GamerGate One Year On: The Power of the Narrative

Closing in on the one year anniversary of GamerGate, John offers his view of the false narrative that was built and how narrative building effects media

one year header narrative

An idea has evolved in news me­dia and tak­en hold of al­most all forms of re­port­ing, ed­i­to­r­i­al and opin­ion. It is an idea that is taught in Journalism and Broadcasting schools and is now wide­ly re­gard­ed as “the way things are done” in some pub­li­ca­tions and large me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions. It’s an idea that shapes the way many peo­ple see our world and see each oth­er. That idea is “the nar­ra­tive,” and with­in gam­ing it’s come sharply into fo­cus in the past year.

Heroes and Villains

The idea is that news needs to fol­low a fa­mil­iar flow and con­tain a sto­ry that the au­di­ence can fol­low; that fa­mil­iar flow be­comes “the nar­ra­tive” and it be­comes rigid­ly stuck to even when the facts are around to con­tra­dict it. Events are sim­pli­fied or por­trayed in such a way that it is eas­i­er to dis­tin­guish what kind of opin­ion you are sup­posed to form and who is in the right on a giv­en is­sue. A clas­sic ex­am­ple of this is the long run­ning nar­ra­tive about Islamic ex­trem­ism. There is a prob­lem that ex­ists, but it is am­pli­fied by the news me­dia who tend to only cov­er sto­ries that fit their pre-existing coverage.

The “Victim” nar­ra­tive, es­pe­cial­ly that in­volv­ing women, is well es­tab­lished in on­line me­dia. So is the out­dat­ed — and frankly imag­i­nary — Gamer stereo­type of a bit­ter, so­cial­ly anx­ious nerd. GamerGate slot­ted neat­ly into pre-existing nar­ra­tive, and the events that took place were used by some out­lets, and at times twist­ed, to re­in­force this nar­ra­tive. The sto­ry need­ed a damsel — Zoe Quinn — and a vil­lain — Eron Gjoni and the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty. Thus the GamerGate equals ha­rass­ment nar­ra­tive was born.

I’d like to di­rect­ly quote SuperNerdLand’s own Jonathan, who said this when help­ing me edit this article:

Because of how hu­mans re­act to sto­ries, we de­sire to see in­jus­tice fixed. Classically, sto­ries are writ­ten so that a per­son read­ing has some form of clo­sure by the end of the book. However, me­dia seeks of­ten to in­cite change – whether change of thought, or change of action.

In the sto­ry of “evil vil­lain at­tacks vic­tim who is then saved from evil by a hero,” the me­dia doesn’t give you the last half of that sto­ry. Zoe Quinn doesn’t get on the air and say, “Yes, women feel more free to join gam­ing now be­cause of what Wu and I have done, and here is the ev­i­dence.” No, Zoe plays the vic­tim only. The “hero?” ….that’s the audience.

The au­di­ence gets to sit there and imag­ine them­selves the hero by con­demn­ing the ac­tions of gamer­gate, and get­ting smug self-satisfaction out of imag­ined moral su­pe­ri­or­i­ty. Or in the case of events like the Indiana piz­za shop, many peo­ple in the ‘au­di­ence’ stood up and do­nat­ed mon­ey – just as many do­nat­ed mon­ey to ‘save’ Anita Sarkeesian.

That’s the es­sen­tial dan­ger of nar­ra­tives. They present un­fin­ished sto­ries – and peo­ple get sucked into them, and un­know­ing­ly fin­ish the sto­ries in their mind by mod­i­fy­ing their ide­ol­o­gy in or­der to con­demn the “vil­lain.” 

