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).

Science Fiction as a Journey of Gender and Sexual Identity: Conversation with Author K.M. Szpara

A conversation between K.M. Szpara, Sunny Morraine and others.

Published author K.M. Szpara offers a personal account of becoming a science fiction writer, and how doing so is inextricable from an ongoing journey of gender and sexual identity. Szpara’s thoughts spurred a larger conversation that is included below.

The text in this entry is adaped from “The Importance of Trans People In Narrative” by A. Merc Rustad and has been lightly edited for clarity.

K.M. Szpara is the author of “Nothing is Pixels Here”, published in June 2015 (Issue 61), Lightspeed Magazine.

In response to the article “Why We Need Trans Romance” by E.E. Ottoman, K.M. Szpara (@KMSzpara) writes:

I want to speak more to how important this is. I’m a gay transmale [female-to-male] SFF writer who is heavy on [writing] romance and erotica. For a long time growing up, I read m/m [male/male] romance where I could find it (mostly fanfic and Anne Rice book — thanks, Anne!).

I didn’t yet understand what that meant for me. I started writing m/m. I knew that was how I processed love, too. I remember discovering I didn’t have all the parts to make sex happen for me the way I wanted it — jarring but not the end.

I continued writing all male protagonists because that was the headspace I enjoyed.

Even more so from a first-person POV. I got to “be there” in my fiction, [but] still didn’t even realize people could transition [from one gender to another] because I had no idea what transgender was at that point. Once I did and decided to transition socially and medically, I was told by JHU doctors no gay men would want to sleep with me.

“Who would date you?”, was the question I got from everyone.

It’s hard to be 100% confident about medically transitioning because some of the changes are permanent and you’re told you will BE WEIRD… but I did it anyway. All this time I continued writing cis m/m characters because that’s how I saw myself.

That’s how I wish I’d been born.

I already have body issues so please, everyone else, emphasize my worries of never being loved or having sex with a caring person again [1].

This year I wrote my first transgender character. It was published and I had a ducking hard time doing that. I had to re-find myself as “sexy” and — **spoilers** there is no transgender sex in the story but **end spoilers** — BUT! I am finally ready to write one, an erotic cis/trans science fiction/fantasy story.

It has taken me years, and I’m still nervous no one will buy it for their m/m anthology.

“Do you accept transmen?” If ‘yes’, do they really?

The moral of this story is, I feel bad writing cis and/or wanting to be cis because I also want people to honor transgender bodies. If you want to help and are an editor/agent/respected writer, make it explicitly known that you accept and desire transgender bodies in the writing you seek.

Enable us.

Sunny Moraine (@dynamicsymmetry) responds:
Something pretty gross that happened a while back was a major M/M review site rejecting reviewing books that featured explicit sex scenes along those lines because of genitalia.

Got called the FUCK out but it was a major look at transphobia in the genre.

K.M. Szpara (@KMSzpara)
:( THIS SHIT. I keep considering querying in advance: do you accept transgender characters? But I probably shouldn’t. I should just bombard the fuck out of the market.

Now if I could just write faster… Lol

Sunny Moraine
Yeah, I feel like the best response to that is to write the hell out of it. So go you. :D

Benjanun Sriduangkaew (@benjanun_s)
Huge difference between stating that they seek that writing versus actually, well, publishing it though. :/

A. Merc Rustad (@Merc_Rustad)
Agreed, the follow-through on PUBLISHING is a big step that needs to happen.

no ordinary fishtrap (@afishtrap)
Really, multiple gateways need to get on the ball: agent, editor, distributors, bookstores, and customers.

The problem is that it ends up being a massive multi-gate disconnect, because readers want/need it, absolutely. The only way to overcome each gateway in turn is if stories exist. :)

K.M. Szpara
True. And if we self-reject first because we’re not “invited”, then we’ll never know. I think transgender people self-reject a LOT because others don’t even think to include us, and we know it.

A. Merc Rustad
I’m plotting a novel now, which has a transgender guy as the main character, and I want to add explicit sex scenes when he dates other guys, for that reason. I want it to be very positive, because I CRAVE positive portrayals and need to see them in fiction.

K.M. Szpara
YES YES YES PLS. Would read. The only thing I ever run into is what transgenderism looks like outside the modern medical and social system. You have to get creative; can’t just have a person with a flat chest, and vagina, and be like “they’re trans!” Because it’s also a social, internal and sometimes medical experience/personal history. Creative! Writing! SFF! Lol

A. Merc Rustad
We need ALL THE STORIES in ALL THE GENRES with many types of transgender experience and positivity about transgender people and bodies.

Further Reading:

Rustad, A. Merc. (2015, August 13). The Importance of Trans People In Narrative. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://storify.com/Merc_Rustad/the-importance-of-trans-people-in-narrative.

Queer Dictionary. [n.d.] Cisgender (adj.). [Web page]. Retrieved from http://queerdictionary.tumblr.com/post/9264228131/cisgender-adj.

Szpara, K.M. (2015, June). Nothing is Pixels Here [Short story]. Retrieved from http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/nothing-is-pixels-here/.

Ottoman, E.E. (2014, October 31). Why We Need Trans Romance. [Personal account]. Retrieved from http://www.queerromancemonth.com/ee-ottoman/.

