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 SuperNerdLand.com staff and/or any con­trib­u­tors to this site.)

Translating Tumblr — The Lifting Fandom
GamerGate One Year On: GamerGate Is…
The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent be­low.
John Sweeney
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.