SXSW cancellations improper response to sexist threats


South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual tech-music-film conference and festival held in Austin, announced Oct. 26 that it was canceling two of its events related to video games as a result of violent threats against the festival and their audience. The two discussion panels, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” and “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” were set to cover harassment in the tech industry and ethics in gaming journalism, respectively. However, their cancellations are much more than just unfortunate circumstances.

They’re the result of Gamergate, a large online “community” of gamers who disagree with the rapidly changing cultural landscape of the video game industry. Particularly, members disagree with the need to include women in the gaming world. They believe that the video game industry doesn’t need to include women in order to make good games. They see gender equality as an unrelated political agenda. So they use harassment and threats as a means to prevent the industry they love from trying to accommodate those they do not value. However, women are essential to the success of an industry that now appeals equally to both genders.

Though the industry’s professionals and audience have been predominantly male in the past, the audience has an almost 1:1 gender ratio today. The rise of mobile gaming and the ever-expanding reach of big game companies like EA and Ubisoft have allowed a gender-inclusive audience to take root. Yet the industry still has an enormous gender gap in terms of professional developers, hovering at around a 9:1 male to female ratio. Women are not making the transition from gamers to game developers largely because of the harassment they receive from men, both inside and outside of games.


So far, discussions about in-game harassment have been largely anecdotal, but one study by scientists at Ohio University provided hard evidence for this phenomenon. In games of Halo 3, researchers found that negative comments had no correlation with skill level, but that women received three times as many hateful comments. And though men also experienced some negative feedback, the language was not gendered: for example, a female voice saying “Hi, everybody” was immediately met with comments like “shut up, you w****” and “she is a n***** lover.”

Outside the game, women have to deal with Gamergate, which is essentially the manifestation of their “teammate” mentality: an online mob that sees women as otherworldly and unnecessary to success.

The worst part is that it’s working.

“Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” the first of the two discussion panels cancelled by SXSW, was put on by Caroline Sinders, Katherine Cross and Randi Harper, three feminists in the tech industry who aimed to talk about harassment in gaming. Their talk was not to address Gamergate specifically, but to pose questions like “How do we reframe and take back the narrative around game spaces to create inclusivity and diversity amongst gamers?” Broad discussions about intolerance are exactly what the industry needs to solve the issue of harassment and verbal abuse shown in the “Halo 3” example.

Gamergate wasn’t having any of it. Women taking back the fundamentals of their game space, the one that they’ve spent many years of enjoyment in and plan to spend many more? Members called up SXSW by the dozens and threatened on-site violence if the panel wasn’t cancelled, leaving SXSW with little other option but to cancel. As a precaution, they cancelled the potentially pro-Gamergate “SavePoint” as well.

With the cancellations, Gamergate realized that it has the ability to shut down public events and keep discussion about discrimination within the industry to a minimum. The questions “Level Up” planned to pose to the crowd may never again see opportunity for such intimate discussion. Is it worth it for other festivals like SXSW to try to organize similar panels when they might receive numerous, anonymous threats of violence in response? With both business and safety in mind, probably not.

And as long as Gamergate can shape the answer to that question, their beloved games will continue to be made just as they are: by men, and with no female influence to speak of. Their entertainment only comes at the expense of millions of female gamers.

Benj Salkind is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @benjsalkind.