A Story Waiting to Be Written: Tyga, Mia Isabella, Kylie Jenner and Private Information Warfare

Fascinating to see NSA-style information warfare tactics adopted by Twitter users yesterday… or perhaps the NSA was inspired by Twitter. In any case, the events had the flavor of a sci-fi espionage story, and could definitely become such a story with the proper coaxing.

You may have heard about a recent cyberattack against the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM). With suspected origins in China, the unprecedented hack affects up to seven percent of the American population. Stolen data includes:

“…drug use, romantic histories and close friends abroad of those in the military, National Security Agency (NSA) and sensitive State Department posts, among many others, essentially a road map for what weaknesses might be used for blackmail by a foreign power.”

The NSA isn’t the only one with skin in this spy game. It’s a well-known infowar tactic to ruin radical Muslim clerics’ reputations by exposing their online porn browsing habits to faithful congregations. Extremist Islam doesn’t take kindly to pornography, it seems.

Enter the Tyga

Likewise, despite recent flag-waving to the contrary, much of Twitter openly endorses homophobia while apparently excusing pedophilia, or at the very least, statutory rape.

Trending on Twitter yesterday was an entertainer’s stage name: “Tyga”. Tyga, age 25, is a rapper by the name of Michael Ray Nguyen-Stevenson. He became hashtag fodder for allegedly cheating on his 17-year-old girlfriend Kylie Jenner (@KylieJenner) with transgender pornstar Mia Isabella (@THEMiaIsabella).

Note that Mia Isabella also has an Instagram account:
https://instagram.com/themiaisabella/

All of this is publicly available and accessible data about well-known individuals. None of this data is private.

Here’s where the interesting part begins.

On Twitter, thousands of tweets poured in every hour about the discovery that Tyga had maintained a secret three-year relationship with Mia Isabella. The mainstream entertainment media ran wild with the story as well, repeating the same facts. It all relied on the publication of intimate cellphone photos displaying Tyga’s tattooed nether regions. The photos were mixed in with screenshots of texts between a phone number that may have been his, and a phone number that appeared to belong to Mia Isabella.

Twitter users raged and ridiculed, cackled and heckled, predicting the demise of both Tyga the rapper and Michael Ray Nguyen-Stevenson the human being. As is sadistically commonplace on the Internet, calls came forward, then were retweeted and reposted, requesting none too politely for him to disappear and/or commit suicide.

No big deal, right? Rappers exist as hypermasculine caricatures, anyway, right? If you call a rapper a “faggot” — much less provide evidence — his career as a lyric-slinging tough guy is as good as finished.

That seems to have been exactly the intention of whoever was behind the scandal. The question of where the nude pictures and sexy texts came from is made almost irrelevant by the human element at play.

Two minutes of searching the Internet revealed that Mia Isabella’s alleged Instagram account was not, in fact, owned by Mia Isabella at all. The trick was that the fake account took the username “therealmiaisabella”. Do you remember what the actual account was named? Probably not (hint: look above to refresh your memory). It would be easy to believe that the word “real” was, well, real.

Meanwhile, Ms. Isabella’s actual, easily-found Twitter and Instagram accounts make absolutely no mention of Tyga whatsoever.

This means that someone:

– “borrowed” Mia Isabella’s identity and a few photos of her;
– most likely hacked Tyga’s phone to obtain the nude images of him;
and
– created a fake Instagram account to closely mimic Ms. Isabella.

The aspect of this that falls into the category of “information warfare” is the exploitation of Twitter users’ gullibility and homophobia. Less than one in every hundred tweets on the topic contained mention of the fact that Mia Isabella wasn’t the owner of the faked Instagram account. In their haste to digitally crucify Tyga, practically no one bothered to check.

Even more cunning is the timing involved: Tyga just released an album that sold quite poorly, damaging his reputation. The fake Mia Isabella therefore timed her attack for maximum damage to an already-tarnished public image. Fake Mia even upped the ante by claiming to have video of her having “gay” sex with Tyga. The video, warned Fake Mia, would be posted at 12am unless Tyga paid her a suitable fee for services rendered. An explicit photo offered as proof was quickly debunked as belonging to a completely different person who bore no resemblance to Tyga aside from skin tone. Still, the Twitter Hate Parade continued unabated as frenzied users counted the minutes until midnight.

Predictably, no incriminating video ever turned up on Fake Mia’s Instagram.

A day later, people are still dragging Tyga’s name through the trashbin of Twitter. The Tyga-trashing tweets, at last count, were being written at a rate of 38 per minute.

Who’s blackmailing Tyga? That is still unknown, although he has sought legal representation and the help of the FBI. More importantly, this story is worthy of a science fiction plot due to how Twitter’s users were unwittingly recruited to destroy Tyga’s reputation. Relatively little work was required on the part of the attacker. Every Twitter user who posted bullying and homophobic tweets is complicit in the defamation and blackmail of a celebrity. Not only that, they also implicitly condone sexual relationships with underaged children, in this case teenaged Kylie Jenner.

It’s a story where the only moral agent is the person who takes a moment to seek facts before jumping to judgment. In this case, the battleground was Twitter and the victim was a not-so-innocent rapper. In the near future, such diabolically methodical information warfare tactics could be just one hacked selfie or stolen text away from destroying the reputation of any private citizen.

That’s a science fiction story worth writing, hopefully before it comes true in real life.

===

P.S. In fact, I’ve already come up with a title: this story (or the set of social engineering tactics it circumscribes) could be called “Shadow Punch”.