Controversies

SXSW Festival Cancels Gamer Panels After Threats of Violence

SXSW Festival Cancels Gamer Panels After Threats of Violence
Image credit: Shutterstock | SXSW Official Website
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Disruption stemming from the Gamergate controversy has caught SXSW Interactive, the technology component of the annual Austin, Texas-based festival, in its far-reaching tentacles. Yesterday Hugh Forrester, the event's director, announced in a blog post that scheduled two panels on gamer-related topics have been cancelled due to "numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming."

While neither of the panels explicitly mentioned Gamergate – an online movement that officially promotes ethics in video-game journalism but has been brutal in its online trolling of female game developers, journalists and critics of misogyny in games – both were slated to discuss Gamergate-adjacent topics from opposing sides of the issue. The now-canceled panel, "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," was to feature "experts on online harassment in gaming and geek culture," including activist Randi Harper, and discuss "how to combat it, how to design against it, and how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment.”

Meanwhile the second canceled panel, "A Discussion of the Gaming Community," appeared to adopt a pro-Gamergate position. It featured speakers previously associated with the group, and was to discuss "the current social-political climate within the gaming community" and "the importance of journalistic integrity in video game's media."

In his blog post announcing the removal of both sessions from the conference, which will take place this March, Forrester wrote that the goal of promoting "a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic" was foiled by threats of on-site. While "SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas," he wrote, it was ultimately more important to preserve "the sanctity of the big tent." He continued:

Over the years, we are proud of the healthy community of digital innovators that has formed around SXSW. On occasions such as this one, this community necessitates strong management to survive. Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.

This is far from the first time threats of violence have successfully shuttered discussion surrounding Gamergate's controversial mission and even more controversial actions. Last October Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist pop culture critic and a notable target of Gamergate vitriol, canceled her talk at Utah State University after the school received a detailed threat promising a "Montreal style massacre" if she spoke as planned. (While Sarkeesian initially vowed not to cancel, she reconsidered after learning that attendees with valid permits would not be barred from bringing concealed firearms to the venue.)

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For those confused about what the Gamergate movement stands for, you're not alone – it gets more than a little muddy. The initial Gamergate controversy stemmed from a blog posted by independent game developer Zoe Quinn's ex-boyfriend, alleging that her interactive fiction browser game Depression Quest received positive media attention because she had been romantically involved with some of the journalists reviewing the game. From there an online group was born, one that officially claimed to promote ethics in video-game journalism, although a faction of its members dedicated their collective energy to viciously harassing Quinn and her supporters online. Their anger has since expanded to include anyone who criticizes Gamergate, although the harshest threats and coordinated online attacks have generally been reserved for women. 

For anyone removed from the gamer subculture, all this fuss over video games appears more than a little ridiculous. Sadly, however, it's not anything to laugh at – not only has the controversy reconfirmed the Internet's proclivity to breed hate and misogyny, but the Gamergate controversy sparked a series of online and offline threats, directed at members on both "sides" of the issue.

And thus Gamergate's ability to swiftly shutdown discussion at SXSW doesn't really come as much of a surprise, particularly for the women who have long been on the receiving end of the group's harassment.

“When a conference faces this for the first time, having one of us speak, they seem surprised. Like they didn’t expect the level of vitriol,” Harper, who was to speak on the "Level Up" panel, told Re/code. “It’s mostly men who are surprised, the men who run these things. They get a very small portion of it directed at them, and I have sympathy for that. I’m hoping that in the future it’ll get better, but it’ll take a long time to get there.”

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