Clickbait Journalism, Gender in Video Games, and a New Direction for Independent Science Fiction in All Media

Rest assured: the topic of this article is decidedly not “ethics in gamer journalism.” The topic here may seem to center on video games when it is, quite frankly, all about the money.

The Backlash Was Only The Beginning

On September 1st, 2015, technologist Brianna Wu teamed with writer Ellen McGrody to write a factually inaccurate, morally wrong-headed article.

The article was factually incorrect for reasons elaborated in Part One of this two-part series.

It also twisted a gender rights issue — transgender representation in videogames.
The effect was to stir empty controversy, generating cheap click-bait for their host, themarysue.com.

Predictably, a strong backlash arose among many readers who voiced their disgust both on themarysue.com website and on Twitter.

That was only the beginning, however. Brianna Wu further impugned her own credibility, responding to criticism by tweeting personal attacks against her detractors rather than addressing the factual inaccuracies in her article:

“The extreme anger and aggressive denial of my piece about the evidence #Samus is transgender shows how much transphobia is in gamer culture.”

In some cases, it’s not denial. It’s that the article was incorrect and wrong. Cherrypicking convenient facts and ignoring disconfirming evidence has nothing to do with “gamer culture”, and everything do to with manipulation of data to serve an agenda. Note also how all who disagree are automatically labeled as “extreme”, “angry”, or “aggressive”, and as denying some kind of nonexistent “truth” that exists only in Brianna Wu’s mind.

“Why does this upset people so much? Well, that answer is simple. You hate transgender people, and can’t imagine a gaming icon as one.”

No, the answer is different, yet equally simple: some people dislike being manipulated for the sake of pseudo-civil rights clickbait. There are real issues to write about in the gender rights arena. Why waste time digging up twenty year-old quotes from video games and twisting them for the sake of a bogus feel-good essay?

The facts compiled in Part One of this series were the result of a less than twenty-minute investigation via search engine DuckDuckGo.

“I need you to understand, your unconscious bias against transgender people is killing them. It killed my friend Evelyn, who was only 19.”

A shoddy article about a videogame character has nothing to do with the unfortunate death of anyone’s real-life friends. Aside from the ludicrous assertion that “unconscious biases” can kill people, claiming such deadly “bias” on the part of people you’ve never met is ridiculous mass armchair psychoanalysis-at-a-distance.

“I’m going to make all the difference I can, while I can. Sadly, enduring endless barrage of personal attacks is part of changing the world.”

The unmistakably hubris-riddled, self-obsessive grandiosity of this tweet says more than any other one could have done on its own.

Question: How did such a shoddy, manipulative article end up published in the first place?
Answer: Because no one was paying for anything better.

This two-part series of AltSciFi articles is not a “hit piece” or attempt at character assassination against Brianna Wu or Ellen McGrody.

In spite of their perhaps-virtuous motives, Wu and McGrody wrote and promoted an article whose premise was misleading and facts were badly cherrypicked. The ultimate responsibility for such “clickbait journalism”, however, rests entirely on the shoulders of publications that give space to such poorly chosen prose.

Regardless of the stated subject or domain, any website powered by advertising is also driven by baiting users to click on advertisements. This inevitably leads down the bottomless sewer drain of searching for “high-concept” articles that will grab random readers by the eyeballs and keep them looking for long enough to follow an ad.

Mechanics of the “Free” Clickbait Internet Economy

The economics of clickbaiting are calculated by the thousands: thousands of people need to view a click-driven website before an appreciable number will “convert” into buyers.

What does this mean?

It means that if a site is driven by clicks, it’s also essentially and inevitably the Web version of a trashy tabloid magazine. The fundamental business model is exactly the same. A tabloid strives to shock with lurid headlines and scandalous stories; advertising-driven websites are financially sustained by the same set of economic pressures. At no point in time is quality the top priority.

At worst, advertisers and websites (and even ISPs) collect your personal browsing data, build behavioral profiles of users, and sell it to the highest bidder.

Hence, we end up with fake flag-waving by writers like Wu and McGrody — in this case, spinning a twenty-year-old transphobic comment into a false “victory” for transgender gamers. Even if the article isn’t worth the pixels it’s printed on, a high viewer count makes it a “winner”.

Wu and McGrody may not have set out to manipulate the emotions and hopes of their audience. Their intentions may have been pure. The publication for which they wrote, however, did nothing to prevent their tabloid-worthy article from being printed on its pages. Everyone involved simply had too much to gain and too little to lose.

How can clickbait journalism and blatantly exploitative gender-baiting be prevented?

If a publication’s readers aren’t financially invested in the works produced, there is no way to measure the value of those works aside from “more, more and more”. More pageviews, more clicks, more ads.

This leads to the slippery slope of baiting readers with tabloid-style “journalism”. If your work is based on enticing a multitude of random eyeballs, touchscreen taps and mouse clicks, the content of the work becomes essentially irrelevant.

By contrast, if the work is measured by readers’ sacrifice of their own funds for it, the measurement is both immediate and clear at all times. Uphold your standards of quality, or quickly see revenues drop.

AltSciFi aims to solve this problem in one (or more) of the following three ways:

1. Use a subscription model.

The example of Netflix shows the power of harnessing paying subscribers to create new, high-quality material. From television to movies, Netflix is changing how media is made.

AltSciFi has aspirations along similar lines, especially for perennial fan favorites like Ghost in the Shell that no Hollywood studio could treat in a faithful way.

