SXSW cancels panels and loses points with gamergate foes

Eva Chen and Michelle Phan talk during their presentation titled How To Keep Your Social Media Game Sincere at South by Southwest at the Austin Convention Center on Monday, March 16, 2015, Austin, Texas. (Photo credit: AP photo by Austin American-Statesman, Deborah Cannon)

Eva Chen and Michelle Phan talk during their presentation titled How To Keep Your Social Media Game Sincere at South by Southwest at the Austin Convention Center on Monday, March 16, 2015, Austin, Texas. (Photo credit: AP photo by Austin American-Statesman, Deborah Cannon)

By Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times

Two of the scheduled panel discussions at next year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, hardly seemed designed to provoke controversy. One centered on “Overcoming Harassment in Games” and the other was titled “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.”

Yet organizers canceled both this week, citing threats of violence.

Despite the seemingly innocuous titles, organizers apparently feared the panels would become a ground zero for the ongoing controversy in the video game community, pitting those who say the games need to be more diverse and progressive against those who say games are being tainted by political correctness.

“In the seven days since announcing these two sessions, SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming,” SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest said in a statement.

Before the cancellation, the speakers on the overcoming-harassment panel had been attacked in the comments on the SXSW website. One panelist, a woman who started a resource for victims of online abuse, was labeled “a radical feminist and a terrorist sympathizer.”

But canceling the panels opened organizers to additional criticism, this time from the sort of progressive thinkers SXSW hopes to attract.

“Canceling a panel about harassment due to harassment is making a major statement about where the festival stands on the subject,” filmmaker Shannon Sun-Higginson said on Tuesday. “It sends the message that people can be bullied into silence.”

Independent game developer Brianna Wu said she now intends to skip SXSW, which has its gaming events set for March 17-19.

The dust-up is the latest in a series of events tied to a loosely organized online group known as gamergate, whose followers appear driven by a fear that serious criticism or a rise in diverse, experimental games will result in a sort of politically correct makeover of the medium.

Some of its subscribers have made death threats directed at game designers and writers, many of them women who sought to intellectualize the medium.

“Most people outside the game industry can look at this and see that it’s sexist,” Wu said. “They can see that with the over-sexualized designs our industry tends toward. They can see it in the commercials, in the way games are marketed … . It’s very easy to put all of this at the feet of gamergate, but I think that we don’t think enough about the culture and the institution that caused us to get here.”

South by Southwest certainly isn’t immune to what got us here.

Last March the Texas festival dedicated much space to diversity in gaming, including a full panel discussion on the difficulties that women face working in the industry. Sun-Higginson was clear to stress that SXSW was nothing but gracious to her and even provided additional security for a talk centered on her film, “GTFO,” which is centered on harassment in the game industry.

It’s unclear just how severe the threats against SXSW were. The organization issued a follow-up statement on Tuesday; it did not make anyone available for comment by deadline.

“The safety of our speakers, participants and staff is always our top priority,” the statement said. “We are working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions.”

Threats of violence are not exactly uncommon when it comes to discussing diversity in gaming.

Last fall, Utah State University canceled an appearance from cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who created a video series called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” School officials received an email that promised, according to a transcript obtained by the Deseret News, “the deadliest school shooting in American history.”

And yet diversity remains the most important topic affecting the game industry today. Long considered a boys’ club, games are just getting hip to the fact that women make up nearly half of its audience. This fall’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops 3,” for instance, will be the first in the blockbuster franchise in which a woman is a playable character during the game’s core campaign.

Game designer Caroline Sinders, who organized the canceled SXSW talk on harassment, said that the panel was aimed at higher-level design choices that can make a game feel safer. “Like the layout of a game, creating the chat function as opt-out first, so users have to opt-in,” she said in an email interview.

She said she was told there were “threats against both panels,” but did not detail any specifics.

Some are speculating that SXSW made a mistake by booking a panel that many saw as sensitive to the gamergate cause in “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.” It featured numerous participants who had at various times voiced support of gamergate on social media.

“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,” said “SavePoint” organizer the Opening Gaming Society via a post on its site on Monday evening.

But when it comes to harassment, many believe there is only one side to the story.

“I think what has happened here is they were trying to create a false balance,” Wu said. “On one side, they have the women that have been harassed by gamergate, and on the other they have gamergate.

“This,” Wu continued, “is an equation where women are always going to lose.”

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