SXSW tackled ‘Gamergate’ once without incident. What’s different now?

October 28, 2015, 7:16 PM UTC
Inside The South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival
Attendees play games during the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Friday, March 13, 2015. The SXSW conferences and festivals converge original music, independent films, and emerging technologies while fostering creative and professional growth. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg/Getty Images

2016 wasn’t going to be the first time South by Southwest examined Gamergate, the name given to the uproar from certain video-game fans over growing criticism that games often depict women in demeaning ways. The popular festival scrutinized the issue—and the topic of online harassment—head-on in its conference seven months ago.

But the threats of violence surrounding the announcement of two sessions—”SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games”—and the subsequent backlash after officials canceled those panels is brand-new territory.

SXSW addressed the Gamergate controversy without incident in March. The film portion of the festival screened a documentary about misogyny in gaming titled GTFO. And the festival’s interactive portion held a number of panels looking at the harassment and challenges women face online and in the gaming world, such as “Why Does The Internet Hate Women?,” “Sex, Lies, and the Internet,” and “Women in Gaming: Navigating Successful Careers“.

So the eruption of threats surrounding this year’s panels isn’t just because of the topics. (Keep in mind that while one of the panels was focused on harassment in game culture, the other was composed of Gamergate supporters. SXSW officials, in their cancellation announcement, implied that both had received threats.)

What’s worth looking at, psychologists say, is the people who were scheduled to speak, who tend to be lightning rods for extremists in this debate. Brianna Wu, who was scheduled to take part in “Level Up,” was forced to flee her home a year ago and says she still files 10 to 40 reports per day with Twitter for what she calls “severe harassment.” And Nick Robalik, a developer at PixelMetal Games, who was slated to appear on the “SavePoint” panel, has questioned the authenticity of some harassment reports in the past.

“The question people need to ask is what is causing such a reaction? Is it the actual people speaking?” says Dr. Kortney Peagram, owner and president of Bulldog Solution, which works with more than 30 schools in Illinois to help teachers and students deal with bullying and confrontational behavior. “A victim of harassment …. evokes emotions. [He or she] evokes feelings. That’s what causes the controversy, because it’s not a neutral playing field. It’s not like having a psychologist say, ‘This is what’s happening.’ It’s a personal story. Storytelling is powerful—and can bring up things people don’t want to discuss.”

The timing of the security threats has also been particularly awkward for show officials. Earlier this week, a jury was seated in the trial of Rashad Owens, who is charged with killing four people during the SXSW Music Festival in March 2014, driving a stolen car through a crowd of people on Red River Street.

And Austin city officials have also recently raised concerns about the escalating cost of security at the event. The show foots a hefty private security bill, but the police presence is significant as well. At SXSW 2015, officers staffed the show for a reported 15,788 hours – 36% of which was overtime.

With prominent media outlets like Buzzfeed and Vox threatening to boycott the show, though, it’s not surprising that SXSW officials are beginning to backpedal a bit.

“The safety of our speakers, participants and staff is always our top priority,” said Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, in an updated statement Tuesday evening. “We are working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions. Moving forward, we are also evaluating several programming solutions as we continue to plan for an event that will be safe, meaningful and enjoyable for all involved.”

The festival is reportedly considering an all-day forum on online harassment and has reinstated “Level Up,” but has not yet made a decision about “SavePoint.” SXSW officials did not comment beyond the statements it made announcing the panels’ cancellation.

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