​SXSW Cancels Gaming Panels Due to Threats of Violence

"It says a lot about the fact that women aren't taken seriously or respected in tech spaces​."

Oct 26 2015, 11:08pm

Austin, Texas. Image: Ed Schipul/Flickr

SXSW has canceled two panels on its 2016 schedule related to the culture surrounding video games after they were met with "numerous threats of on-site violence," according to the festival.

The canceled panels, "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," both related to the social climate of online gaming communities.

"Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" was to focus on solutions for abuse and discrimination in gaming, a topic that was brought to the forefront last year by GamerGate, an online movement whose members have alternately advocated for ethics in games journalism while attacking—including rape and death threats—so-called "social justice warriors," including those calling for increased diversity and inclusivity in gaming.

"It says a lot about the fact that women aren't taken seriously or respected in tech spaces"

The other panel's description focused on sociopolitics and journalistic integrity, which GamerGate supporters have used as moral cover during online harassment campaigns. It featured multiple supporters of the GamerGate movement—"several prominent GamerGate figureheads," as co-organizer Perry Jones stated in a Reddit post. Representatives from that panel did not respond to request for comment.

Caroline Sinders, an interaction designer at IBM Watson who was slated to speak on the 'Level Up' panel with Katherine Cross and Randi Harper, said she received the following email from SXSW on Monday.

Dear Caroline,
This email serves as notice that SXSW Interactive has made the decision to cancel the "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" session for March 2016 in Austin.
On the one hand, we are an event that prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas.
On the other hand, preserving the sanctity of that big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful — so that people can agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place. We have already received numerous threats of violence regarding this panel, so a civil and respectful environment seems unlikely in March in Austin. For this reason, we have also canceled other sessions at the 2016 event that focused on the GamerGate controversy.
We are strong believers in community at SXSW — and a healthy community sometimes requires strong management. Preserving the sanctity of the big tent is more important than preserving any particular session.

Monday's decision comes after the festival approved the SavePoint panel last week. The decision outraged some who have been targets of online harassment in the name of the movement.

After the SavePoint panel was approved, Sinders and other panelists voiced security concerns to SXSW, whose representatives responded with an email she called "patronizing." SXSW cited maintaining an open debate in its reasoning for keeping both panels.

"I think it says a lot about the fact that women aren't taken seriously or respected in tech spaces and neither are their concerns," Sinders told Motherboard of SXSW's reaction at the time. "It raises the question, do you care about the community that you're growing? The reaction really says no."

When asked about security last week, a representative for SXSW said, "At present, we are five months away from SXSW 2016. There are many specific details that will be resolved over these five months—including details on these GamerGate related sessions."

SXSW referred to the cancellations as "strong community management."

In his statement announcing the cancellation, SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest wrote that "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."

Sinders said she is "disappointed" her panel was canceled, but hopes the incident serves as a learning experience for SXSW and other festivals organizing events around controversial topics. She said in the future third party organizations with experience in anti-harassment initiatives should be contacted for assistance.

"I'm not shocked by [SXSW's] reaction because it is the reaction of people who have never had to deal with this," she said. "We are disheartened and we are sad, but it is something where this is one of the first times SXSW has gone through this and there isn't a guidebook for these things—but maybe there needs to start being one."

Update: Perry Jones, co-organizer of the SavePoint panel, told Motherboard by email that the event may go forward in some form. "We will be hosting, funding, and organizing the panel ourselves under the same name (#SavePoint)," he wrote.