SXSW’s Cancelled Panels and Why Gamergate’s Social Justice War Will Never End

Update: SXSW has now announced an online harassment summit featuring speakers from both of the previously cancelled panels. 

Original Article: Earlier this week South by Southwest made the announcement that it would be cancelling two of its planned panels as a result of online threats. The panels, titled “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” and “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” were to sit on two polarizing ends of the social and political spectrum. The former was organized by the likes of Randi Lee Harper, outspoken feminist and founder of the Online Abuse Preventation Initiative, while the latter was to be headed by Gamergate advocate Perry Jones, founder of The Open Gaming Society.

The two panels were to be conducted during SXSW Interactive, with the festival stating that they had adopted a position of neutrality on the matter, and were therefore excited to bring panels ostensibly representing pro- and anti-Gamergate beneath the same roof for the very first time. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case, as SXSW posted an announcement this week revealing that they were shutting down the panels after the event was subjected to a barrage of online threats. These actions saw the event’s organizers coming under heavy criticism, with many asking the same question: “What did they expect?” 

It’s depressing that the culture surrounding video games is becoming irreparably tainted by these sorts of controversies. With the medium’s popularity having swiftly ascended beyond other forms of entertainment over the course of the past decade or so, it has therefore been thrown head-first into a myriad of sociopolitical debates that, in truth, both developers and players have struggled to keep up with. This has led to no small degree of hysteria from those who are watching the landscape of gaming steadily becoming more progressive, leading to an ongoing conflict between the far-left and far-right, and with both sides leaving very little room for a middle ground. This inability to see eye-to-eye has therefore led to some seeking to stifle their opponents’ opportunities to discuss their views in open forums, which means that events such as SXSW are inundated with threats of violence intended to prohibit certain viewpoints being aired. In the case of SXSW, it worked.

Zoe Quinn, who became targeted by Gamergate members after her alleged relations with a gaming journalist were posted online.

Unfortunately, this is indicative of why this continued online debate will seems to have no clear conclusion in sight. Prior to the existence of Gamergate, heated discussion surrounding subjects such as the depiction of minority characters in games, online harassment and sexism within the gaming and tech industries still took place, but Gamergate’s creation gave those opposing progressive ideals a movement to latch onto. Contrary to popular belief, Gamergate doesn’t solely consist of misogynists looking to harass women, but the movement will arguably never improve upon its reputation to the point where it outgrows its lamentable origins, and this is thoroughly understandable.

While they may have actually managed to make some headway in regards to what they deem their prime purpose – improved ethics in gaming journalism – Gamergate was created as a result of the abhorrent unveiling of the sex life of a relatively minor female indie game developer, exposed on the Internet by an embittered ex-boyfriend and followed up by naked modeling photos of her being circulated online alongside a multitude of violent threats. Those within Gamergate continue to have the same reactions when the topic of their origin is brought up – either the threats leveled at Quinn were made by outliers who the movement distances themselves from (which, considering Gamergate does not have a leader or any discernible hierarchy, is difficult if not impossible for them to do so), that Quinn lied about these threats (given that I covered this entire controversy as it took place, I can confirm this is categorically untrue – even a brief perusal of Twitter unveiled a variety of accounts devoted to sending her disturbing, threatening tweets), or the far less popular opinion that Quinn somehow deserved such treatment, because she slept with a journalist who may or may not have covered her game in the past.

Individuals absolving themselves of responsibility from the behavior of Gamergate’s more amoral subsection is all well and good, but as long as the group continues to be supported by those who are more than willing to orchestrate such threats, their stance on issues within and surrounding the gaming industry will continue to hold little value outside of those who already consider themselves advocates of the movement. This inevitably makes Gamergate on the whole something of an echo chamber, in which reasonable discussion between well-meaning individuals may well be taking place, but their association with Gamergate will mean that their opinions will be ignored or undermined within a wider context. A movement in which members have also been actively involved in such debacles as the crowdfunded campaign for The Sarkeesian Effect, a failed documentary co-created by a man who once said “women in our culture have become the most decadent sluts since the fall of Rome,” would be unwise to expect much different.

PC Principal, a new character on this season of South Park designed to satirize political correctness.

