Outside the Convention Center, the real U.S. Army has stationed a real OH-58 helicopter. Every few hours, real Special Forces teams perform mock urban assaults. The mission: encourage today's youth to play the Army's new computer game called Overmatch, in which our troops use their superior "training and technology to defeat a vast enemy force" in a desert town that bears a striking resemblance to downtown Fallujah. It is a recruitment tool.
Bioterrorists running through an airport terminal. Evil space monkeys on fire. Real? Not real? Sometimes hard to tell in the cavernous hall of the Electronic Entertainment Exposition, the 10th annual video-game trade show known as E3, which we visited this week to see what the best and brightest have spawned for our amusements.
The game industry is huge, the fastest-growing entertainment sector on the planet. Annual North American sales of game software and hardware is $10 billion (compared with $9 billion in movie box office receipts). The games themselves employ advanced physics and artificial intelligence programs to create worlds that are scary-good. If you haven't played a game since Donkey Kong or Pac-Man, you would be shocked, amazed, appalled, enthralled.
We pan left and right across the convention floor: Huge consoles blatting out story lines for S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl. Banks of screens to play Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, ripped from today's headlines, about a contract agent and superspy with carte blanche for the dirty "wet work" needed to win the war on terror. Another display for BloodRayne 2, which features a wasp-waisted assassin armed with a pair of very nasty sickles, and breasts as melonous and pneumatic as a Pamela Anderson blowup doll.
Computer-generated mortality surrounds us. It is a blinking, boinging, bass-pounding Vegas of ersatz death -- and sexual touts. A thousand plasma screens hooked into GameCubes and PlayStation 2s. Splatter! Glorp! Bodies explode and the evildoers cry out, "Uuuggggh." Big biceps and bigger guns.
It's a Sensurround wall of sound of war and combat -- the ringing slice of swordplay and reverb of full-on automatics spitting endless rounds. Some of the players are wearing earplugs, it is so loud, and after a few hours in the hall they take on the glazed, gummy-eyed look of the all-night gamer coming down from a Mountain Dew binge.
At one station, we watch a player fingering the controller for Silent Hill 4: The Room, and the scene on the screen is his character wielding a club and beating a rabid genetic freak of a mastiff to death. It's not a real dog, of course, it's a monster-dog! But still, it's a guy clubbing a dog and then stomping on its lifeless body, and we wonder about that.
So we get a hot dog, and steel ourselves for more assault. But suddenly our gaze is drawn to a pair of hired showbabes who purr and pose beside a burnt-orange superstock race car employed to sell the gamers on the Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee. One by one, the shy gamers -- and the manufacturers, designers, media and retailers -- use cell phone cameras to pose for pictures, flanked by the hillbilly models. It is the closest many of these Doritos-stuffers may ever get to women who look like this, unless one counts the cyber-minxes who populate today's computer and video games. They increasingly present sexual escapades to cater to the aging demographic of gamers, whose average age is now 29.
The attendees? The vibe skews way male, white and Asian American, with a dollop of Japanese, Brits and French, dressed in black T-shirts advertising Nintendo or Playlogic, in droopy cargo shorts, baseball caps, excellent and tiny cell phones. Some of these are well-paid executives.
But several attendees tell us there are more suits each year. "We call them the Dads," said Brian Lockwood, a Seattle-based game developer.
Hollywood is muscling into the industry big-time, producing a surge of games based on movie titles, such as "Van Helsing" and "The Chronicles of Riddick." Action stars such as Vin Diesel sell their likeness and voices to the characters -- and show up to promote the games at E3.
Worldwide studios head Don Mattrick told MCV magazine that within a few years the game industry will achieve almost total household penetration, offering a world of play more emotional, more interactive, more real than anything that passive films of Hollywood have to offer.
But there is wariness, too, among the gaming tribes. Thomas Buscaglia, an attorney who represents game developers, worries that the high cost of employing Hollywood stars and plotlines "is killing the creativity of the community." Big production games now cost $10 million to develop. Sequels and spinoffs abound.
Tony Kee, vice president for marketing for Ubisoft Entertainment, boasts, "We're not in the geek game business anymore."
Yes and no. Hard-core gamers, prepared to play for hours, still dominate the market. But the hunt is on for the "casual gamer," the distracted moms and pops of middle America who go see movies but don't hunker down to play another round of Doom 3.
Industry leaders like to say that one-third of video game players are female. That may be true (and these people are relentless at marketing research), but the bulk of sales still go to young males.
In a conference session on the business of gaming, Beth Featherstone, director of marketing for Microsoft Game Studios, admitted, "Women don't want to spend an hour blowing things up." She added, "We're not really making games for women."
An unscientific sampling of the hot games at E3 reveals what players do like to do: They really like to destroy mutants and aliens in demon-infested space stations and on rogue planets. Vanquish medieval foes, the Russians, shadowy Middle Eastern terrorists, Mafia dons and robots. They also like to steal cars and drive them very fast -- sometimes, accidentally, over pedestrians. Play football and basketball. And get the girl -- not in a love story, boy-meets-girl way, but through mortal combat or sexual gamesmanship.
The throngs were lining up to sample Arush Entertainment's Playboy: The Mansion, which felt like a tired retread of the brand, where players become "Hef," who must smooth-talk his way into producing another issue of the magazine -- and the more successful the play, the more clothes come off the cartoon Playmates.
At the console bank for Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, one of the game's designers, Josh Bear of High Voltage Software, was carney-barking players to try their hand. The objective, Bear explained, was "hitting on chicks." The characters were bouncy simulations. But the play involved something that looked like a sperm cell coursing its way past macrophages -- a kind of sexed-up Pac-Man.
There were new toys aplenty. New games to download onto your cell phone. A next-generation GameBoy. A Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat game that players manipulate not with a traditional controller, but by beating on a pair of bongo drums.
There was a two-hour-long line to sample Nintendo DS, the upcoming release of a handheld, double-screen device the size of a checkbook that allows gamers to use a stylus to play games -- and the system is also being designed to operate wireless, so a dozen players can compete in a dormitory (or classroom?). Sony is also working on EyeToy, which features a camera that allows the player to enter a game and swat at buzzing butterflies with their hands.
In one lonely corner of the vast convention space was an exhibit of the games of yesterday -- the standup arcade machines for Pong, Space Invaders and Asteroids. On one table sat the Atari 2600, the circa-late-1970s console that introduced the world to the joystick. It looked so antique, the unit with its retro knobs and cartridges and a bit of plastic-wood paneling. Alas, that was a simpler age -- a gamer moved the stick around and watched a little character eat . . . cherries. Sometimes, progress just kicks your butt.