Instead of re­port­ing a com­plex sto­ry about a con­tro­ver­sy — one that was the cause  of heartache and dis­tress to those at the heart of it for sure, but one that also touched on is­sues that need­ed to be ad­dressed in not just games jour­nal­ism but jour­nal­ism in gen­er­al — some out­lets cov­ered a dis­tort­ed, man­gled sto­ry about “tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty” and “an­gry ha­rass­ing gamers” that was not en­tier­ly true when you start­ed look­ing at the facts and sta­tis­tics. A sim­pli­fied nar­ra­tive is eas­i­er to write, eas­i­er to cause out­rage from, and is far eas­i­er to gen­er­ate clicks with.

narrative insert 1

This nar­ra­tive is then sup­port­ed by pre­vi­ous sto­ries in the news about on­line boo­giemen, like the hi­lar­i­ous­ly off-base “Exploding Vans” elite 4Chan hack­er “Anonymous” style cov­er­age by Fox News be­ing re­gur­gi­tat­ed years lat­er by out­lets like CNN ask­ing “Who is this 4Chan per­son?” Add in a pinch of  me­dia self-insertion and you hit all the com­fort­able bases your au­di­ence has heard be­fore. You have a sto­ry that is al­most en­tire­ly fab­ri­cat­ed or twist­ed, but one that you think is eas­i­ly di­gestible for your au­di­ence and tick­les all their pre-existing bi­as­es. Watching the way the main­stream me­dia cov­ers the in­ter­net gives you con­fir­ma­tion of just how lit­tle they know and how they are des­per­ate­ly they are mak­ing things up whole­sale to try and ap­pear com­pe­tent. The nar­ra­tive is fa­mil­iar, it is neat, it feels safe and con­firms what you think about the world. It makes you feel smug — even if both the jour­nal­ist and the au­di­ence know less than noth­ing about the top­ic at hand. The au­di­ence can come out less in­formed on the top­ic at hand.

Briefly stat­ed, the Gell-Mann Amnesia ef­fect is as fol­lows. You open the news­pa­per to an ar­ti­cle on some sub­ject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show busi­ness. You read the ar­ti­cle and see the jour­nal­ist has ab­solute­ly no un­der­stand­ing of ei­ther the facts or the is­sues. Often, the ar­ti­cle is so wrong it ac­tu­al­ly presents the sto­ry back­ward — re­vers­ing cause and ef­fect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” sto­ries. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with ex­as­per­a­tion or amuse­ment the mul­ti­ple er­rors in a sto­ry, and then turn the page to na­tion­al or in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs, and read as if the rest of the news­pa­per was some­how more ac­cu­rate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and for­get what you know.” – Michael Crichton

The Self-Perpetuating Narrative

In news me­dia, if a sto­ry has al­ready been re­port­ed on in a cer­tain way then it is more like­ly for it to be re­peat­ed in that form by oth­er out­lets. A re­cent ex­am­ple of this was the ab­surd “Office air con­di­tion­ing is sex­ist” sto­ries that made it all the way from Gawker’s Jezebel right onto main­stream broad­cast­ers like Sky News. If an au­di­ence is fa­mil­iar with an idea, for in­stance the old idea that games are some­how the sole pre­serve of ado­les­cent males, then news me­dia thinks they are more like­ly to re­spond to some­thing based on that idea; even if the sto­ry be­ing pre­sent­ed is dis­tort­ed or out­right false. That’s how these slan­der pieces cooked up by those ac­tive­ly seek­ing to sab­o­tage GamerGate out of im­me­di­ate self-interest got into the main­stream me­dia, who then man­aged to butch­er and warp the sto­ry even further.

The log­ic goes, “if every ma­jor site has re­port­ed it this way, it must be true” with­out any­one both­er­ing to fact-check along the way. That nar­ra­tive has “weight.” Cross-sourcing and re­gur­gi­ta­tion has re­placed fact check­ing as it al­lows the fin­ger of blame to be point­ed else­where is a sto­ry turns out to be false. As SEO goes, this cross-referencing and sourc­ing would sky­rock­et sto­ries to the top of search results.

It re­minds me of the cov­er­age of the Millennium or “Y2K” bug. Every ma­jor me­dia out­let had some sto­ry about how com­put­ers would stop work­ing at the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, even while many com­put­er ex­perts were scream­ing the whole thing was a overblown and base­less pan­ic. But the me­dia could sell a scary sto­ry about com­put­ers to a wit­less and large­ly com­put­er il­lit­er­ate pub­lic. And peo­ple ate it up — not to men­tioned pur­chased ac­tu­al soft­ware “so­lu­tions” to fix the issue.

