What you need to know about the SXSW harassment controversy

October 28, 2015, 6:22 PM UTC
A general view of atmosphere at the SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival held at the Auditorium Shores in Austin, Texas.
Photograph by Mark Davis—Getty Images

Usually, the Austin-based festival South by Southwest would be drawing a throng of crowds on Twitter (TWTR) discussing the bands to see, films to watch, and sessions to hear.

This time, however, social media is in an uproar over a recent decision by SXSW festival organizers to remove two panels on gaming harassment after—in a sadly ironic move—threats of on-site harassment were made to attendees. Here’s a quick primer of what’s been happening, and the latest updates.

So, um … what’s SXSW?

It is an annual month-long festival in Austin, Texas, that covers the trendiest in technology, movies and music. It’s slated to be held from March 11 to 20 next year. Previous editions have often been marked by unsigned artists becoming famous (such as John Mayer and Janelle Monae), un-showered attendees not sleeping, and yes, imports from Brooklyn.

What’s the fuss over SXSW now?

The festival hosts a range of sessions that include special speakers discussing various subjects of interest to the young-ish crowd. Two panels slated for next year’s SXSW Interactive—”SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games”—deal with the issue of harassment in the gaming world. The ‘Level Up’ session includes panelist Randi Harper, a gamer and author who has been raising awareness about online abuse, and had been enduring threats from the movement Gamergate. On Monday, SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest said he would be taking down the two panels after “threats of on-site violence” were made. Without civil dialogue, Forrest wrote, “this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.”

Um … what is Gamergate?

Who is Gamergate would be a better question. It is an online community of gamers that are upset that people are speaking out against the objectified way women are portrayed in gaming culture on-screen, and the community has also provided some resistance to the growing number of female gamers. At worst, members of Gamergate have been accused of misogyny, bullying, and leveling rape and death threats against feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, video game developer Zoe Quinn, and game developer Brianna Wu. It is assumed that the Gamergate movement—which is really a loose collection of people online—is the one that threatened violence during SXSW (although it needs to be noted that there is no proof of this). Some have also associated the “SavePoint” panel with advocates for the Gamergate movement.

So why is SXSW getting so much criticism?

Because one of the panels specifically dealt with how to overcome harassment in games, and many feel SXSW is giving in to the very thing the panel was trying to fight against, and is hurting the cause of promoting equality in tech and gaming. Media organizations Buzzfeed and Vox Media, who were originally taking part in the festival, have expressed intentions to withdraw from the conference over SXSW’s decision to remove the panels. Many others have spoken out against SXSW’s decision:

Some, however, have spoken out against the vilification of Gamergate and the ‘SavePoint’ panel, and media bias in the story:

What has been SXSW’s response?

According to Re/code, SXSW’s organizers are reconsidering their decision, and are planning an all-day event focused on combating online harassment. Previous panelists, however, have not yet agreed to be re-participants of the event, and organizers have said they are still debating safety issues. So stay tuned, and to quote Mayer: we’ll keep waiting on the world to change.