Today at QuakeCon, developers speaking on a "Building Blockbusters" panel took issue with "stone-faced" games journalists at product demos, as if the absence of emotional displays in a journalist is somehow a bad thing. Sports journalists never cheer during ballgames -- so why should we?
The "no cheering in the press box" rule was introduced to me in a sports journalism course taught at Stanford University. The rule is also the title of a book of essays from famous sports journalists who wrote during the golden age of sports between World War I and World War II. The writers in that book were obviously sports fans and very passionate about the games and athletes they chronicled -- read Grantland Rice's New York Sun article "Game Called" if you don't believe me -- but eulogies and poems aside, sports writers in the early 20th Century followed the same 'no cheering in the press box rule' as the professional sports writers of today. Having read that book and taken that course, I believe games journalists should, too.
To be fair, sports journalism and games journalism aren't perfect parallels. The form of entertainment a sports writer most often covers is an isolated game between two teams in which there will be one victor and one loser. A game journalist meanwhile is looking at a game that could we be tied to other games or consumable media, and when writing about it, cannot boil down its essence to, "Well -- who won?"
More importantly, though, a sports journalist is usually in a stadium with thousands of fans cheering the game. By not cheering, they're setting themselves apart from the audience and can turn their journalistic skills to the spectacle as a whole instead of just to the scoreboard. In the video games industry, though, journalists are often the only audience members a developer gets at massive events like E3 or seasonal preview showcases---- and for many reasons, we don't have as clear-cut a separation between being a fan and being a journalist.
Cheering is common in video games journalism, but it's become unhealthy. By behaving like fans at press events, we invite the developers and publicists to treat us as fans and not as professionals. Take Microsoft's Project Natal reveal event at E3 this year, for example. Everyone -- every reporter, every analyst, and every industry professional in attendance -- had to wear those weird white space ponchos and actively participate in the spectacle. There was no sitting back, no observing. Not even any real reporting at the event because attendees were banned from liveblogging to Twittering (although plenty broke the rule).
I didn't feel like a professional journalist at that event -- I felt like a partygoer at Carnival, sans the booze. I wanted to be there for the information, I would've liked to sit back and watch the crowd's reaction to the games, but I was too busy trying not to trip over Cirque du Soleil performers while jockeying for a better view of the stage where we thought there'd be games. Turned out USA Today already had a press release with each of the games listed and they wound up with more information than any of the reporters that actually attended the event. Oh, and the event was televised -- so technically, we journalists weren't even partygoers, we were stage props.
After the Natal reveal, I worked myself in a state of righteous journalism indignation that lasted for about 12 hours. Then, I attended Microsoft's E3 press conference the following day and saw exactly what Microsoft was thinking when it threw that Natal event. Hundreds of people filled every available seat at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, and nearly every single one clapped like a madman whenever a producer came on stage to introduce their product. Even the products that didn't seem very interesting got resounding applause -- and when they announced at the end of the event that each attendee would be getting a free New Xbox 360 unit, that clapping erupted into a standing ovation.
I think we can blame Apple for some of this cultish blur of journalism and fanboy in the video games industry. Apple presents itself to tech journalists not as a tech company with a product, but as a rock star at a concert. It was one of the first tech companies to live stream its press events and if you've ever seen one of those, you've witnessed the "All Hail Steve Jobs" passion that pours out of the crowd ostensibly all made up of journalists and analysts. The fervor at those events goes beyond clapping at a show -- it's practically dancing topless at Woodstock.