No Cheering In The Press Box

No Cheering In the Press Box
Fans cheer during QuakeCon 2010.

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.

The video games industry takes a lot of leads from the tech industry and I think we've seen some of the Steve Jobs cult mentality form around certain developers and publishers. You could even argue that Nintendo surpasses Apple in cultivating passion for its products, if like me, you've been to one of its press events where it didn't have anything more remarkable to show than a DSiXL in the color of dried blood and still clapped 'til your hands hurt.

Video game press events are turning into a circus and that's bad news for the industry. Not only am I stuck waiting for my fellow journos to sit down and shut up so the next "act" can come on, but developers are getting warped feedback on their games from the one source in the world they should be able to trust -- the journalists.

For the games industry, this is a self-destructive cycle that begins when journalists behave like an audience because they're filling the dual role of professional and fan. Because journalists behave that way, developers treat them that way at press events with bigger and bigger spectacles each year. The developers pander to us so much that they train us to clap even when we don't like the game we just saw. And by clapping when we don't like something and then returning to our desks to write scathing previews of whatever the developers just showed us, we're being dishonest -- the exact opposite of what a journalist should be.

It's so hard not to clap, though, when everyone around me is doing it even if I hate the game or am not sure what to make of it. Worse is when someone catches me not clapping at a crowded press event and glares daggers at me as if I'm being rude when really I'm just trying to be professional. Sometimes I'm even afraid that the people glaring at me are the developers or their publicists planted in the audience to gauge reactions. In which case, I bet I'm not invited back to Microsoft next E3 if someone from the PR team saw my face at all during the Natal event.

In the end, I get why the panelists on the QuakeCon panel don't like "stone-faced" journalists. They want validation that what they're doing is cool, that they have a chance in hell of selling it as a product. What they're doing is very scary, and every part of my video game-loving wants to bolster them and encourage them so that they can go on to make great games that I love playing. But before all of that, I am a journalist. My feelings on their product -- and on their performance, if they insist on pandering -- are either irrelevant or should only show up in my previews, reviews, or editorials; not in their demo rooms or their press conferences.

The feedback loop between developers, journalists, and fans is one that should be defined by conduct and fulfilled expectations so that when you go into a crowded event where the three mix, like the Penny Arcade Expo, you'll know who's who. The developers will be up on the stage, pleading with their games for attention; the fans will be pressed as close to the stage as they can get, ready to start clapping as soon as the dev is done talking; and the journalists -- the professional ones, anyway -- will be wherever the press box is. Not cheering. But pleased to witness those who do.

AJ Glasser is a News Editor at GamePro who doesn't even clap during a real circus because she's usually holding a drink in one hand and her iPhone in the other.

This story, "No Cheering In The Press Box" was originally published by GamePro.

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