clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

SXSW Interactive Cancels Two Panels on Harassment in Gaming, Citing Threats

Talk about Gamergate -- or just online harassment in general -- is apparently too touchy for the festival.

The online hate mob of Gamergate is good at two things: Sending horrible threats to women online and forcing people to shut down events featuring people critical of Gamergate.

A year ago this month, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University because someone threatened to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” Now, South By Southwest Interactive organizer Hugh Forrest says the festival is canceling two sessions on the topic that were on next year’s schedule, citing “numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.”

Gamergate, for the uninitiated, is a loose online community that arose last year and targeted a number of prominent women in the gaming industry. It purports to be countering what it sees as unfair criticism of gaming and gamers, specifically charges that games often depict women in demeaning ways. Its biggest homes are sites like Reddit, 4chan, 8chan and other message boards. People affiliated with Gamergate claim they’re fighting for ethics in gaming journalism, but they’ve accomplished little aside from threatening women online and menacing advertisers on sites critical of Gamergate.

The two canceled panels — “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” — were put together by two different groups, and they were to cover different topics.

“SavePoint,” which featured Gamergate allies Mercedes Carrera and Nick Robalik, was ostensibly going to discuss ethics in gaming journalism, but would have likely become a venue for people to pooh-pooh feminists and advocates for victims of online harassment.

“Level Up,” which was organized by IBM Watson designer Caroline Sinders, was set to talk about broader issues of harassment within the gaming industry. Fellow panelist Katherine Cross tweeted that the panel “had no interest” in getting into Gamergate: “Our panel was about the issue of harassment in tech generally, not GG. I and others have tried to put GG behind us.”

In a phone interview, “Level Up” panelist and Online Abuse Prevention Initiative founder Randi Harper (a well-known target of Gamergate) said that she didn’t know much about the threats, or why SXSW Interactive decided to shut down their panel along with the pro-Gamergate one.

“They weren’t clear about what the threats were, beyond their violent nature,” Harper said. “We contacted them first, saying ‘This is gonna be controversial, there’s a mob that follows us around.’ They knew exactly what they were getting into. It’s the same boilerplate warning I give any conference I speak at.”

Harper also said that since the cancellation of Sarkeesian’s event last October, there has been “zero progress” on how event organizers handle violent threats related to Gamergate and other online harassment.

“We’ve made the issue more apparent and more public. And 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 said. “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.”

As for what they’ll do next now that the panel has been canceled, Harper said, “It’s still so early. Have you ever been on the phone while answering emails? I haven’t put much thought into how we’re going forward.”

SXSW Interactive hasn’t yet responded to an email and voicemail asking for further comment — we’ll update if they do. Below is the text of the email sent by SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest to “Level Up” organizer Caroline Sinders.

Dear Caroline,

This email serves as notice that SXSW Interactive has made the decision to cancel the “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” session for March 2016 in Austin.

On the one hand, we are an event that prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas.

On the other hand, preserving the sanctity of that big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful — so that people can agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place. We have already received numerous threats of violence regarding this panel, so a civil and respectful environment seems unlikely in March in Austin. For this reason, we have also canceled other sessions at the 2016 event that focused on the Gamergate controversy.

We are strong believers in community at SXSW — and a healthy community sometimes requires strong management. Preserving the sanctity of the big tent is more important than preserving any particular session.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.