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SXSW’s Gamergate debacle, explained

SXSW signage
SXSW signage
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Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is an amorphous annual event in Austin, Texas that touts itself as a tech, music, film, and journalism festival, and it's currently in the news — but not because of any groundbreaking achievement in tech, music, film, or journalism. The reason is a bit more embarrassing and baffling than that.

This week, SXSW canceled a panel discussion about harassment in online gaming in response to harassment and threats it received targeting the panel, which was scheduled for the 2016 festival. The decision has been widely panned online, news organizations including Vox Media and BuzzFeed have threatened to not attend, and the situation has been cast as a win for the angry and misogynistic teratoma of trolls that identify themselves as part of the Gamergate movement. Meanwhile, SXSW's official explanation for the cancellations is a misdirected mess.

The incident has raised questions about SXSW's management and who's making the important calls when it comes to this big annual event that boasts lots of celebrity clout and regularly hosts tech tycoons. But it stretches further than that, and hints at a bigger, more worrisome issue: Has SXSW given harassers and abusers a blueprint on how to silence the voices they don't want speaking?

SXSW canceled a panel about harassment and threats in online gaming because it received threats of violence from Gamergaters

Officially, SXSW canceled the panel "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," as well as another panel about the gaming community, on Monday, October 26. The Level Up panel was slated to be a discussion on harassment in gaming and how to get video game companies to better respond to players' reports of abuse. It was approved for inclusion in SXSW's 2016 lineup.

"The panel will dive into data around abuse in larger gaming communities," the panel's official description says. "One of our panelists will talk about ways to actually develop the social aspects of games — including UI decisions and how they can influence accuracy and usage of reporting abuse. Another will dive into UX design choices to stymy harassment in social media spaces."

Level Up's planned speakers were Caroline Sinders from IBM Watson, writer Katherine Cross from the City University of New York Graduate Center, and Randi Harper from the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative. These women, as BuzzFeed reports, "had previously been targets of harassment" — both online and off.

In one such instance, a SWAT team was sent to Sinders's mother's house by a prank call after Sinders wrote about the Gamergate movement. Earlier this year, she recalled the incident on Narratively, explaining that it was the real-life extension of the abuse she regularly faced online:

In February, the public Twitter account of game critic and Gamergate-target Anita Sarkeesian retweeted me and I had to block over sixty accounts because of harassing tweets, people telling me to never procreate so I could keep my "stupidity" contained, calling me a dumb feminist bitch, and a handful of strangers just wanting to engage in a debate.

That type of harassment only continued once her participation in the SXSW panel was announced.

On its website, SXSW has a feature where the public can vote and comment on potential panels. The comment section for Level Up looks like someone took a cheese grater to punctuation and etiquette. Attacks on the three panelists, and their defenders, began to pile up:


Meanwhile, on the Reddit forum "Kotaku in Action" (KIA), a place where Gamergaters congregate, Level Up and two other potential SXSW panels were singled out and mocked. There were also mentions of attempts to shut down the panels:


At some point, these online discussions escalated into threats of physical violence at the 2016 SXSW festival if the panels were held as planned.

In August, Sinders wrote about how Gamergaters were actively downvoting the Level Up panel and that she was receiving threats about the panel. The votes are one component of the panel-picking process. Though the panel was ultimately picked, Sinders said SXSW did nothing about the threats she received. According to Sinders, she approached SXSW about the threats and didn't hear back from them. When representatives responded to her inquiry, it was only to tell her that her panel had been canceled:

Officially, we don't know the specifics of those threats. A statement SXSW sent to Sinders said that threats were made, but did not specify their nature. "We have already received numerous threats of violence regarding this panel, so a civil and respectful environment seems unlikely in March in Austin," it read.

Why did Gamergaters oppose the harassment panel?

SXSW isn't the first event to receive threats of violence in response to people, especially women, speaking out against harassment. Last year, video game critic Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel a lecture in Utah after someone threatened to carry out "the deadliest school shooting in American history" if she was allowed to speak. That happened in the same month that Brianna Wu, a video game designer targeted by Gamergate, fled her home because she received death threats, and actress Felicia Day, another target of Gamergate, was doxxed (doxxing is the practice of posting someone's home address and other personal information online).

Gamergaters argue that these women are pushing a narrative intended to obfuscate what the Gamergaters say is the focus of the Gamergate movement: corruption in video game journalism. Here's how one Gamergater on KIA summed up that mentality:


Essentially, they believe that talking about the misogyny and sexism in video games is a ploy — a runaround of sorts. Thus, the mere fact that SXSW was considering a panel about harassment in gaming was enough to get them riled up, even though the Level Up panel description didn't even mention Gamergate.

This isn't surprising. Gamergate purports to be about the ethics of video game journalism, but it's long been associated with instances of doxxing, harassment, and abuse that have nothing to do with journalism or video game criticism. Harassment and threats of violence have become Gamergaters' routine response when women speak out about harassment in the gaming community.

