South by Southwest, better known as SXSW, is an annual set of conferences taking place in Austin, Texas, centred on film, interactive media, art, and music. In addition to trend-setting movie screenings and musical performances, it also hosts discussion panels based around its diverse subject matter.
Often an avenue for speakers and audiences to exchange ideas on sometimes controversial topics, next year’s event is instead attracting criticism over what’s not being said: organisers have cancelled two gaming-related panels. One was centred on avoiding online harrassment, while the other was seen as being pro-GamerGate.
“Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” was an otherwise unassuming entry on SXSW’s March 2016 schedule. Set to be hosted by Randi Harper, Katherine Cross, and Caroline Sinders, three advocates for improving online safety and preventing abuse, it was described as “a panel from experts on online harassment in gaming and geek culture, how to combat it, how to design against it, and how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment.”
Its inclusion elicited numerous threats. Last night, Harper tweeted “SXSW just canceled our panel due to the number of threats of violence they have received.”
Sinders had been sent an email by SXSW’s management, also shared by Harper, that read, in part, “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.”
Initially though, that other panel — “#SavePoint — A Discussion on the Gaming Community”, moderated by Perry Jones and featuring speakers Mercedes Carrera, Nick Robalik, and Lynn Walsh (who had appeared on a previous GamerGate panel) — was unaffected. However, soon organisers had cancelled that panel too.
Cross told Jezebel that “contrary to the assertion made by SXSW in the email they sent Caroline, our panel was not about GamerGate. It was about the wider problem of online harassment.” Jones, for his “side”, also updated on the situation, saying “SXSW’s team has had to bear the brunt of the backlash. They received countless emails, phone calls, tweets, and messages across all social media both praising and condemning them for #SavePoint and the Level Up panel”.
In a blog post, SXSW’s interactive festival director Hugh Forrest tried to explain the reasoning, saying “SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas. However, 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.”
Whether either side was inherently pro- or anti-GamerGate (it does at least bear mentioning that #SavePoint was officially being run by the Open Gaming Society, which has roots on subreddit KotakuInAction, which in turn declares itself “the main hub for GamerGate discussion on Reddit”), controversy over cancelling the panels has turned into a major media talking point in the US, with the likes of USA Today covering the decision and its fallout.
Harper has also questioned whether SXSW pulled the Level Up panel “because we made requests re: our safety”, and that “we didn’t demand that the GamerGate panel get removed from the schedule. We just asked that safety precautions be taken.”