Earlier this year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, also known as E3, Nintendo dedicated a 25-minute E3 presentation to their upcoming game Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which is part of a fighting game franchise that has been around for 19 years. They announced that every single character in the series’ history would be playable. But Waluigi, a character in Mario spinoff games such as Mario Tennis, was confirmed by Nintendo that he would not be playable in the next Smash Bros. game. The character also had a reputation for being the subject of Internet memes about how he was often disrespected, so naturally, his fans on Twitter were distraught.
Gene Park, the Audience Editor for the Washington Post, caught wind of the news that Waluigi was snubbed from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and subsequently put out a humorous article called “Waluigi was robbed and humiliated by Nintendo, and his fans are furious.” The story went viral on Twitter, gathering over 12,000 retweets and 26,000 likes as of this writing. Thus, the multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper had contributed in perpetuating the meme of Waluigi’s mistreatment.
The Washington Post is not exactly known for being a gaming-focused publication, and the meme narrative surrounding Waluigi was a topic that even seasoned gaming journalists avoided until Park’s article was published. However, the Post’s coverage did remarkably well online. By analyzing “Waluigi was robbed and humiliated” through the lens of the Rhetorical Situation, Lloyd Bitzer's model for the context of an argument, we can see how the author was effective in crafting his argument in a way that appealed to both niche and general audiences.
Exigences: Newsworthiness and Humor
Bitzer’s concept of exigence can be defined as “a problem with the current situation that rhetoric could solve." And there are at least two reasons why Park likely felt it was necessary to write his piece for the Washington Post. The first is that the subject of the article was newsworthy enough for the outlet to cover. Park’s story can be found in a section of The Post called “The Intersect,” which covers various Internet-related topics. The Electronic Entertainment Expo is also a popular topic among internet users – according to Fortune, the online streaming service Twitch saw a total of 97.6 million views on its E3 coverage for 2018, and that is just one digital outlet. Moreover, Nintendo is a powerhouse in the video game industry, earning $1.62 billion in operating profit for 2017, so their actions at E3 would rightfully be considered newsworthy. Finally, according to the Post’s 2017 Washington Market Report, the city of Washington “ranks first in the proportion of adults who spend 20+ hours on the Internet in an average week.” So it was reasonable to assume that a significant number of Washington Post readers would be curious as to why their Twitter feeds were swamped with memes of Waluigi.
Another exigence of Park’s article is that he wanted to tweet a joke from the official Washington Post Twitter account. As the news outlet’s Audience Editor, Park had control over the content of The Washington Post's Twitter account. However, he was told that he could not tweet “Waluigi was robbed” from the account unless he wrote an article with the joke as the headline. Thus, two very different exigences came together to bring a niche topic to a general audience – the first in hopes of piquing the interest of The Post’s Internet-savvy audience, and the second for the amusement of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper tweeting out a meme.
Audiences: Post Readers and Gamers
While a significant number of Post readers were Internet-savvy, they were far from the majority. So Park’s article still needed to accommodate a general audience that was not familiar with video games and internet culture. Thus, a significant portion of the article was dedicated to teaching readers about the history of Waluigi’s role as meme fodder on the Internet. Park also explained video game lingo in more generic terms so that most audiences could understand the perception of Waluigi suffering “one injustice after another.” For example, he defined “assist trophies” as characters in Smash Bros. that you cannot play. Park then explained that a new feature in the game allowed players to fight assist trophies. Waluigi happened to be an assist trophy, so Nintendo demonstrated the new feature of the game by knocking him out of the battle arena. Park said the incident was seen as a sign of disrespect among Waluigi fans, thus sparking the wave of memes about the character. This explanation, among others in Park’s article, is what allowed general audiences to understand the conversation surrounding Waluigi at E3.
“Waluigi was robbed and humiliated” also made specific appeals to audiences who were more versed in the language of memes. Images, videos, and tweets from Twitter users were directly embedded into the article using terms and linguistic styles commonly seen on the Internet. Park himself also incorporated Internet lingo into his story without explanation, such as the phrase “Tumblr bait,” and hyperlinked Waluigi memes such as YouTube remixes. The picture in the header of the article also came from Tumblr user Sam Shirley, a meme that depicted an abandoned Waluigi doll laying in the street during a rainstorm. The photo, along with the article’s title “Waluigi was robbed and humiliated,” positioned the author as someone who was knowledgeable about the narrative of Waluigi being mistreated by Nintendo, and was therefore an avid Internet user. Aristotle noted that we persuade others the same way we persuade ourselves, and though much of Park’s piece was written for a general audience, the signifiers above allowed the author to reach out to niche audiences as a member of their community, rather than as an outsider.
Constraints: Online Publishing and Knowing the Audience
Craig Smith defined Bitzer’s concept of constraints as “limitations placed on a speech by the situation” and “the available means of shaping an appeal in a given situation”. In the case of “Waluigi was robbed and humiliated,” constraints arose from both the medium in which the article was published, as well as the intended audiences.
The medium of the online article is unique in that it can compensate for the constraints of written content by incorporating other media. Park utilized writing to explain what happened at E3 and provide background information on Waluigi. To provide information about how Twitter users reacted to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. presentation, Park opted to let them tell their own story by embedding videos, pictures, and tweets from users directly into the article. Utilizing multiple forms of media streamlined the way the information was presented, allowing images and social media posts to provide the context and visual cues that words could not capture. In this sense, Park’s understanding of his constraints allowed him to present his case effectively for both general and niche audiences.
Since Park’s article was written for both a general audience and an Internet-savvy audience, he was also constrained in the language he used to present his points. If Park explained every video game or Internet-related term used in the article, the pacing of the argument might have been too slow for readers versed in meme culture. Conversely, neglecting to explain any of the lingo would have alienated everyone else outside the online community. So Park chose to take the middle ground with his article. He explained terms that were necessary to understand the influx of Twitter memes about Waluigi and relied on hyperlinks, embedded tweets, and visual cues to help general audiences navigate unfamiliar concepts. Once again, Park acknowledged the constraints at play and crafted his message accordingly to appeal to the widest range of people.
The idea that the paper of Bernstein and Woodward would proclaim “Waluigi was robbed and humiliated” is objectively funny, though even arguments sparked by a joke require an understanding of the rhetorical situation to be effective. Park’s article demonstrates that, consciously or not, he was able to navigate the situation to produce an effective argument. The exigence indicated that readers of The Post would be interested in reading about E3 memes, and Park understood his audience and the constraints of online publishing well enough to write a story about a niche topic that appealed to a wide range of people. As a result, the article not only went viral on Twitter, but it was also one of the most popular stories on the Washington Post’s website that day.
Park acknowledged his popularity on Twitter by posting a screenshot of his story among the top three articles on washingtonpost.com. He captioned the tweet with, “i’m [sic] glad you’re all reading the important issues of the day.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The above was originally submitted as an academic paper for the Northern Arizona University graduate program.