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 So is the outdated — and frankly imaginary — Gamer stereotype of a bitter, socially anxious nerd.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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.