Self-referential cov­er­age knits sto­ries to­geth­er cre­at­ing a seam­less thread. The nar­ra­tive co­a­lesces into its own al­ter­nate world; the sto­ries build upon each oth­er and ref­er­ence one an­oth­er un­til there is a scaf­fold of ideas ris­ing like a house of cards for the next out­let to build upon. Some on­line news out­lets, with their lax ed­i­to­r­i­al stan­dards and in­sa­tiable hunger for clicks, scram­bled to in­ject as much fear as pos­si­ble into the sto­ry in a form of sen­sa­tion­al­iz­ing one-upmanship. Fear and out­rage fu­els clicks; it’s an old tac­tic but it works. That’s an­oth­er rea­son a news nar­ra­tive tends to­wards be­com­ing more and more car­toon­ish and scary; once some­one is paint­ed as the vil­lain, the lev­els of fear need to keep be­ing ramped up for the sto­ry to re­tain fleet­ing read­er in­ter­est. Often a sto­ry will also be­gin to fo­cus on more and more pet­ty de­tails to try and wring every last drop out of a nar­ra­tive, even when an is­sue is re­solved. That’s why we’ve moved from sto­ries about real-world vi­o­lence to sto­ries about “dig­i­tal vi­o­lence” that is lit­tle more than dis­agree­ment on­line. The me­dia is so hun­gry for a sto­ry that they will go look­ing for one that isn’t there if it fits with their pre­vi­ous coverage.

narrative insert 2

The dis­tor­tion of facts by the games me­dia cou­pled with the in­ep­ti­tude and un­ease with the re­port­ing of videogames by the main­stream me­dia cre­at­ed the dizzy­ing head­lines and claims we see re­peat­ed ad-nauseam. Claims were made and facts that were dis­cred­it­ed or ex­plained last August crop-up again and again; such as the er­ro­neous claim that GamerGate’s chief ac­cu­sa­tion is that there was a re­view of Depression Quest done by Nathan Grayson — some­thing that was nev­er the thrust of the ini­tial phas­es of the con­sumer re­volt in the first place. But that dis­cred­it­ed claim is one of the cor­ner­stones of the nar­ra­tive  — if they said “pos­i­tive press” they would have to ad­mit that it had tak­en place, but these claims take on a life of their own. I de­scribed the cov­er­age of GamerGate in my first pub­lished piece on the sub­ject as “A game of ‘Telephone’ gone hor­ri­bly out of control.”

This isn’t a prob­lem con­fined to GamerGate or even one par­tic­u­lar agen­da: MSNBC will de­mo­nize con­ser­v­a­tives, Fox News will Demonize lib­er­als, Jezebel will blame all your prob­lems on men, InfoWars will blame the Zionist, etc. Crafting a nar­ra­tive to counter a nar­ra­tive only makes the news less ac­cu­rate and re­sults in more au­di­ence con­fu­sion and mis­in­for­ma­tion. Going to war with two equal­ly dis­tort­ed and sen­sa­tion­al­ized points of view just cre­ates a shit-storm, and as a wise man once said “You can’t see far in a shit-storm.” GamerGate it­self needs to guard against narrative-crafting against the “SJWs” and mis­rep­re­sent­ing truths to make the world (and your ideas) more ap­peal­ing. Narratives are built on lazy gen­er­al­iza­tions and the rep­e­ti­tion of ru­mor with­out fact-checking, not all bad re­port­ing comes out of ma­li­cious in­tent. Small in­cre­ments of bad re­port­ing can add up and be compounded.

Political Pick ‘n’ Mix

Articles on GamerGate no longer talk about any is­sues re­lat­ed to it; in­stead it has be­come about ex­am­in­ing and em­bell­ish­ing on the nar­ra­tive it­self. The mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of GamerGate is com­pared to oth­er events and ref­er­enced as a hot-button is­sue peo­ple rarely un­der­stand or even use con­sis­tent­ly. Article top­ics like, “Is this the GamerGate in the ____ in­dus­try?” or peo­ple on so­cial me­dia dark­ly mut­ter­ing about “Media cater­ing to GamerGate” when some­one makes any kind of eth­i­cal dis­clo­sure tes­ti­fies to the messy na­ture of mis­in­for­ma­tion. It has tak­en on an al­most sur­re­al tone, with the Adam Sandler movie Pixels be­ing ac­cused in more than one place of “play­ing to the GamerGate crowd,” de­spite the movie hav­ing been well into pro­duc­tion be­fore GamerGate ever be­gan. It has been blamed for the fail­ure of the movie Sucker Punch, which was re­leased in 2011. People even ex­press para­noia that peo­ple around them might be a “gator.”

