Sunday, June 28, 2009

Epistemology pt 3: How I founded a Star Trek club

Years ago I thought of a neat thing to do, which I titled (in my head anyway) the Newspaper Calibration Project. The idea was that a press release or other definitive document would be set free, anything that subsequently appeared in a newspaper could be checked for accuracy. Hence, the newspapers would them be calibrated against a known standard. (You can tell I've got a technical background...) The mere details of how to actually do such a thing didn't emerge from the walk in a conservation area I was on at the time; it was just too idyllic to keep my mind on computers. And so the idea lapsed, along with the evolving document project, where downloaders of said document would modify it and then upload it back. One genetic algorithm later and the “meaning of existence” would then slowly emerge from selection pressure.

Download it, modify it and then upload it back? Obviously well before Web 2.0 came along. But I digress.

We've all wondered just how accurate the newspapers we read really are, and what biases are present and just how good the quality of reporting is. (At least I hope we all do that...) The Newspaper Calibration Project was never anything more than a bit of whimsy, but since 2007 I've had a chance to perform a calibration of a sort for real, something most of us never have the opportunity for. It all started with an unlikely bout of publicity for Intrepid, where our little fan film was mentioned in passing on the front page of the New York Times, complete with the web address. A huge spike of traffic on the web site alerted us to the impending attention, followed by a flood of inquiries from local and national news. I think by the time we were done, I'd been in at least five papers – and asked “how did you come to be making a movie” a million or so times.

This lasted for a good few weeks.

Looking back, here was a chance to compare what we knew about ourselves with what was reported in a newspaper, with the added benefit that it was a nice little “and finally” kind of story with no obvious reason for any overt biases. Needless to say some papers were more rigorous ensuring info-fidelity than others, but at the poorer end of the scale it got really poor. At it's best, we had two newspapers – The Guardian and the Scotsman – doing what appeared to be a properly serious endeavour. Both of them asked questions, took notes and appeared genuinely interested in how we came to be making what they termed a “tribute film”. The Scotsman in particular, in the form of Jim Gilchrist, impressed me by not only taking notes and recording the conversation, but by repeatedly asking confirmation of details. This is journalism as we should all wish it, and the resulting article was excellent.

Both took at least an hour to wrap up. Then the Guardian, after the main interview was over, had an informal chat with us and lightly cautioned us to be careful of what we said to the tabloids – even if they liked us. And in the event the tabloids did like us. The stories they wrote didn't make fun of us – much – and aside from the usual puns for headlines, they took the tone: hey, isn't this weird and interesting, instead of: hey, check out these sad gits.

All of which has nothing to do with the accuracy of what they wrote. I'm told by Nick that one interview took a whole two minutes on the phone while he was in the middle of something at work. The result from that was that he got muddled with me, my quotes were attributed to him, his quotes were attributed to me, all without any discernible pattern. But wait a moment, didn't I just say that the “interview” was only with Nick? How come I could be quoted if I wasn't even there? Because a huge chunk of it appeared to be lifted from the Guardian wholesale. Oh well, just a small screw up and quite an obvious mistake once it's pointed out. But it gets odder.

I was quoted as saying “It's a rocky road, but we'll get there” in response to a question about finishing the movie. Well yes, I did indeed say those words to the Guardian in response to an entirely different question: “What's the appeal of the future in Star Trek?”, an altogether higher-minded question. This is what it means to be quoted out of context, and when I now hear of some celebrity or public figure complaining about being misquoted, I am much more sympathetic.

There was worse for Nick, however. One of his quotes was pure invention. He has never referred to his wife, Lucy, as “The Missus”; he just doesn't talk like that. I've never heard him deliver a line like that and I've known him almost twenty years. Supposedly she demanded a part and he caved in. Er, I tell you three times no. And such factual errors were almost as an aside; a major plot point disguised as a throwaway line. In passing, that's how it came to be me who founded a Star Trek club.

But what can you do, eh?

