South By Southwest is in a PR disaster of its own making, and it’s centred around one of the worst taints that can affect PR (and this also includes all human taints): GamerGate.
Catching up: the festival recently cancelled a pair of panels due to - according to the official statement - unspecified threats of violence. In response, Buzzfeed and Vox Media threatened to pull their involvement in the festival, unless the panels were reinstated. The situation is still evolving; further developments are likely as the week wears on.
Suffice it to say that SXSW has committed a series of gigantic fuckups and will need to backpedal furiously to regain any sense of credibility.
The panels were entitled “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” and “#SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.” Respectively, they focused on “how to combat [harassment], how to design against it, and how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment,” and “the current social/political landscape in the gaming community [and] the journalistic integrity of gaming’s journalists."
If you’ve paid attention to gaming culture (or BMD) over the past year, you can probably see where this is going.
There’s a lot wrong with this situation. To start with, the festival’s official statement is patronising and full of false equivalence. It implies that the threats were against both panels, when the email sent to the Level Up organisers stated threats were made against that panel specifically. It calls its actions “strong community management,” when it has actually capitulated to domestic terrorists, whose goal, to silence the Level Up panel, was absolutely achieved.
Most insultingly of all, SXSW refers to the coexistence of the two panels as “a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic,” namely “the GamerGate controversy,” when one panel was about designing games around avoiding harassment, and the other was a GamerGate megaphone in everything but name. Granted, GamerGate would have likely been discussed in Level Up, but SavePoint was a GamerGate panel through and through. There has never been an “exchange of ideas” involving GamerGate, because GamerGate has never engaged in good faith. Any “ideas” presented by the group have been smokescreens for the silencing and harassment of people whose beliefs disagree with their reactionary, right-wing view of the world. SXSW could not possibly have expected their utopian vision of open dialogue to come to fruition.
At this point, after a year-plus of coordinated harassment, SWAT attacks, revenge porn, and doxing (even of BMD staff and commenters) it should be clear that there are not “two sides” to GamerGate. There is GamerGate, and there is the rest of the world. On one side, the cudgel; on the other, the cudgelled. Expecting GamerGaters to play nice after all this time is either naive, wilfully ignorant, or - most worryingly - openly welcoming of conflict for controversy's sake. SXSW puts on an air of innocence that suggests it was everyone else who ruined their vision of communication between these two “sides,” but the reality appears to be that they knowingly cultivated the conflict.
There was always going to be a GamerGate problem with these panels. Firstly, we all know by now how GamerGate responds to counter-harassment programmes - especially ones involving would-be Level Up panelist Randi Harper. They bully, threaten, and attack them. That’s what they do. So threats were always a potentiality. And indeed, the panel was attacked for being “anti-GamerGate,” seemingly without the harassers realising the irony in equating "anti-harassment" with "anti-GamerGate", when they constantly bleat about GamerGate not being a hate mob. But I digress. Randi and her fellow panelists are (sadly) old pros at this by now; they know how to handle themselves.
The bigger issue is with SXSW’s programming of the “SavePoint” panel in the first place.
You’d have noticed that “GamerGate” appears nowhere in the panel title or its description. That’s standard operating procedure for GamerGate. Occluding its true intentions and origins behind more reasonable-sounding language was what gave rise to the now meme-worthy “ethics in gaming journalism” bullshit. Even the Forbidden Hashtag itself was adopted to distance the movement from the targeted harassment of Zoe Quinn that it began as (and that it continues to be). “SavePoint" was always designed as a stealth GamerGate platform.
One needs only look at the participants. Panel leader Perry Jones, of the Open Gaming Society, has led GamerGate meetups in Austin and was involved in the doxing of GamerGate target Sarah Nyberg, and the Open Gaming Society itself is a fairly transparent front for GamerGate ideals. Game developer Nick Robalik has been “involved [in GamerGate] since Day 1,” including through harassing Zoe Quinn on Twitter and even physically following and photographing her at events. Mercedes Carerra was a star interview in the serious investigative documentary The Sarkeesian Effect. Only journalist Lynn Walsh has no history at all of harassment, but she does have a history of appearing at GamerGate-affiliated events.
What’s more, the panel itself was celebrated openly on GamerGate Reddit hangout KotakuInAction, and was - by Jones’ admission - originally put forward by Twitter user @GamerGateTweets, aka FTC-outed revenge porn site operator Craig Brittain.
SXSW was aware of all this. As detailed in Arthur Chu’s comprehensive blow-by-blow of the process, multiple parties contacted the festival with concerns upon catching wind of the panel’s existence. But they had to do so after the fact, as the panel was submitted late, and was not subject to the PanelPicker voting process (a process through which GamerGate attempted to brigade competing panels down). The festival accepted the SavePoint panel in full knowledge that it not only featured toxic individuals, but that it would place those individuals - and what followers they had - in close proximity to targets of their harassment. SXSW welcomed these people, then had the gall to act surprised when it didn’t turn out smoothly.
SXSW made a mistake that an increasing number of organisations have made over the past year. Panels and organisations attempting to reduce harassment do not specifically exist to combat GamerGate, for GamerGate does not represent all of harassment. Groups like the Crash Override Network serve a wide range of clients from many walks of life. SXSW chose to see the Level Up panel as the opposite to the GamerGate panel, and in doing so silenced it.
That SXSW cancelled an anti-harassment panel due to harassment is a pretty clear symptom of why that panel was needed to start with. Why was the immediate response to cancel? Why not investigate the threats? Why not beef up security? Why not consult with the panelists involved, who were literally going to be attending the festival as experts in this very issue? Yes, it’s fair that SXSW should want to minimise the danger to its attendees and staff, but straight-up cancelling events feared to attract danger isn’t the answer. Nobody needs to attack the panel now, because SXSW has done the work for them.
Reportedly, since the situation blew up in its face, SXSW has since offered to reinstate the LevelUp panel and - according to some sources - host a full-day forum on harassment.
But given that these moves have come about only after major participants threatened to pull out, they feel more like PR Band-Aids than genuine attempts to create a safe space. And even if they do go ahead with that plan, the publicity caused by the cancellation has already generated an enormous amount of harassment in itself. The damage is done, both to the panellists and to SXSW’s reputation. Whatever happens now is simply the festival trying to claw its way back to legitimacy.