The GamerGate boo­gie­man has be­come part of the fan­ta­sy canon of the “Gawkeratzi,” ever ea­ger to pin events they don’t like on their ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­nents. Since GamerGate isn’t an in­di­vid­ual or or­ga­ni­za­tion that can sue for li­bel, so we’ve seen the great­est ex­cess­es of what the me­dia is ca­pa­ble of; just how far they are will­ing to push news into the realms of un­re­al­i­ty in or­der to fit their nar­ra­tive. If you tru­ly be­lieve all the con­tra­dic­to­ry things writ­ten about GamerGate by its crit­ics, then re­al­i­ty must be a very con­fus­ing and con­tra­dic­to­ry place for you.

As I said in my pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle, if they can do this when cov­er­ing gam­ing — at­tempt to es­sen­tial­ly cover-up a mi­nor con­flict of in­ter­est — they can do it anywhere.

narrative insert 3

This is the most im­por­tant part of GamerGate to me: It is train­ing a whole gen­er­a­tion to be sus­pi­cious of all me­dia, of all self-appointed pow­ers. To ques­tion the sto­ries that are fed to them and not buck­le in the face of abuse and slan­der. When you take on vest­ed in­ter­ests in the me­dia, you are bound to be paint­ed in the most grotesque light. The sto­ry of hero and vil­lain that’s meant to make the news more di­gestible and less con­fus­ing also serves to pro­tect the me­dia, to pro­tect those who cre­ate the nar­ra­tives. Some peo­ple wrap them­selves up in it and stake their egos on it. It be­comes al­most im­pos­si­ble for them to even con­sid­er they might have been wrong. They be­gin to be­lieve their own bull­shit and rev­el in this de­hu­man­iza­tion. Their op­po­nents be­come “sub­hu­man” and so all tac­tics, up to and in­clud­ing threats of vi­o­lence and wished of death, be­come appropriate.

A Spot of Humanity

That is what we saw re­cent­ly with a leaked Facebook con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Australian games jour­nal­ists mak­ing un­hinged com­ments and even threats against GamerGate when one of their peers was in­vit­ed to a dis­cus­sion about prac­tices in games me­dia. Ultimately no-one was trot­ted out to de­fend the nar­ra­tive, why would they? It doesn’t stand up to the light of day and their own Facebook friends are un­hap­py enough with their be­hav­iour to leak their words to their op­po­nents. This is the im­po­tent anger pro­duced when the su­pe­ri­or­i­ty of their opin­ion is chal­lenged. One side of an ar­gu­ment wants to have an open dis­cus­sion, the oth­er side rants against it in a closed conversation.

The prob­lems with se­lec­tive­ly and de­cep­tive­ly re­port­ing real-world events in or­der to fol­low a par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive should be ob­vi­ous: the real world doesn’t fit the fic­tion. The world does not fol­low neat sto­ry­lines or have char­ac­ters that are paint­ed in broad strokes —  and nei­ther should the news. This isn’t a world of easy an­swers and black and white mo­tives; peo­ple har­bor their own agen­das and of­ten act in­de­pen­dent­ly of the “group” they are as­signed to. Sometimes a con­tro­ver­sy has no side to root for, only a set of dif­fi­cult ques­tions that needs to be put for­ward and dis­cussed. To quote the mu­sic and gam­ing com­men­ta­tor Razorfist; “I’ll take an in­co­her­ent truth over a per­fect­ly lu­cid lie any day of the week.”

(Disclaimer: The opin­ions ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are the author’s own and do not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent those of the staff and/or any con­trib­u­tors to this site.)

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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