It's almost funny that this particular “fact” about me has now been repeated last month in the latest round of publicity for Intrepid, the same paper looking at what they've written before and using it uncorrected. I am content to say that it arises from basic miscommunication, and while perhaps bad enough in a tiny way, it's not the most worrying development. Overall, and I don't just include the tabloids in this, I have seen how the story of the rise of our – and other - Trek fan films has been altered at what is probably a subconscious level by most of the newspaper and television coverage. No matter how often we called it a “fan film” the media in the UK at any rate, lacking the appropriate cultural references and insight, called them “tribute films”. I can understand this, as it needed to be presented to a mainstream audience. Incorrect, but deliberately so. Though STV bizarrely referred to the latest episode as a spoof, which unlike the other errors I've seen actually hurt. But the worst part of the departure from truth was why they thought we were doing it.

Almost universally, they have assumed – or been told bluntly otherwise and ignored it, and I know this because myself and Nick have said so to reporters faces – that ourselves and others had started making Star Trek fan films because Enterprise had been cancelled and there was no longer any official Trek on the small screen. No more Star Trek, so we decided to do it ourselves. This is as wrong as it gets. We were making Intrepid several years before Enterprise was cancelled. Exeter and Hidden Frontier, for just two examples, have been going for much longer yet. So why did they say that?

Simply, because it makes for a more satisfying narrative. Plucky amateurs carrying on when the professionals dropped the ball. We're the underdogs, which the British public likes. And we're just a little bit pathetic, which the British public likes too. Gallant no-hopers taking on Goliath, go-getting losers. Especially because we're harmless. It's no co-incidence that news items are called news stories. We like a story, especially given the sort of characters involved, and stories generally have to make sense, unlike actual news events. It fulfils an expectation of neatness. There should be a beginning, middle and end. And then the media fills in the perceived plot holes...

Making Trek because real Trek stopped is such a potent image that it was taken for granted even though, and I can't emphasis this enough, we repeatedly told them otherwise. And here's where we get into decidedly unreal territory because the drive for a news narrative is enough that, in one of the tabloids, they invented quotes. The Guardian told us why: because the tabloids, in addition to picking up out-of-context quotes from online forums and other newspapers, write up stories with fake quotations that are nevertheless something they think he or she might have said. Think about that for a second. It's literally treating real people as characters, and writing them as a journalist's idea of dialogue.

My experience with newspapers has changed my opinion of them forever. Even though it's been a largely fun and positive experience, I now consider myself wiser and warier. And when I see anything in the news, on TV or in newspapers I now always, always consider that what I'm seeing may not be 100% real.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Epistemology pt 2: The Story of Hired Guns

I don't think I ever truly liked the name Hired Guns, this being one of DMA Design's Amiga games and one of the key things that I usually get hung up on whenever the subject arises.  The history of the project was somewhat troubled from my own perspective, even though I am still stupidly proud of my contribution and occasionally get misty-eyed over it.  Troubled, because of what happened after I spent over a year writing the background, story and characters.  It was going to be my first published story, really published, really genuinely making me a proper author.  This was going to be great!  I iz a writer!

    I sent the final copy to Psygnosis, who were demanding it at as soon as possible.  They then sat on it for a whole eleven months, before rushing to get the booklet printed by an outside company with only three weeks to go before the release date.  At no point did they offer any comment or criticism during that time.  And then the game was released and the first chance I had to see myself in print was tearing the cellophane wrapping from the complimentary copy I'd been sent, lifting the lid and leafing through the booklet.
    Where all the punctuation was missing.
    All of it.

    Worse than that, if possible were the instructions for actually playing the game.  Scott Johnston, the designer and programmer, had written pages of notes and given them to Psygnosis who were to write the instruction booklet with the purpose of saving time while I fretted away at the background material.  Only they'd taken his notes and pasted them in wholesale, entirely unedited.
    My first published story...

    I tend to get protective of Hired Guns these days, to the extent that I imagine that anything I have to say on the subject of the story is definitive by definition.  And where this impacts on Wikipedia, the results have been interesting.  I never created the Hired Guns entry but I have edited it to incorporate the description of the story, the description of which is simultaneously factually accurate, completely wrong and occupies that strange blurry interface between fact and fiction.  So ask what the Hired Guns story is about and the truth gets slightly odd.

