A year ago, when the first big batch of panels were announced for South by Southwest Interactive 2014, I wondered on Twitter why there weren’t any related to a huge controversy at that time in gaming, “GamerGate.” (Want to know what GamerGate is? More info than you may need can be found here.)
For the 2016 festival happening in March, the fest did add one panel expected to address GamerGate, which provoked some angry responses on Twitter and several articles, including this one on Vice’s Motherboard blog.
That panel, which was originally called “#SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” no longer appears on the SXSW website. Here’s a cached version listening panelists including Perry Jones, founder of The Open Gaming Society, Mercedes Carrera, “Activist” with the same group, Nick Robalik, head of development at Pixel Metal” and Lynn Walsh of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Now, it appears that another panel, one focused on online harassment, may have also been caught in the GamerGate crossfire. Randi Harper, founder of Online Abuse Prevention, Tweeted on Monday that a panel she was moderating, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment In Games” had been canceled by SXSW.
Later, SXSW confirmed the cancellation of both panels in a blog post on SXSW.com. (The festival did not respond to an email request for information from earlier this afternoon from the American-Statesman.)
On Monday, October 26, SXSW Interactive made the call to cancel two sessions for the 2016 event: “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.” We had hoped that hosting these two discussions in March 2016 in Austin would lead to a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic.
However, in the seven days since announcing these two sessions, SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.
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.
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.
In an email interview, Harper said she was aware there might be safety concerns, but feels the festival didn’t take that concern seriously until now. “While we had told SXSW multiple times that there would be safety concerns for all of us, they seemed unconcerned until this morning when we received the email canceling our panel. We do not have details on the threats they have received, but we were told that there were ‘numerous threats of violence regarding [our] panel’,” she wrote.
A string of comments, negative and positive, for her panel were on the PanelPicker page, but she said that she largely ignored those comments and alerted SXSW. “SXSW stated that they were aware of the situation and took that into account when they approved our panel,” she wrote in her email.
Unfortunately, Harper said, this is not unusual at tech conference she’s been to as a speaker. “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. At one conference, someone that had been threatening me had to be physically removed, luckily prior to my arrival. 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.”
Harper said she is not sure if law enforcement is involved with SXSW’s actions on Monday. Harper also provided the message from SXSW she says she received on the panel’s cancellation. It echoes the statements Forrest made in the SXSW website blog post.
Harper says she is not planning on attending SXSW for 2016 or in the future, “Unless they use this as a learning experience and change they way they handle the safety of conference goers and panelists. This could have been prevented if SXSW had reached out to work with people that have been fielding these types of threats for the past year.”
She says she received no indication that the panel might go forward in any form. “I don’t think it has to do with the subject matter of the panel, as dealing with reporting systems in video games isn’t really that controversial. Instead, this looks more like SXSW caved to the demands of a mob determined to silence women,” Harper wrote in her email.
I’ll update this post if I receive more information from SXSW.