Ultimate Carnage” also had a more traditional destruction derby mode where you were placed in a large arena with ten other drives. Your goal: kill or be killed. The gameplay here was pretty standard, but what struck me was the language used once you T-boned someone into flaming wreckage, or were T-boned yourself: “Katie is SCRAP METAL!” (Schrott) would violently flash on screen once you rammed your opponent into the cement walls of the arena and caused her car to burst into flames (no bodies ever tried to crawl from the wreckage). But once you, and not your opponents, became Schrott, then a different message came up: “EXTERMINATED!” (ausrotten).
It was time to go; I had had enough, and I was getting tired. I made my way to the exit of Hall 2 without spending much time at the Sony stand, and while I thought about taking a nap on a rare open bean bag, I shouldn’t have thought: an obese man in his late 20s, wearing a FUBU “#20” jersey and oversized cargo jeans, threw himself into the chair, put on his iPod and sunglasses, and set to a cardboard tube of ice cream he had just about finished, trying to lick out any chocolate in the container without spilling on himself. He did not succeed. A kid not watching where he was going ran into me, enough time for me to yell a “Mensch!” (“Man!” or “Idiot!”) at him and get a glimpse at this fifteen-year-old’s shirt: “Hey Mädels, heute schon was vor?” (“Hey girls, got any plans for tonight?”) I finally got back into the main hall, but before I could look up which tram I needed to get back to the Hauptbahnhof, I was transfixed by the fattest child I had seen all day. He sat on one of the concrete ledges in the main concourse, looking for friends, and this was a person whom it was impossible to dress: he had on a black t-shirt whose rear side depicted doves flying away from the praying hands of a black man (bling on each wrist), and his maroon and grey polyester athletic pants rippled with that texture that can only mean roll upon roll of fat underneath. A cheap silver necklace to top it off, some gelled hair, and I will always remember him.
As I sat on the crowded train that evening back to Berlin, I thought: what to take from the day? Certainly, I had been taken by how much sex had been used, especially after “Reality Service.” There was something honest there, though: at least those guys had the balls to say, “Listen – we all know this is about showing you models to get you to buy our games. Let’s be honest with one another: we’ll show you some tits, and you’ll buy our game. Deal?” Their advertising campaign was metaphoric for what seems like a bizarre and unrealistic attitude towards women, but “Reality Service” itself stuck with me after the convention. Many of my favorite games, like “Chrono Trigger” and the “Final Fantasy” series, had real plot. I liked the characters, had my favorites, and, I’ll admit it, even had a crush or two on a video game character. That seems to have changed today. With the popularity of “World of Warcraft,” the personalizability of the Wii, and other games that invite users to play as who they are – or a made-up avatar – it seems that reality-based games are the future. Why have a crush on Tifa or Aeris when you can date a hobgoblin in “World of Warcraft,” behind whom actually stands a real human being? And even better when the person’s avatar does away with all those blemishes no sweatshirt-wearing strategy or Mädchen makeover can get rid of. And finally, I begin to worry more about violence in video games. This is nothing new, of course, but it seems that my parents were only worried about me killing fictional characters. With games like “World of Warcraft” and “Second Life” where I can already often physically imprison and torture people outside of my clan, what psychological impulses will it stimulate when I can actually kill people in games and end their account – their video game “life” – in doing so? I fret.
I soon got back to my Berlin apartment early in the evening and, after a day of not playing all that many video games, thought: what to do? There were the fellowship applications to take care of, and letters to write to people, and books to read. But I thought, why not end with a boss fight in “Final Fantasy V”? I turned on the emulator, readied my team, slaughtered one dungeon and boss after another, and got to the major fight where one character dies, but just moments before killing the boss came his casting of “Level 3 Flare” – an attack that would fatally damage any character with an experience level that was a multiple of 3. This was all of my characters, however, and soon I saw flashing on the screen, “Tim was annihilated . . .” I had not saved the game since I started playing two hours earlier.
“Should have known,” I said, and sighed. I put on my running shoes and went for a jog as the sky darkened over Berlin.