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Pamela Anderson during 2003 Spike TV Video Game AwardsPhoto by Denise Truscello/WireImage for Backstage Creations/Getty

Celebs at gaming events: a lost moment in 00s pop culture

In the early 00s, the world’s biggest stars – including Rihanna, Grace Jones and Kim Kardashian – would flock to bottom-tier gaming events for no clear reason

Did you know that Beyoncé is a gamer? Or at least she was. While in the late 00s she was partial to a bit of Guitar Hero, the global megastar also enjoyed playing Tetris while growing up, and used to sneak sessions playing Super Mario Bros late into the night. “I loved it,” she told Entertainment Weekly in an interview in 2009.

It’s difficult to tell what games Beyoncé likes to play now because the “Grown Woman” hitmaker no longer likes giving interviews. In fact, it’s highly probable she didn’t enjoy giving this one, either. The reason the interview happened at all was that Beyoncé filmed an advert for Nintendo, specifically the Nintendo DSi game Rhythm Heaven. If you’ve not caught the advert, you’ve almost certainly seen GIFs from it: Beyoncé, her feet up on a sofa, is laughing at a Nintendo DS, dementedly poking the device with a stylus.

Owing to her increasingly enigmatic and elusive stature, we rarely see Beyoncé having that much unbridled fun anymore. Nor, really, do we know much about the gaming habits of celebrities. While the likes Henry Cavill will film himself building a gaming PC while wearing a vest, or Mila Kunis might talk about playing World of Warcraft and Call of Duty in various interviews, the worlds of celebrity and video games can feel like oil and water. And when they do sometimes mix, the results can be weird and wildly entertaining.

Take, for example, Mariah Carey’s involvement in the commercial for the freemium phone app Game of War, in which the singer appears in carefully sculpted armour on a battlefield, her hair perfectly curled, and tells two disenfranchised soldiers to be heroes, before she runs off into the battlefield.

The greatest and most incongruous celebrity video game pairing, however, has to be famous people at gaming events. While lavish gaming events certainly take place today, they are more likely to be filled with Twitch streamers and influencers than Hollywood A-Listers. Yet back in the early 00s, red-carpet soirées were high-profile events, filled with some of the biggest stars imaginable. You’d get Lindsay Lohan at the launch of Saints Row: The Third, Christina Aguilera at the release of Skyrim, Kelly Rowland, Chris Evans and Jessica Biel eager to get her hands on a PlayStation 2, Rihanna playing an Xbox 360, and Paris Hilton at, quite literally, the launch of every 00s gaming console imaginable. Even Danny DeVito could be found at an Xbox event. 

Documenting some of these slices of history is Famous People at Gaming Events, an Instagram account started by writer Paul Weedon that’s dedicated to “famous people having a good time at the hottest gaming events”.

Preservation is Weedon’s main motivator. “I like the idea that all of these images just exist on Getty Images and don’t really serve any purpose now,” he tells Dazed. “No one is licensing an image of Beyoncé playing Enter the Matrix backstage at the VMAs twenty years ago and that feels like a shame to me. People deserve to see them.”

It’s hard to disagree. Capturing a period when digital technology was on the cusp of infiltrating every aspect of our daily lives, but before social media altered the nature of fame, there’s an unfiltered quality to them. These are not the hyper-aware and self-conscious pictures of celebrities that we’re accustomed to seeing.

“Back in the early 2000s it was different, I guess. If you were a photographer you could turn up to a PlayStation event and expect to see a whole host of A-listers. Paris Hilton was pretty much guaranteed to be there, it seems,” says Weedon. “There’s a great series of photos of Rod Stewart at the PlayStation 2 E3 party in 2001. Rod Stewart! There’s no way someone like Rod would turn up to an event like that now. He just looks sort of bewildered to be there.”

As gaming has grown, becoming a behemoth that, fiscally, now eclipses the music and film industries combined, the need for celebrities to help sell games and consoles has diminished. Instead, gaming events have become much more focused on gamers themselves, with a whole industry of gaming celebrities, influencers, YouTubers and popular Twitch streamers taking the place of Jessica Alba and Kristen Bell. As Paul puts it: “A photo of Xzibit playing an Xbox topless in a hotel room probably doesn’t have the same selling power that it might have done back in 2004.” 

That’s not to say that there’s no longer any crossover. But while celebrities might still partner with gaming companies, no one is going to buy a PS5 because Michael B Jordan or Travis Scott did an advert for PlayStation. Nor do Nintendo or Xbox become more appealing because Brie Larson or Daniel Kaluuya have agreed to front a campaign.

The more extreme and incongruous partnerships now mainly take place now in the mobile gaming space. The companies that make free mobile games are eager to hire celebrities, which makes sense given how oversaturated that market can be. But unlike the classic that is Beyoncé laughing at Nintendo DS, you could mistake these for adverts selling car insurance, mobile phone contracts or low-fat yoghurt.

Whereas before it was the gaming companies desperate to be associated with celebrities, now it’s the famous faces who want to be in the games themselves. More and more big named actors are pivoting from film and television into the video game space. Keanu Reeves, of course, had a huge role in Cyberpunk 2077, while The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen both played important roles in Hideo Kojima’s existential walking simulator, Death Stranding.

Look back at the celebrity gaming collabs and events from eras now past and you can see there’s an innocence to a casual looking Beyoncé laughing at a game console, Britney Spears in a flowy top dropping by a PS2 event, or Elijah Wood hosting the Xbox 360 launch. “Back in the day you’d just see people turning up in whatever they’d been wearing that day,” says Paul. “Big gaming events like this just don’t really happen in the same way now. They sort of feel like a snapshot of a moment in gaming history that’s come and gone.” It may be gone, but given the regular reappearance of Beyoncé jabbing at that Nintendo DS on social media, they’re clearly not forgotten.

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