This Is Not a Game: How SXSW Turned GamerGate Abuse Into a Spectator Sport

Citing ‘violent threats,’ SXSW canceled a panel about harassment in games, as well as a pro-GamerGate panel that cropped up as a counterpunch. But the story is much stranger than that.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

So in August this year, Shireen Mitchell from Digital Sistas and Brianna Wu from Giant Spacekat told me they’d done a successful panel about trying to improve online culture at BlogHer 2015, and they were thinking of expanding the panel for a larger audience at SXSW 2016.

They asked if I’d be willing to lend my voice to the panel, as a male ally. I said absolutely, already knowing Brianna and being an admirer of Shireen’s work. Shireen put together a proposal and sent it to SXSW and we waited for approval.

Then things started getting interesting.

I hadn’t previously been aware, not having submitted to SXSW before, that SXSW makes proposed panels available for a public vote, which includes both “upvotes” and “downvotes.” The ability to “downvote” or “dislike” something has proven in the past to be a pretty terrible idea that, despite the best intentions of implementers, serves to encourage mobs of haters to go after unpopular people and suppress them, and is a major reason why places like Reddit become such unpleasant, polarized echo chambers.

Speaking of Reddit: Once SXSW’s “PanelPicker” website went live, three panels got targeted by r/KotakuInAction, a subreddit that serves as a primary GamerGate discussion forum—ours, a panel called “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment In Games,” and a panel about VR technology that was apparently targeted simply because Brianna Wu was on it.

Caroline Sinders, one of the “Level Up” panelists, wrote this up back in August. The thing about being “brigaded” by downvoters, as anyone from Reddit or YouTube or other sites with downvotes can attest to, is that if the vote has any significance whatsoever, trying to fight off the downvotes becomes exhausting.

And then there were the comments.

Shortly after the Reddit post went up, a representative from SXSW contacted us letting us know they were aware of it. They asked us if there was anything we could do. Short of closing the vote entirely, which felt like admitting defeat, I asked if they could close the unmoderated comments sections left on each PanelPicker page. If you’ve ever seen a comments section after r/KotakuInAction has linked to it, it’s not a pretty sight. It’s a quite useful tool, in fact, for downvoters to discourage upvoters from showing up by making even navigating to the page unpleasant and stressful, a way of signaling to everyone: “This is where the ugly controversy is.”

The representative declined to close comments. They asked if anything particularly bad came up to let them know so it could be deleted.

Things started getting bad very quickly, of course. I waited until I started seeing links to Encyclopedia Dramatica and Lolcow Wiki, sites that more or less exist to spread gossip and libel about Internet personalities. I asked that a link to a hit piece alleging over-the-top and incredibly hurtful things about a panelist—that she was a drug addict, that she’d sold her child—be removed. I asked that a link to a hit piece saying I’d called in a bomb threat be removed. I asked that a link outing the birth name of a trans person who wasn’t even on any of the panels be removed.

I was ignored.

Caroline Sinders spoke up in the email chain we were in, pointing out that her mom had had a SWAT team sent to her house after she’d written about GamerGate, and said the whole situation was screwed up and made her feel unsafe.

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The next morning, comments were closed on all our panels. This is after the comment thread on “Level Up” had gone to over 100 comments long, when typically, as far as I can tell, PanelPicker comment threads rarely got more than two comments long, when they existed at all. (People who don’t see why comments sections are a problem are almost always people who, so far, have never gotten any comments.)

No comments were deleted. The defamatory comments stayed up, the slurs stayed up, the vicious and nasty comments stayed up. SXSW’s representative sent an email saying, “Right now, what we see in the comments section is an open dialogue/debate between two different opinions. Until one of those comments turns into an outright threat of violence, we will leave them up.”

Let’s recap. The panel I was on and the “Level Up” panel, even though they were about Internet harassment—and GamerGate is certainly an example of that—didn’t mention GamerGate at all, nor were they “about” GamerGate. GamerGaters found these panels and chose to make an issue of them—and again, one of them wasn’t even about harassment or abuse, it was about VR in gaming and was targeted only because GamerGaters have a personal dislike for Brianna Wu.

SXSW knew that several of us had been targets of abuse in the past, from GamerGate or elsewhere. One of the things I had been planning to talk about, in fact, was how many common types of Internet platforms are tailor-made to generate harassing behavior against vulnerable people, and SXSW threw us directly into one such—a public vote, with upvotes and downvotes, and open unmoderated anonymous comments for drive-by downvoters to spread negativity.