2. Sell merchandise that people actually want.

This is self-explanatory. From punk rock shows to the Star Wars saga, giving people tangible goods is a necessary aspect of having a viable brand. In a world of ever-expanding bandwidth, information itself is becoming free whether we like it or not. Physical merchandise needn’t be fancy — it can be anything that serves as a symbol of what it means to be a part of AltSciFi.

3. Take a “public radio” approach.

The American radio network, National Public Radio (NPR), has mastered the art of fundraising. See also Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia. Taking donations at regular intervals can create a collaborative sense of “racing to the top” and supporting a good cause.

A Commitment to Authentic Indie Science Fiction Across Media

One of our larger purposes is to do what science fiction is truly and perfectly designed for: to explore human social, economic, technological and political issues through speculative fiction in a variety of media.

The only way to do that is to first uphold and maintain a standard of basic ethics and quality at all times. That, in turn, depends on all of us, both collectively and as individuals, most crucially including you.

Real science fiction pushes boundaries; hence, it is not designed as a mainstream “popcorn” genre. Most Hollywood “sci-fi” movies are simply action films with nifty gadgets attached.

To maintain a commitment to authentic science fiction, then, AltSciFi is not using a typical”clickbait” model to sustain our existence. The three alternatives above will serve as our basic revenue model; they are ethical, transparent, and safeguard everyone’s right to personal identity and data privacy.

Will AltSciFi survive, succeed and thrive in a world of pervasive privacy violation, tawdry gender-baiting, abuse of social issues for monetary gain, and casual disregard for even the most easily-found facts? The only way to find out is to try. If you agree with our purpose, join us in our ongoing adventure to support real science fiction — to imagine and enjoy visions of futures heretofore untold.

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Super Metroid’s Samus Aran is [Probably Not] a Secret Transgender Woman. Deal With It.

…or, how ad-click starvation leads to clickbait by writers desperate to stir false-yet-trendy gender controversy.

Writers Brianna Wu and Ellen McGrody recently penned a piece titled, “Metroid’s Samus Aran is a Transgender Woman. Deal With It.

The subject matter of the original article is utterly trivial, although its implications are not: witness an offhand remark made by joke-telling Japanese video game designer Matsuoka Hirofumi in a May 1994 interview for the Super Metroid Strategy Guide.

Secret of Samus that only I know: Samus isn’t a woman. As a matter of fact, she’s actually a shemale.

Why would one, much less two, feminist writers feel the need to tackle and extrapolate on designer Matsuoka Hirofumi’s transphobic comment made over twenty years ago?

What makes this worthy of an article that has become virally popular across the Internet in less than twenty-four hours?

The answer is both sad and simple: transgender people are an easy target for exploitation, both by so-called “allies” and by “enemies”. More controversy means more eyeballs drawn to the article, more links pointing to the article, and ultimately, more ad clicks that generate revenue for the site on which the article has been published.

Was She, or Wasn’t She…?

To settle the matter of whether Samus Aran was actually designed as transgender or not, one point is worth noting: the designer of the character was Yamane Tomoyoshi, not Matsuoka Hirofumi. Matsuoka, then, was not the one to create Samus Aran’s life story.


Matsuoka Hirofumi

Yamane “Tomomi” Tomoyoshi

When you read the interview itself, you can also see that the participants are constantly laughing and joking.

This leads to another point that’s not so humorous, however.

In the time period when Super Metroid was released, transgender people in Japan were considered a sideshow oddity. The person who created the term was herself the proprietor of a gay cabaret-style bar:

The term “New Half” is also of global provenance, according to sociologist Mark McLelland, author most recently of “Love, Sex and Democracy in Japan during the American Occupation.”

“It all goes back to the 1950s,” he says, tracing the rise of a gei ba (gay bar) entertainment culture to the early postwar era, and the coinage of the phrase to one such bar in Osaka, Betty’s Mayonnaise, in 1982.

Transgender proprietor Betty borrowed the loanword for mixed-race Japanese, “half,” and pronounced herself, “half man and half woman, therefore ‘New Half’.”

A first-hand account written in 2008 sums up the experiences of transgender women in Japan during the 1990s:

New Halves were very popular in Japan about 10 years ago, often appearing on the awful evening variety shows that take up most of Japanese tv time, and this bar was pretty famous around then, one of the girls we spoke to was on tv quite a lot back then.

She was quite bitter about the experience, as basically they were just on tv to be stared at and mocked – picking the new half out of a line up, etc. etc.

A further pointer to the sexual essence of Samus Aran is that the character was originally conceived as male, but was changed to female “to surprise the player”, as Metroid co-creator Sakamoto Yoshio is quoted as saying:

When we were almost done with the development of Metroid, one of our staffers casually suggested, ‘Why don’t we make Samus Aran a female character to surprise the player?’ Back then I thought it was a nice idea, but I couldn’t foresee what a huge impact this would have on the future of the franchise.

Was that “staffer” Matsuoka Hirofumi? Perhaps. Note that the character was sex-flipped to female, not gender-bent to become a transgender woman.

From Transphobic Joke to Transgender Superheroine?

Given the points above, then, it’s entirely likely that Matsuoka Hirofumi was making a crude-yet-commonplace joke about a character that he played no active part in designing. Samus Aran was not transgender, but rather a sex-flipped male character that was reassigned as female prior to the public release of Super Metroid. Matsuoka’s comment could also be interpreted as a backhanded compliment about Samus Aran as a strong female character — that to be so strong, she had to “be a man in disguise”.

Now, you might be thinking, “why on Earth would two feminist, apparently gay-friendly female (women) writers think that this was a worthwhile topic to discuss in such glowingly incorrect terms?”

Well, dear reader, that is the true purpose of this two-article series, so be sure to come back for the conclusion.

Update: Click here for Part Two (click here).