    Let's start from the outside, and work our way in.

    On the packaging, the box which contains the disks and the booklets, it describes the characters as fighting “mutants” and since the outside packaging is the one that's most familiar to anyone – and easiest to research -  that ought to be definitive.  It's there in plain sight after all, and the packaging is not hard to find on the net as a scanned image.  For Wikipedian purposes, it's as easy and uncontroversial a citation as you could wish to find.

    But it's flat out wrong.

    Inside the box however there's the manuals (which I wrote – this is my background story after all) and the creatures described therein, which the main characters encounter, are not mutants.  They are genetically engineered weapons.  It's not just a piffling quibble over semantics either; why this is important is why the characters are there.

    So far it's just a mismatch of info, someone at Psygnosis got it into their heads that it was all about mutants, or perhaps it was even deliberate because “mutants” made for a better soundbite.  I'll likely never know.  But where it now gets interesting is with Wikipedia's description of the story itself.  Within the game itself, the  mission centres around the task of locating four nuclear warheads “backpack nukes” and blowing the crap out of the place to kill all the beasties.  But this is not what Wikipedia says.   There it tells us that the story is about a hostage rescue which proves to be illusory and is only planted to lure the mercenaries to the planet for a live test of illegal bioengineered weapons.  The whole thing is a trap: the planet is a weapons proving ground.
    But none of that appears in the game.

    So how did such an obviously incorrect description get into the Wikipedia entry in the first place?  Where is the source for such an outrageous assertion?  How did something entirely out of left field  come to be parading itself as “fact”?  This one is rather easier to track down, because it was me who put it there.  So does that mean I'm just proving a well-trodden point about the accuracy of Wikipedia and that the story description is plain invention?  An “aha, gotcha” motive made possible by stunt-editing?  Well it gets a bit blurrier here too.  It really is a genuine description, but of Hired Guns' original plot, before it got hacked to shreds.

    Limitations of memory in the Amiga meant that not everything we'd intended for the game was able to fit in.   As you can guess, it was the story which had to be substantially changed so that it could be described in less memory, with less demands on custom code and graphics; with appropriate amounts of complaining on my part.  I'd even written a large diary entry on that day that was decided (it was 12th Feb 1993) and it was fittingly enough pouring with rain, moulding itself snugly around my black mood.  Even so, there are still fossilised clues to the original story contained within the games dialogue and within the manual.  Hell, some of the dialogue I'd written was there purely to foreshadow the next four games which I'd been sure were in the bag.

    (In fact, as part of the plot I'd even managed to come up with an invention that wasn't realised in the real world until 2007, but that's for another post.)

    I'd written that in Wikipedia with a mixture of devilment and self-righteousness because, at heart, that's what I believe Hired Guns is really about.  That was the plot, that was the story I cared about.  Indeed in those dark nights alone in my flat at 2am, this wasn't a story I was creating but a true story that I was discovering by being an explorer in some vague space of probability, not a writer.  But here's the description from when the entry was created by a user called Imran in 2002 right up to my first edit in 2004:

“The plot is that your band of mercenaries have been picked from intergalactic 'non persons' and wanted criminals, and have been hired to shut down a mutation producing plant on an artificial planet called Graveyard.”

Intergalactic non-persons?  Mutation producing plant?  Artificial planet???  All that came out of nowhere and is completely wrong.  But where it gets interesting for me is that after my correction, no-one has contested it: it is assumed to be the self-correcting mechanism in action.  Perhaps it's just a minor game out of the many thousands out there and no-one cares, or perhaps piracy was so rampant that very few possess the physical manuals to fact-check with.  Maybe no-one really cares, and if that's the case then what does the truth matter?

    In the end, a fact may be more fluid and nebulous than we'd like. Yet the original story as I described it survived intact for the planning of Hired Guns 2, even to the last-moment addition of an extra planet in the manual.  Whatever the finer points of semantics or philosophy, I consider the original story to be the real one.  After five games (yes, I was optimistic) the background elements of the story arc would have come to the fore with a huge payoff. 
    That resolution, so far, has existed only in my mind.  Not on paper.
    And how on Earth could Wikipedia have a citation to that?