Arthur Chu, the former Jeopardy champion who is now a writer specializing in geek culture, explained this trend for the Daily Beast. Chu had been part of a panel that didn't make the final cut for SXSW's 2016 lineup. "The panel I was on and the 'Level Up' panel, even though they were about Internet harassment—and GamerGate is certainly an example of that — didn’t mention GamerGate at all, nor were they 'about' GamerGate," he wrote. "GamerGaters found these panels and chose to make an issue of them."

There were actually two panels canceled

Level Up wasn't the only panel canceled. The other panel in question was called "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community," and featured moderator Perry Jones of the Open Gaming Society along with panelists Mercedes Carrera, Nick Robalik, and Lynn Walsh.

The panel, unlike Level Up, was not put to a public vote, but was still approved for inclusion in SXSW's 2016 lineup. Jones explained that the panel would cover the social and political factors affecting the gaming community and the journalistic ethics of video game criticism.

Though the panel's description didn't explicitly mention Gamergate, outlets such as Vice and BuzzFeed and critics like Chu say the panel and its speaker were pro-Gamergate.

Those critics also noted that Jones, the moderator, had allegedly harassed Brianna Wu, a target of the Gamergate movement. Jones, in an interview with The Washington Examiner, admitted to being suspended on Twitter after tweeting at Wu. He called it "an overreach of Twitter's definition of 'harassment.'" Jones, as Chu points out, also hosted a Gamergate meetup in May.

Robalik told the Huffington Post that he is "happily lumped in" with the Gamergate movement. Carrera has also expressed support for the movement. Walsh, from the Society of Professional Journalists, appeared on a Gamergate panel in August that was evacuated because of a bomb threat, Polygon reported.

Chu has a breakdown of the unorthodox way the SavePoint panel was presented and approved.

Of course, SXSW's cancellation of both the Level Up and SavePoint panels is not that different from what happened to Sarkeesian in Utah, where someone didn't agree with what she was saying and threatened to kill her. In the case of SXSW, at least one person expressed concern for personal safety after the festival approved the SavePoint panel, because past discussions of the Gamergate movement have been shut down by bomb threats. Vice reported:

One prospective speaker on a separate panel who has been harassed and stalked by GamerGate notified SXSW organizers that she feels unsafe in light of the panel’s approval and received the following response, which she called "patronizing."

Hi [name redacted],

We appreciate your thoughts and always welcome feedback from our community. That said, SXSW is a big tent and we strongly believe in showcasing a very diverse range of ideas and opinions, even if we as a staff don't always agree with them. If everyone shared the same viewpoint, that would make for a pretty boring event.



However, by canceling both panels, SXSW has implicitly blamed the panelists for the violent threats coming its way. People expected SXSW to be better and to take a stand against any threats.

Why SXSW's decision was not only embarrassing, but a setback to the fight against online abuse

The security needed at a festival like SXSW size isn't exactly a minor undertaking; SXSW cordons off entire sections of Austin to run its events. As Chris Kluwe, a former Minnesota Viking and a Gamergate target, explains in the Cauldron, it's not that SXSW couldn't provide protection for the Level Up panelists against threats of violence — it's that it didn't seem to want to:

Second, and perhaps more pertinently, you run a festival [SXSW] that features A-list celebrities and tech magnates worth collective billions, superstar athletes, and some of the biggest music acts in the world, and you’re telling me you can’t provide security for a panel of three women? That it’s beyond your resources to hire any sort of police presence when you shut down entire sections of Austin at a time? That the unceasing vitriol these brave individuals face on a daily basis is just too much for your tender feelings to deal with, when you’ve experienced the merest fraction of that torrent of filth they’re forced to endure? …

That’s seriously the argument you’re going with? That you’re so afraid of neolithic barbarians and their mindless rage, you’d rather bury your heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist so they turn their anger back towards their usual targets?

However, even more worrisome is the precedent SXSW has set. Gamergaters and online abusers have seen that their violent threats succeeded in getting the panels canceled. Last year, during the height of Gamergate frenzy, Gamergaters effectively convinced advertisers to drop their campaigns with Gawker, a publication they felt had offended them. SXSW ceding to their abuse is a similar success story.

What's happening now?

After SXSW announced the cancellation of the panels, many people began to voice their anger online. And some organizations are putting that anger into action.

BuzzFeed and Vox Media both issued warnings to SXSW that they will not participate in the 2016 festival unless it addresses the threats without stifling discussion of online harassment. Vox Media wrote in a statement:

Vox Media will not be participating in this year’s festival unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct. We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us.

On Friday, SXSW announced an all-day summit harassment. SXSW said in a statement that their decision to cancel the panels was erroneous:

While we made the decision in the interest of safety for all of our attendees, cancelling sessions was not an appropriate response. We have been working with the authorities and security experts to determine the best way to proceed ...

The summit will include Randi Harper, Katherine Cross and Caroline Sinders from "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," as well as Perry Jones, Mercedes Carrera, and Lynn Walsh from "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community." We are working with both groups to develop the most productive focus for their appearances.

SXSW begins on March 11, 2016.