One of the most striking aspects of Silicon Valley’s self-image is how little it shares with the reality of their products. Tech entrepreneurs may say they want to make the world a better place, but it’s all-too-clear that what they really care about is making a shit-tonne of money. The games industry is not the tech industry, of course, and we’re at E3 to see games rather than a new ride-sharing or life-changing app. But that disconnect – what we are and what we project ourselves to be – pervades it.
Outside the LA conference centre, a huge poster advertises COD: WWII. It makes me think of the COD Veterans Fund, something of which Activision CEO Bobby Kotick is rightly proud, and the veteran I’d seen begging for change the previous night. The US is a war culture, absolutely reflected in its choice of entertainment, and has the most powerful military in the world, yet is famously terrible at looking after and re-integrating its soldiers. And so part of that slack is taken up by an entertainment industry that profits so greatly from its sanitised depictions of the military. COD is a monster in some ways, teaming-up with arms manufacturers and various ex-military experts in the pursuit of verisimilitude – as far as this goes. But even a monster can have a good side.
The disconnect is right here in Los Angeles, city of angels, with its gleaming skyscrapers and endless glowing bars, with poverty visible on every single corner. I walked out from my hotel on the first morning and around three or four blocks of the city that were almost completely formed of jewellery stores. They ran the gamut from classy to utterly dingy, but the density was remarkable, alongside the fact that on each block I’d pass two or three homeless people with a shopping trolley. I wonder why people in LA care so much for jewellery.
Perhaps it’s because, outside of New York, this is where you come if you really want to make it. And you’re not going to make it without looking the part, even if the jewellery is costume. Mark’s Twain’s great line is that every American considers themselves a temporarily-embarrassed millionaire. As I’m returning to my hotel a guy approaches and asks me for six million dollars. I haven’t got any, never mind that, so I can only offer a good-humoured no. He walks off with a smile, saying “Imma high-class bum.”
America is a place, and videogames is an industry, that eats its children. Here’s another disconnect. As I sit in front of the convention centre, a few events down but the real business still to come, there’s a steady procession of individuals with phones or camera crews recording their own pre-event pieces. This place is “awesome” and we’re going to see “incredible titles” and “guys I can’t wait.” They sound like PRs. The lines are such cliché that they almost slide over your consciousness without entering, except they’re a reminder of just how big this industry has become – and what that has done to the media around it. Many people here are just cheerleaders. They don’t look at a COD or a Far Cry or whatever and wonder about it and ask questions, because for them the game’s mere existence is all the answer they need. Being at E3 is something of a pilgrimage, the kind of thing every game-obsessed individual wants to do, but is simply being here fulfilment enough? When Mohamed has gone to the mountain, what then?
500 Retweets and I'll buy this shirt and wear it during E3 pic.twitter.com/5eWobHAFOc
— ⎝ GЯIMΞCRAƒT ⎠@ E3 (@GRIMECRAFT) June 11, 2017
E3’s new form reflects this modern blurriness between consumer and media. Long the most important event in the gaming calendar, its relevance has been badly-hit in the last decade by any number of competing events and – more than anything else – the ability of publishers to speak directly to players. Certain companies, like EA, has in recent years booked space outside of E3, therefore giving the organisers no money but leeching off the crowds attracted to LA. Tomorrow will mark E3’s first day as a consumer event and, whatever happens, that is going to be E3’s future.
— Alistair Hatch (@el_hatcherino) June 12, 2017
The badge pick-up stands have a low thrum of traffic – I came here today, Monday, to avoid the rush tomorrow when the public will be picking up their passes. Sony staff slowly assemble their merchandise stand at one end, while a phalanx of Far Cry 5 developers (they’re dressed head-to-toe in the game’s merch) march past me into the exhibitors’ hall. My expectations for 5 are low after the diminishing returns of 4, but I admire a game that, however it may do it, tries to engage with this American strain of overtly religious, anti-science, pro-gun culture. Maybe it took Canadians to do it. Not two minutes later, I see an officer with a sidearm. Being in the presence of a real gun always gives this virtual mass-murderer the heebie-jeebies.
Increasingly I look for this aspect in games. One of the reasons Ground Zeroes was such a striking experience is how it straight-up went for Guantanamo Bay, exploring and exposing the evil and hypocrisy of such a place. But games like this are thin on the ground – even MGSV rowed back from such stark parallels – and Far Cry 5’s ‘realism’ is a highly stylised and skewed one. One measure of art is how well it captures its era, how it says something about those who made it and the times they lived in, even across centuries and different cultures. It’s only one measure, to be sure, but few modern videogames do well by it.
Microsoft, as has been the case for several years now, don’t do well by any measure at all. Outside of Sea of Thieves the games are largely uninspiring, Xbox One X is perhaps the most terrible name for a console since Xbox One, and backwards compatibility is just not a killer feature. That’s without even going into the idiocy of having a Gamergate supporter on-stage, which was doubtless inadvertent but is regardless a slap in the face to both women in the games industry and anyone targeted by that hate group.
Halfway through the last sentence, I’m interrupted, thank God, by a guy wondering what hall this is. I think it’s the west hall, I say, and much later realise it was the south. We get chatting about what we’re both looking forward to seeing and it’s a reminder of why you come to E3 or any gaming event – the bright expectations for two or three titles, concerns about others being more of the same, and a shared hope that some as-yet-unnamed surprise will blow our socks off. He heads off and once more I’m left with the badge stands, the giant posters and the self-recording enthusiasts. Maybe I’m too hard on these kids: what’s wrong with a bit of excitement?
So far 2017 has been one of the greatest years in gaming history, and it’s a beautiful day outside the LA convention centre. The sun shines down, cooled by a breeze, and people walk by with their gaming tribe on show: a PlayStation bag here, an Xbox t-shirt there, and even one blessed hero with a Dreamcast cap. It’s the calm before whatever’s coming next, and there’s anticipation in the air. Get Ready!