Running Scared: SXSW’s Reaction to Harassment

And you thought gamergate controversy was over.

Image of the SXSW logo for their 2016 festival
Image of the SXSW logo for their 2016 festival

On October 27th, news spread that South by Southwest (SXSW) decided to cancel two panels about harassment in the gaming community after receiving numerous threats of violence. After just announcing the panel last week, the cancelation would seem hilariously ironic—a harassment panel being canceled due to harassment—if this wasn’t a vicious problem that has made real women very scared.

As a woman in the gaming community (a queer woman, I might add), I’ve actively shied away from online gaming where I will be forced to interact with men for fear of harassment. Just talking about gaming and critiquing games on the open social media platform tumblr has led gamers who don’t agree to harass me for my opinions. While I haven’t been threatened openly like Anita Sarkeesian for my critiques (focused generally around sexist depictions of women and a lack of queer and nonwhite representation in video games), being harassed online is still a fearful experience. As LA Times reporter Todd Martens notes, “Threats of violence are not exactly uncommon when it comes to discussing diversity in gaming.”

People who fight for diversity in the gaming community, like I Need Diverse Games, specifically note that their campaigning comes from a deep need to not see their identities trivialized, whether those are identities of color, gender, or queerness. They want to see themselves in the games they play. To many of the white cishet male gaming demographic, this sounds like diverse groups wanting to take representation away from the “majority” of the gaming population. The thing is, adult women actually make up one of the largest gaming demographics, so to disregard their calls for more representation seems a little foolish to me.

An image of the "Motivational Poster" meme, showing how many protagonists of blockbuster games look alike
An image of the “Motivational Poster” meme, showing how many protagonists of blockbuster games look alike

What SXSW is doing in canceling this panel is confirming that harassment wins. When opponents threaten and rant and yell in all caps about the sanctity of white stubbly trigger-happy cishet men, it works! All we have to do is apparently threaten to rape and kill women who dare to speak out on these issues and we’ll get our way—we’ll get to play as the same exact man in every type of imaginable universe! Violence really is the answer, mom (unless, of course, you’re black…then we get to send in the militarized police).

Though I hold diversity as a paramount issue, I get that the gaming community, in general, does not; however, even if they don’t care about making games representative of those who play them, they should still care about the more extended debate of violence and the gaming community. Even ignoring the intersections of minority populations and gaming (which we shouldn’t do, but for the sake of argument…), SXSW’s unintended message that violence is a viable solution is inherently problematic—especially to the gaming community, who have been fighting accusations of “video games cause violence in real life” for years. Even though studies have reported video games have little to no negative effects on violence, that doesn’t stop moms from taking Halo 4 away from their children.

Having panels at a festival as large as SXSW legitimizes the problem of harassment, and their cancellation sets a dangerous precedent for how the community will deal with these issues as a whole. When famous people like Felicia Day are afraid to cross the street to chat with male gamers, when huge festivals like SXSW cancel events meant to address the problematic parts of the gaming industry, it shows that this is not a hit-and-run issue. We need to address it holistically as individuals, as a community and as an industry; the fact that we’re not doesn’t bode well for progress. The community—the consumers—determine what kinds of games we play; the only way for us to change these games is to rise up and demand a damn conversation.

I bet all the women in the gaming industry and community who have been harassed wish they could run away from it, too. Game over, SXSW, insert coin to try again.

By: M. Aiken

Cover photo


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