SXSW’s response at first was simply to assure us that the public vote was only one part of the panel approval process and we wouldn’t be automatically disqualified if flooded with downvotes, which was nice but not my primary concern. My primary concern was that every time a shitstorm develops around a harassment target and lots of people start joining in the fun, gamified activity of mobbing the target increases the chances of it jumping out of the current venue into a more dangerous one—someone getting a little too excited and starting to make phone calls or send nasty packages.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, blown off. Only when Caroline spoke up about actually having had a loved one experience a SWATting did they take it seriously enough to take the token action of closing comments. All in all, though, it was an unpleasant experience but not the end of the world.

But wait—there’s more.

Generating a shitstorm against our panels wasn’t enough for r/KotakuInAction. They decided, even though the deadline for panels had passed, that they needed their own panel to be up against “ours” for balance. r/KiA put together a proposal for a panel, carefully avoiding using the word “GamerGate” in the proposal but openly planning it on a GamerGate forum with GamerGate panelists. The organizer disingenuously presented himself as representing a “neutral” organization, the “Open Gaming Society,” even though he had hosted a GamerGate meetup in Austin in May.

None of this was a secret. Like many organizations based on the “weak ties” of social media, GamerGate has little choice but to do all their planning in publicly visible spaces. All of us who’d been paying attention to r/KiA ever since they started organizing against our SXSW panels saw the thread.

I alerted our contact at SXSW about it. Caroline, who had more reason than me to be afraid based on personal experience, alerted them about it—the group that had tried to SWAT her mom was now making plans to attend an event her mom was planning to come to. They knew about it the day the thread went up.

Again, responses were placating. We were told that all “late panel submissions” received the same form letter telling them that late submissions would be considered but not guaranteed a slot. We were told “not to worry.” We were told, and I quote, “They can put it together all they want, but, we are already aware of what's going on and how they are treating their fellow PanelPicker proposal submitters, i.e. you, which is a great case of them getting rejected automatically.”

That seemed reasonable. At least it served to tell us that we weren’t crazy and that those wonderful, supportive folks at SXSW had seen the pages and pages of abuse and also concluded it was unacceptable. It quelled my fears enough that when r/KiA posted a celebration that their proposal had been “accepted for consideration” I didn’t say anything.

I did notice that when they said that, their panel didn’t appear on PanelPicker for a public vote—ironic, since they’d created a proposal in the first place as part of their community-building camaraderie around trashing someone else’s panel that was up for public vote. As a “late submission” they weren’t even “accepted” until Aug. 24, when over half the public voting period (Aug. 10 to Sept. 4) was already over.

There was nothing to do but move on with life until panels were announced in October.

The day came. Our panel was not approved. But the VR panel was. And so was Level Up. And so was “Save Point,” the GamerGate panel.

I sent an email, not mentioning our own panel but simply asking for an explanation about the GamerGate panel, especially since we’d been more or less told the panel would not be accepted back in August.

Nothing. My emails weren’t being read. I asked Shireen, who said that as far as she knew the person we’d talked to previously wasn’t at SXSW anymore, and the new person who’d contacted her had tried to push our panel in a direction she wasn’t comfortable with, to bring it further into the “gaming space” (the Level Up panel, unlike ours, specifically mentioned “gaming” as an issue).

Caroline from the Level Up panel, who, again, has actually had her mom threatened by GamerGate, had received her panel approval announcement from the same new individual. She sent him back a concerned inquiry about SXSW bending their own rules to approve a late panel submission that there was clear evidence was created as part of a campaign of harassing other panelists, something we’d previously been told was a disqualifying factor.

He gave a tepid response about SXSW being a “big tent” that, I agree with Caroline, was incredibly patronizing. It would make for a “pretty boring event” if all participants in an event shared the same opinion, but an event that brings harassers and stalkers together with harassees and stalkees becomes exciting in exactly the wrong way.

I had had it. I checked back on r/KotakuInAction and confirmed that no one had ever put up a link to the Save Point panel’s public voting page because it had never had one. I started asking every gaming and media and tech person I was connected to on Facebook, and finally found someone who was friends with a member of SXSW’s advisory committee. The committee member said they’d never seen the panel and if it had come before the committee they’d have red-flagged it for sure.

SXSW’s FAQ says 30 percent of the selection process is the public vote, 40 percent is the advisory committee’s recommendation, and 30 percent is the SXSW staff. Neither the public nor the advisory committee weighed in on this panel. This was a unilateral decision.