But it’s not as though some of Gamergate’s more reasonable political opinions aren’t being discussed elsewhere. For instance, South Park has spent the majority of its most recent season lampooning our increasingly politically correct culture, with the new character PC Principal satirizing straight, white men aggressively jumping to the aid of minorities, presenting his opinions as fact and, in one episode, beating another character to a bloodied pulp when they disagreed with him. There is a definite push-back against this sort of behavior, with the so-called “thought police” facing criticism not just from the right-wing, but also from their fellow liberals and progressives. However, while this push-back is being publicized by Gamergate, the movement’s sordid history stands to undermine these credible criticisms, and no matter how much they may try to distance themselves from the indiscretions of some of their members, at this point it’s increasingly unlikely that they’ll be able to do so.

The public face of the movement, the subreddit KotakuInAction, represents an overview of how Gamergate wants to be perceived. While I may not personally agree with the majority of their opinions, it’s mostly a rundown of topics that align with their own political beliefs. There’s the obligatory fist-shaking at “SJWs,” mixed in with support for Gamergate advocates such as Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopolous and their sharing of articles from publications they disagree with (all of which are posted using a mirroring website so that they don’t give the site views – a tactic I would quite obviously be opposed to, but in the vast spectrum of things isn’t exactly the most harmful behavior they could be accused of partaking in). There are certainly a majority of questionable viewpoints that are banded about, as you’d expect from an Internet forum, but it isn’t this online hive where harassers meet up to decide their next victim it’s frequently accused of being. If Gamergate was KotakuInAction and nothing more, progressives would still disagree with their views, but it is very unlikely that their existence would come under as much scrutiny.

But KotakuInAction isn’t Gamergate. Not all of it. Gamergate is also the ceaseless dog-piling on Twitter, with those holding contrasting opinions to members of the movement finding themselves confronted by a stream of enraged users, each posting tweets alongside the #Gamergate hashtag in order to signal that their comrades should join in, too. It’s also the threat that the “worst massacre in US history” would take place at Utah State University if they allowed Anita Sarkeesian to stage a talk with students, leading to the Feminist Frequency host being forced to pull out of her scheduled appearance out of concerns for her own safety. It’s also their doxxing of Brianna Wu, with her home address and phone number being posted online, leading to heinous threats such as the one below (NSFW) being made to the indie developer:

Gamergate’s argument that these incidents were conducted by individuals and do not represent the viewpoints of the group as a whole is of no consequence. It is not a mere coincidence that these kinds of people associate with Gamergate, given that the movement was founded upon a woman’s sex life being exposed, and said woman then being threatened and humiliated online. It is also not a coincidence that these individuals are attracted to a group that gave between $7,000 – $9,000 per month to Davis Aurini and his friend Jordan Owen to create the aforementioned documentary The Sarkeesian Effect, with Aurini being both a Nazi apologist and a man who once uploaded a video titled “Why Blacks Fail,” switching his hateful rhetoric between white nationalism and misogyny with gusto.

Davis Aurini, co-creator of The Sarkeesian Effect.

Which brings us back to SXSW and its cancelled panels. Their removal from the festival’s line-up as a result of online threats has inevitably seen fingers being pointed directly at Gamergate, with the prevailing opinion being that members of the movement who did not want the online harassment panel to appear at the event had made the threats. SXSW has not openly stated that this is the case, but Gamergate has a reported history of this sort of behavior, so for many it seems unlikely that the threats would have been orchestrated by the self-described “Anti-Gamergate.” Even if Gamergate are not responsible, unless SXSW says otherwise then the majority will continue to hold the viewpoint that they are, and it’s not as if Gamergate isn’t to blame for this given the previous abhorrent actions of some of their followers. 

As long as Gamergate exists, this is the routine that those on opposing sides of the debate will find themselves trapped in. Some Gamergate members may find themselves aligning with the group due to a disapproval of the kind of uber-progressiveness mocked by South Park, but they will never shake off the movement’s origins, the continued threats made by individuals operating under the Gamergate banner, nor the ties to misogyny and threatening behavior. As such, those with links to the group appear to be forever doomed to doing little more than frowning upon progressives within their own forums, being repeatedly blocked on Twitter by those who they disagree with, and only occasionally seeing their views aired in public by a talking head appearance from someone like Milo. It’s a debate that looks set to continue for the rest of eternity, if only because one side of said debate have made themselves appear completely unapproachable and unreasonable. Gamergate isn’t dead, but it’s not exactly thriving.