Overwhelmed by threats of on-site violence, SXSW cancels 2 gamer panels

Shades of Gamergate.


Josh Katzowitz

Internet Culture

Published Oct 27, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 6:10 pm CDT

When South by Southwest Interactive scheduled panels titled “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” festival officials apparently envisioned a respectful discussion about big issues in the gaming community.

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But it seems as if the exact opposite has occurred. SXSW, only seven days since announcing the pair of sessions with groups that are on opposing sides of the Gamergate issue, canceled both on Monday, saying the festival has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to the programming.

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In essence, panels that might have discussed online harassment were shut down because of online harassment.

“Preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people can not agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised,” Interactive Director Hugh Forrest wrote on Monday.

“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.”

The panel dealing with harassment was not, according to activist and organizer Randi Harper, related to Gamergate—the online movement that strikes out at anybody, notably women, who criticize the gaming community. Instead, the panel was going to discuss “making design decisions in abuse systems.”

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The SavePoint panel, though, featured several participants who are members of the Gamergate community.

Vice spoke last week to a woman on a separate panel who said she’s been harassed and stalked by Gamergate and told SXSW that she would feel unsafe if the SavePoint panel went on as scheduled. But at the time, SXSW opted to keep both panels, telling the woman in an email obtained by Vice, “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.”

The Gamergate panel’s organizer and the founder of the Open Gaming Society, Perry Jones, told Vice that he wanted an “open and cordial discussion” and said “I imagine that tensions may run a bit high, but we won’t let things get out of hand. You can be certain that any disruptions, agitations, or ‘pot stirring’ will be dealt with swiftly.”

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Instead, SXSW decided to cancel both panels, leading observers to remember October of 2014 when Anita Sarkeesian, one of Gamergate’s biggest targets, canceled a speech at Utah State University after receiving a death threat that promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if Sarkeesian went through with her discussion.

Harper, on her Twitter account,was clearly disappointed and enraged by the SXSW decision.

“Every conference I’ve spoken at has been the recipient of mob harassment, from email campaigns to spamming mutilated bodies in conference hashtags on Twitter,” Harper told Austin 360. ” … I tend to avoid large public spaces, and when I do speak, depending on the conference, I’ll have a security guard escort me to the room. There’s always security present. Walking the floor at any conference just isn’t something I can do anymore. However, I’ve never had the experience of a conference canceling my talk. This was very unexpected.”

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In a statement released after SXSW’s decision, Jones and the Open Gaming Society announced they will “organize, fund, and host [a] panel ourselves” and “we plan to do so around the same time as SXSW to allow for the largest possible audience.”

More from Jones’ statement:

SXSW explained to us that they are a very neutral organization and wanted to provide a platform for both sides to speak on and have their voices heard. “We wanted to do something interesting that hadn’t really been done before” one SXSW official said in our phone conversation earlier today. SXSW feels that both the organization and its staff have been under siege from all sides and from all parties since they announced the panels early this month. They want to encourage open discussions, but they don’t want to fuel a vicious online war between two sides who are extremely opposed to one another. We’re all very passionate about this medium and sometimes we let that passion get the best of us – and that’s on both sides of the table. This entire thing grew out of control very quickly and was more intense than anything that they have had to deal with – and they hosted a panel on [Edward] Snowden just a few years prior. Once the SXSW director got involved it was a done deal. The SXSW Interactive and their Gaming teams came together and made the decision to cancel both panels.

Meanwhile …

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Update 11:22am CT, Oct. 27: BuzzFeed leadership reportedly sent a letter to SXSW’s Hugh Forrest claiming that they would pull the half-dozen staffers moderating and participating in SXSW if the conference didn’t reinstate the Gaming panels. “[T]he conference is five months away. We are confident that you can put in place appropriate security precautions between now and then, and our security staff would be happy to advise on those measures,” wrote Ze Frank, Dao Nguyen, and Ben Smith.

Update 3:14pm CT, Oct. 27: Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark has additionally weighed in, asking SXSW to change its mind.   

Update 4:45pm CT, Oct. 27: Vox Media and subsidiary publication the Verge have joined in BuzzFeed’s “expression of solidarity” and backed out of SXSW “until it takes harassment seriously.”

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“SXSW characterized the decision to cancel the two panels as ‘strong community management,’” wrote T.C. Sottek. “But the conference’s guests are rightly asking where that kind of strong community management was when they were being harassed even before their panels were accepted. We are now asking the same question.”  

Update 4:55pm CT, Oct. 27: Randi Lee Harper took to Twitter again Tuesday afternoon to clarify her side of the story post-cancellation:

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Photo via The World According to Marty/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 27, 2015, 12:24 am CDT