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SXSW Cancels Gaming and Harassment Panels to Preserve “Sanctity” of Its “Big Tent”

Amid threats of violence, organizers opted to nix the controversial panels. But the decision has some disappointed.

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mike rhode, flickr // via Creative Commons

For the past year, the discourse around video games online has been dominated by GamerGate. What that is depends, largely, on who you ask: Supporters call it a movement to advocate for ethics in games journalism and to discuss the social-political climate of the gaming community, while opponents characterize it as a campaign of harassment targeted toward women critical of sexism in games.

There are plenty of places to learn more about which of those views on GamerGate more accurately reflects the reality. But one place you won’t be able to participate in that discussion is SXSW. The SXSW Interactive conference announced Monday that a pair of panels dealing with the current culture surrounding video games have been canceled. An open letter from SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest explains:

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.

SXSW hasn’t responded to requests for comment, so there are still some questions lingering here.

The two panels in question represented two conflicting perspectives on the issues at hand: The “SavePoint” panel featured members of an organization called the Open Gaming Society and game developers whose Twitter accounts reflect support of GamerGate, while the “Level Up” panel featured feminist speakers who sought to discuss the way that harassment enters gaming spaces.

It’s likely, as well, that both panels received threats. The comments on the official SXSW page for the “Level Up” panel are full of heated comments accusing the women on that panel of being “bullies” and “harassers,” while the “SavePoint” panel featured speakers who, at previous pro-GamerGate events, had seen their talks disrupted by bomb threats.

Because SXSW isn’t taking questions right now, it’s not clear the exact nature of the threats, or why these panels were singled out. To be certain, there’s no shortage of panels on controversial topics: There are panels on #BlackLivesMatter, police and protests, and gun violence, to name just a few—and SXSW events are no stranger to armed protest. Last year, Edward Snowden was one of the keynote speakers (albeit remotely). All of which makes the fact that these panels were canceled surprising.

At the very least, it makes SXSW’s claims that it’s dedicated to “the sanctity of its big tent” surprising. A “big tent” typically refers to the exchange of a lot of ideas from a lot of different perspectives; “sanctity” means that you’re holding those things sacred. If threats of violence are enough to convince SXSW organizers to shut those voices out of its conference, it’s hard to see how they’re actually preserving the sanctity of its free-flow of ideas from different voices. Rather, it appears that the festival is doing the opposite.

The announcement to cancel the panels also prompted Buzzfeed to threaten to not participate in the festival.“We will feel compelled to withdraw … if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day—to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment,” president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures Ze Frank, BuzzFeed publisher Dao Nguyen, and editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote in a statement earlier today.

These aren’t the only questions regarding the panels. With no response from SXSW, all of the details are unclear, but emails between Caroline Sinders—one of the panelists from the now-canceled “Level Up” event—and a SXSW representative shed some light on the situation, though they also raise additional questions.

Sinders forwarded the emails between herself and her co-panelists and the SXSW representative to Texas Monthly. In them, Sinders expresses discomfort with the idea that the “SavePoint” panel might happen at the conference. She explains that GamerGate “swatted” her mom (a practice that involves making a hoax emergency call to authorities describing a violent crime scene at the intended target’s home, intended to get a police SWAT team to arrive at the house), and that she suspected that the members of the other panel would be “discrediting other panelists” in their discussion.

The SXSW response to that email suggests that the festival didn’t take the “SavePoint” panel particularly seriously—and that given its late entry to the PanelPicker process (the emails were exchanged on August 19 and the process started nine days earlier), it wasn’t going to be considered for inclusion to begin with. “I seriously would not worry about their attempts to put together a panel. They can put it together all they want,” the festival’s representative writes, “But, we are already aware of what’s going on and how they are treating their fellow PanelPicker proposal submitters, i.e. you, which is a great case of them getting rejected automatically. So, just let them think they can pull this all together, and bask in the glory of knowing that it’s all in vain.”

It’s unclear what changed between August 19, when SXSW sent that email to Sinders, and SXSW’s decision to include “SavePoint” in the conference. It’s equally unclear how a panel that was a late entry to the selection process—which rejects a huge number of relevant and qualified panels—ended up getting accepted into the festival at a late date, which is very unusual. What is clear, though, is that SXSW seems to have very little idea how to handle any of this. A representative for the Interactive conference told other panelists that the panel featuring GamerGate supporters was “all in vain” a few weeks before that panel was added to the conference. Shortly after that panel was added to the conference, it was canceled, and the panelists who had initially inquired about “SavePoint” had their panel canceled as well. All while SXSW cited its dedication to the “sanctity” of the free exchange of ideas under a “big tent” as the reason for nixing both panels.

Certainly, the safety of SXSW attendees is of utmost importance. But if the festival’s approach to specious threats of violence is to immediately cancel the threatened panels (rather than to, say, discuss additional security measures or relocating the events in question), then it’s hard to conclude that the top priority here is really the “big tent.” Indeed, given that these threats came five months before the event, when no details about where or when they would be taking place were available, it’s hard to assume that it’s even motivated by specific safety concerns. What SXSW is doing here, then, is a big question mark—and right now, the festival isn’t returning anybody’s emails.

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  • José

    Nice piece, Dan. The hypocrisy of SXSW blathering on about “big tent” is astounding. One can surmise that the principles they hold sacred are prestige and profit, not freedom and fairness.