Video Games

Video Games: SXSW shows its ignorance by canceling online harassment prevention panel due to online harassment

Alex Trebek with contestant Arthur Chu in front of a total of his winnings at a taping of “Jeopardy,” in Culver City, Calif. Chu, who writes a culture blog at The Daily Beast, weighed in this week on the SXSW gaming panel controversy.
Alex Trebek with contestant Arthur Chu in front of a total of his winnings at a taping of “Jeopardy,” in Culver City, Calif. Chu, who writes a culture blog at The Daily Beast, weighed in this week on the SXSW gaming panel controversy. AP

I have some advice for the budding festival planners out there.

If you are going to host a panel on fostering diversity and preventing online harassment, don’t invite representatives from the largest online harassment group to speak opposite of their victims at another panel. Don’t give online harassers a forum to vote and comment on the diversity panel, and certainly don’t take drastic and unnecessary action when those people do what you knew they were going to do.

My after-the-fact rules would have helped the South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival, which has long been a super-cool music festival and hipster haven. The festival has grown to include movies and an interactive branch, which spans an unbelievably large breadth – from tech and mobile business start-ups to the entirety of the video game industry.

The interactive portion of SXSW took a brutal and deserved beating from both the mainstream and gaming media this week for canceling two panels: “Level Up,” a panel on combating online harassment and creating a safe space for all in online gaming, and “SavePoint,” a panel for discussing ethics in video game journalism.

Pro tip: If you hear the term “ethics in video game journalism,” think GamerGate, a movement allegedly founded for that reason that grew to international fame due to the harassment of basically every woman involved in gaming.

Sure enough, several of the “SavePoint” panelists are affiliated with GamerGate. The movement isn’t mentioned at all in the panel description, because even its leaders understand the negative connotation that comes with it, but I don’t think anyone is wrong in calling this a GamerGate panel.

All of the “Level Up” panelists are women involved in technology, gaming or online activism. That makes it a certainty that each has a very real and very personal relationship with online harassment, hence the panel.

And SXSW thought it wise to put both of these panels together under the same roof. So the festival, in essence, invited those representing online harassers to verbally spar with those trying to cure the epidemic.

Arthur Chu, who writes a culture blog at The Daily Beast and became somewhat famous after winning “Jeopardy” 11 times, was planning to be on a panel similar to “Level Up.” He was set to speak on online abuse with Brianna Wu, a developer who is one of, if not the prime target, of GamerGate.

Wu has been the victim of crime – not just harassment, but crime – for more than a year. People have threatened to rape and kill her. A SWAT team has been called to her parents’ home. She has had to call police due to fear of death. I believe she’s had to move more than once.

Chu said he attempted to warn organizers of what was coming. He cautioned that the SXSW practice of allowing people to essentially up-vote or down-vote and discuss possible panels would be disastrous in this case, because the Internet trolls would overwhelm the conversation.

He was ignored, he said.

Once organizers finally looked at the comment sections, which they should have known would be cesspools, they were floored by the amount of abuse and threats inside them.

Then they canceled the panels. They canceled a panel on combating online harassment due to online harassment.

In a statement, the organizers cited safety, and that is an understandable gut reaction. GamerGate members have shut down dozens of events in this manner; they know it works. One of their meet-ups was even shut down for the same reason.

Wouldn’t providing adequate security and sticking behind your panelists send a better message? I doubt Major League Baseball would cancel a World Series game because people said nasty things about the Kansas City Royals on the Web.

SXSW also mentioned the “sanctity of the big tent.” Basically, if everyone can’t discuss their differences civilly, then no one gets to play. That also makes sense, but it shows their ignorance. The GamerGate movement isn’t about discussion; it is about abuse. They use a lot of nice words when cameras or event planners around, then they go back to dark corners and ruin lives.

Maybe these panelists are for real. Maybe they wanted to discuss ethics in gaming journalism, a topic that needs examination. I have seen some things while covering games that would not fly during my daytime job as a rank-and-file newspaper reporter.

But being part of a group that commits felonies voids your right to a seat at the adults’ table. Making criminal threats, even if you don’t actually intend to carry them out, is a crime. You don’t have a legal right to do that.

This sort of stupidity hidden under the guise of “everyone gets a right to speak” is ridiculous. If a group is inherently wrong and commits crimes, you don’t invite it to speak to ensure balance, and you certainly don’t punish panelists giving an extremely necessary talk because of it.

Online media responded decisively, as Vox and BuzzFeed threatened to boycott the festival if the “Level Up” panel was not reinstated. BuzzFeed offered its personal security to SXSW to help ensure safety.

SXSW organizers are doing their best to make it up to everyone. They’ve added a day-long online harassment summit, featuring the ousted panelists and more, for March 12.

Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, admitted that he had made a mistake early in the week.

“By canceling two sessions, we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry,” he said in a statement posted on the SXSW website on Oct. 30.

Good for them. It’s a start.

But the controversy created by SXSW will continue to repeat itself until the world realizes that when you are discussing the video game industry, you are not just talking about discs that 12-year-olds pop into machines.