Sex sells at China computer game show

At the door to a major computer game expo in Shanghai, visitors are greeted by columns of Chinese girls in white boots and miniskirts, the name of a computer parts maker emblazoned on their chests.

A bit farther on, amid the blaring music and pulsing lights, 40 more models in bikini shorts, tiny tanktops and hard hats shill for an online security company, handing out small locks in boxes designed to resemble condom packs.

Government regulations announced in July barring online gaming companies from using sex to promote their products had little impact at ChinaJoy, the country's largest annual digital entertainment exhibition which ends Sunday.

"The most eye-catching part of the exhibition is the show girls," said Feng Gong, senior director for Internet portal Zol.com.cn, which is owned by US broadcaster CBS Corporation.

"The pretty girls and products complement each other and the combination is just perfect," said Feng, whose company is sponsoring a Miss ChinaJoy pageant, which allows website users to vote for their favourite booth model.

Video games taking a backseat to show girls is a phenomenon at exhibitions across Asia, but participants say China is taking it to a new level.

"I've been to shows in Japan and Korea before, they don't have as many show girls," said Jay Jiang, a marketing planning director for Shanda Games.

"For foreign companies, it's more about exhibiting products. Often a senior executive will make a product presentation, but we invite players onstage to compete with the show girls," he said.

The NASDAQ-listed company said it had more models than any other exhibitor at its TV game show-inspired booth where 100 girls sat surrounded by flashing lights, waiting to join contests such as who can blow a vuvuzela the loudest.

Duanmu Wenlin, a top executive for China Mobile's game division, said China's IT industry was a relatively open business environment and - as a woman - she saw nothing wrong with using models to promote games.

"Our show girls wear bumblebee outfits," she said, gesturing to hostesses in yellow and black striped dresses with wings on their backs. "We hope they will be like fairies who accompany fans through an adventure in our games."

Throughout the exhibition hall, the same scene played out again and again - packs of men of various ages with cameras call out to girls who smile, pout and lean against oversized models of video game characters.

Zhang Meng, 20, is modelling at ChinaJoy for the third time. She said she did it to make money during the summer break.

For Zhang, posing for photos - many of which go on the Internet - is part of the job, but it is not always pleasant.

"Normal photos are fine. But I've met some very strange visitors and it's uncomfortable," she said. "Some will ask for a particular pose, some ask me to touch them. Some are just perverts - they rush to the stage and harass us."

Sherrill Ma, a 21-year-old business student, said girls typically earn 200 to 300 yuan (30 to 45 dollars) a day for each of the event's four days.

Her job? Playing "catwoman" - in leopard print lingerie with a long tail and cat ears while sitting in a cage.

"It's weird for an exhibition - why do they want me to stay in a cage?" she said, recalling her initial reaction.

"This is growing and maybe in the future when this exhibition attracts more people, the Chinese government will play a part in this if it has too many bad effects on teenagers," Ma said. "I think some people will regulate."

"But if it really works, maybe many other cultures will adopt this way of selling," she added.

The use of sexual images in marketing has increased significantly in China over the past 15 years, said James Farrer, an associate sociology professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

"The state and official mouthpieces don't usually like this sort of thing, but when the government monopolises moral authority then it can silence not only liberal, but conservative, voices too," Farrer said.

Lian Yun said she was not worried about the effect the show would have on her game-loving eight-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, as she chased the children between the French maids, flight attendants and Playboy bunnies.

"It's fine for them, they're too young to understand," the 36-year-old accountant said.

"So long as their father's not here, it's fine."

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