So I went public. I went onto Twitter and publicly said that, as annoying as it would’ve been to foot the bill for travel and lodging to Austin before all this, this was really the final straw and I wasn’t going even to support Level Up or other people I knew.

Other people spoke up and started asking questions. Pieces got written for Vice, people more famous than me started tweeting about it, posts went up on Facebook.

Then, of course, came the bombshell that they were canceling “both” panels, the GamerGate panel and Level Up, which SXSW now lumped in as somehow serving as the GamerGate panel’s opposition. They said that they wanted these two sessions to serve as a “valuable exchange of ideas,” even though the panelists on Level Up had made it clear they wanted nothing to do with people who’d been involved in ruthlessly attacking them.

Both panels had to be canceled because of “threats of on-site violence,” with no further explanation given, but the arbitrary decision to axe them both was necessary to preserve the “sanctity of the big tent,” whatever that means.

Some quick conclusions:

1. GamerGate’s actions here have all been entirely reactive. No one was going out looking for a “dialogue” or “debate” with this group of people. Unlike the thread on r/KotakuInAction, which has people propose GamerGate figureheads and then vote on them to see who would make the “best” GamerGate panel, there was no “anti-GamerGate meeting” to create “anti-GamerGate panels.”

The “anti-GamerGate panels” came together because of preexisting relationships among the panelists. They were only defined as “anti-GamerGate panels” because the random person who posted the attack thread on r/KiA identified them as such. Hilariously, he picked on a random panel where Brianna Wu would be talking about VR tech and apparently just didn’t notice her panel about “Women and Tech,” a topic far more in GamerGate’s harassment bailiwick.

Similarly, Chris Kluwe, who’s crossed swords with GamerGate numerous times, also has a panel about harassment in gaming, one whose description actually mentions “GamerGate idiocy” by name. And GamerGate is, in fact, upset about it—they just didn’t notice it until a few days ago.

So it’s just sheer, dumb, bad luck that it was Level Up that got targeted and not Kluwe’s “The Art of the Own” when a GamerGater was searching PanelPicker for someone to harass back in August. Had history gone slightly differently it would’ve been Chris Kluwe, Lana Berry, and “PFT Commenter” offered up as a sacrifice to appease GamerGaters and protect the “big tent” rather than Randi Harper, Katherine Cross, and Caroline Sinders.

SXSW has not addressed the arbitrariness or the unfairness of this. They’ve let their agenda be dictated by the whims of a subreddit.

2. Any “both sides” narrative is nonsense. Whatever harassment and abuse there was cannot have been at all symmetrical.

SXSW acknowledges this when they tell Randi Harper in an email they’ve “received numerous threats of violence regarding this panel (Level Up)” and a “civil and respectful environment seems unlikely.” You can see with your own eyes the degree of incivility and disrespect likely to occur at her panel by looking at the comment thread GamerGate left on PanelPicker. This started up in August and has only had time to fester since then.

By contrast, I don’t think any one “anti-GamerGate” I’ve spoken to other than my fellow panelists was even aware a GamerGate panel was in the cards until it was announced last week. Feel free to search my own history on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc., to see if you can find any mention of it.

As far as I know, we were all determined not to draw attention to it to avoid making the situation worse—and even if we hadn’t been, SXSW themselves misled us into thinking there was no reason to talk about the GamerGate panel by telling us it wouldn’t be approved.

Even after the panel was approved, which became public knowledge on Oct. 20, I didn’t see public discussion of it until Oct. 22, after several attempts at contacting SXSW privately through email. Consistently, the “anti-GamerGate” panelists have been against the whole idea of doing an “anti-GamerGate” panel or making “GamerGate” itself an issue at all, whereas it’s been GamerGate insistent on forcing the issue.

Which brings me to…

3. SXSW’s actions throughout this whole ordeal have been unprofessional, self-serving, and mendacious. They have never really taken seriously the idea of actively working to curb harassment or keep people safe; their one consistent motivation throughout has been the opposite—exploiting people’s abuse for drama and clicks.

The dividing line between calling attention to abuse to try to make change and turning abuse into spectacle to exploit victims of abuse and re-abuse them has been a matter of long debate and soul-searching among those of us who write GamerGate think pieces. I’ve confronted myself with the question of whether I’m overall helping or harming by getting paid to write an op-ed about horrible things that have happened to someone else. In this account I’ve avoided providing direct links to certain things I reference for precisely that reason.

One thing is certain, though: People who take people who’ve been abused and manipulate them into a situation where they involuntarily “face” their abuser are not good people. They are not helping. Their goal is more fireworks and attention and money, not healing.