North By Northeast: The SXSW Harassment-in-Gaming Debacle

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In the sake of full disclosure, some of this post is part of a project I’m working on to be presented at the NWSA conference in Milwaukee in a couple of weeks. Part of it is straight-up ranting. All of it expresses frustration with the current state of the games community, particularly when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and basic humanity. (Note: If you don’t know about GamerGate, go read about it here.)

Some time ago, SXSW (South by Southwest) chose to include a panel on online harassment for its conference in Austin in March, 2015. The panelists scheduled to speak included Randi Lee Harper, the founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative; Caroline Sinders, a journalist, digital artist, and indie game developer; and Cross, a cultural critic and writer for Feministing and Gamasutra. Harper, Sinders, and Cross were to present a panel entitled “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” which, Adam Rosenberg explains, was intended to be a “data-driven discussion of how abuse factors into larger gaming communities. They also would have looked at the various ways harassment can be combated on the design side of game development.”

Interestingly, long after the official application deadline, SXSW announced an added new panel entitled “#SavePoint – A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” meant as a “response” to the “Level Up” panel, ostensibly dedicated to “the current social/political landscape in the gaming community” and “journalistic integrity of gaming’s journalists,” otherwise known—in gaming circles—as “ethics in games journalism,” the catch-phrase for the GamerGate movement.

Kari Paul at Motherboard explains that although “#SavePoint” “is not described on the schedule as explicitly GamerGate-affiliated, several of its panelists”—indie developer Nick Robalik, Open Gaming Society founder Perry Jones, game designer Mercedes Carrera, and journalist Lynn Walsh—“have been involved in the hashtag movement.” Carrera, Walsh, and Robalik previously appeared on a GamerGate-focused panel series at AirPlay in August which was itself derailed by bomb threats. Jones’s organization, the Open Gaming Society, is also not explicitly affiliated with GamerGate, although its manifesto contains the following:

We look forward and see a future that is being shaped by hands other than our own and express our unease to the powers at be, but to no avail. We’ve been painted as the great evil of our time; given names like misogynist, scum, patriarchs, rapist, and the list goes on. We’ve seen our hobby invaded by those who seek only to destroy it and to dismantle our culture.

Questionable syntax aside, the OGS’s manifesto reflects the kind of paranoid, anti-feminist, conservative-libertarian discourse that permeates many online spaces devoted to the gaming community. The fear that so-called “social justice warriors” (a term coined by many GamerGaters to describe those out to “ruin” gaming by demanding racial, gender, queer, and intersectional inclusivity in the games industry) actively “seek only to destroy…and dismantle our [gaming] culture” pervades most of these spaces, dominated by a predominantly male demographic.

A logical reaction to this might be to be skeptical of this not-GamerGate panel, particularly given the way they went against standard operating procedure to get it on the docket. That said, however, SXSW’s reason for including it was to enable open discourse and discussion, an admirable (if somewhat misguided, in this particular case) motivation. This is not to say that I don’t think the not-GamerGate panel shouldn’t be permitted—I just think they ought to submit their panel like everyone else (so if they didn’t have one this year, they could totally have one next year, you know, the way these things normally work). That said, I don’t have any inherent objections to the “#SavePoint” panel.

What happened next is where things start to go wrong. Whether because of the presence of the “#SavePoint” panel, because of the publicity surrounding it, or for some other reason, people began to send angry letters to SXSW. Some of these were both angry and threatening. Some were harassing. In response, SXSW cancelled both panels, citing concerns about security and safety. That’s right—a panel on dealing with harassment (and a panel responding to it) was cancelled because of the very thing it was attempting to address. Katherine Cross, one of the would-be panelists, stated that “The cancellation ‘sent the message that being a woman who addresses controversial topics in public is a liability — even at a conference that prides itself on engaged debate and cutting-edge … ideas.’”

As a result, significant media outlets, including Vox and Buzzfeed, immediately began to withdraw their support for the conference, claiming that SXSW mishandled the situation by “giving in” to the harassment. SXSW has issued the following statement:

We want the SXSW community to know that we hear and understand your frustrations and concerns about the recent cancellation of two SXSW Gaming panels.

The safety of our speakers, participants and staff is always our top priority. 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.

We will provide more information soon.

Here’s the primary issue with SXSW’s initial decision: they chose to grant power to those harassing them by doing the very thing those harassers were demanding (if not literally, then figuratively through their actions). And this is not exclusive to SXSW. There have been multiple events, including Anita Sarkeesian’s lecture at Utah State University and the session at AirPlay, which have been cancelled or cut short due to threats of violence.

A few days later, SXSW acknowledged their mistake, saying “Earlier this week we made a mistake. By cancelling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry.” They also announced that, on March 12, 2016, they will hold a full-day summit on harassment, currently set to include both the panels they had previously cancelled. It’s definitely a step in the right direction—although I do not hold out a lot of hope that the “#SavePoint” panel will legitimately engage in any discussions about actual “ethics in games journalism.” But we shall see—and I certainly hope that I’m wrong.

But here’s the other huge problem that SXSW’s decisions (any of them) cannot really address—the fact that gamers have chosen to respond to opinions they do not like with threats and harassment only serves to legitimize the otherwise-idiotic claims of people who say that games make us violent and encourage anti-social behavior. Threats and harassment confirm in the public mind (much like that horrible episode of Law & Order) that gamers are misogynistic, rash, ill-mannered, violent, socially inept mouth-breathers who have nothing better to do than type in chat windows and make rude memes all day long when not simultaneously eating Cheetos, pizza, and Mountain Dew, and playing a man-shooter or MMORPG.

Instead of demonstrating that gamers are people of all races, creeds, colors, genders, types, and sizes, the actions of a few disgruntled and juvenile trolls have displaced gaming as a legitimate form of culture by several decades. When I wrote about the Law & Order GamerGate episode, I talked about how frustrating it was to see that the media was portraying gamers in that (horrible) light. I talked about how gamers don’t have problems separating fantasy from reality and are genuine, real people just like anyone else who are interested in culture and progress.

I’m starting to wonder now if I was wrong. If toxic masculinity hasn’t been so deeply coded into gaming communities that the only those who match some part of that identity can safely participate in game spaces. If we ought to give up entirely on the industry and throw up our hands and walk away, go back to the “purple games” movement of the 1990s where “girl gamers” could play games about friendship and fashion and developing relationships with the right guy…

Oh, hell no.

Here’s the thing. Culture shifts, and it is shifting hardcore right now. A space that was hitherto coded straight-white-male has begun to change, and a whole lot of people are going to have to adapt or jump out of the boat. And that’s how culture works. Toes will be stepped on. People will fall overboard. There will be yelling and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and, you know what? In the end, gamers will still be there. Games will still be there. There will be man-shooters and MMORPGs (which already have more women than men playing them, by the way) and RPGs and puzzle-solvers and platformers and narrative games and text-based-adventures and MUDs and RTSs and build-your-own-adventures and tower-defenses.

Culture doesn’t go backwards. Games will not go backwards. My advice is to put on your big-boy (or girl) panties and accept that the world is not what it was, gaming is not what it was, and that’s great. Play the games you love, don’t play the games you don’t love, and keep your hateful comments to yourself.

Prove me right.

Image credit: SXSW, Bigstockphoto

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