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.)

John SweeneyOpinionGamerGate,OpinionAn 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.…
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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.