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SXSW cancels Gamergate-related panels after 'threats of violence'

The Gamergate controversy is causing even more problems — this time with two panels at next year's SXSW festival. Earlier today, activist and programmer Randi Harper tweeted that the organizers of SXSW had canceled a panel called "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," presented by Harper, IBM Watson interaction designer Caroline Sinders, and writer Katherine Cross. The reason? It was drawing too many threats.

In fact, SXSW looks like it's decided to steer clear of anything potentially Gamergate-related at all. A few days ago, a group called the "Open Gaming Society" announced a panel called "A Discussion on the Gaming Community." While it wasn't promoted as a Gamergate panel, it featured speakers who had previously been affiliated with the movement, and it covered issues near to the cause, including "the current social-political climate within the gaming community" and "the importance of journalistic integrity in video game's [sic] media." That panel, however, also disappeared today.

SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest posted a statement explaining the decision soon after; it echoes an email that Harper provided The Verge.

We had hoped that hosting these two discussions in March 2016 in Austin would lead to a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic.

However, in the seven days since announcing these two sessions, SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.

SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas.

However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people can not agree, disagree, and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.

Over the years, we are proud of the healthy community of digital innovators that has formed around SXSW. On occasions such as this one, this community necessitates strong management to survive. Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.

The Open Gaming Society later released its own statement, saying that conference organizers had told the group that SXSW was "a very neutral organization" and "wanted to do something interesting that hadn’t really been done before" by hosting the panel, but that the situation "grew out of control very quickly and was more intense than anything that they have had to deal with." The group still plans to host the panel independently.

These two panels weren't the only events with an indirect connection to the controversy. Developer Brianna Wu, one of the central targets of Gamergate harassment, has two unrelated panels on the schedule — one covering virtual reality and the other women in technology. But so far, they've been unaffected. "As far as I understand it, my panels are still going forward," she tells The Verge, saying that while she still receives death threats, none have specifically involved her plans for SXSW. "I'm disappointed that SXSW isn't going to stand with [the anti-harassment] panel. I've done a lot of public speaking this year, and to date all have provided security for my programming after receiving threats. None have ever cancelled."

"Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session."

On Twitter, co-panelist Cross disputed the idea that the anti-harassment panel was going to be specifically about Gamergate. "Me and my panelists were focused on our broad, solutions-oriented talk," she wrote. "Our panel was not about [Gamergate], it was about the wider issue of harassment in the online world." Gamergate, she said, was a single case study in addressing the problem. Harper, similarly, said that the panel was about harassment at large. But Harper has also been a longtime target of Gamergate, in part because of her work on the Good Game Auto Blocker, a tool that automatically blocks Twitter accounts that follow certain Gamergate figureheads.

Motherboard previously quoted an email explaining the decision to hold Gamergate-related panels in the name of intellectual diversity. "SXSW is a big tent and we strongly believe in showcasing a very diverse range of ideas and opinions, even if we as a staff don't always agree with them," it read. "If everyone shared the same viewpoint, that would make for a pretty boring event." But there was always a high chance that anything related to Gamergate (or online harassment more generally) would draw some kind of violent backlash. A number of women involved in games criticism or online activism have seen months of persistent threats since the movement started last summer, including a shooting threat that led to the cancellation of a planned talk by feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian. Gamergate supporters, meanwhile, had an event cut short this summer after an anonymous bomb threat.

It's not clear what plans, if any, SXSW initially had for dealing with online threats. But whatever they were, its organizers ultimately decided that the rewards weren't worth the hazards. Good job, internet.

Update 7:10PM ET: Added statements from Katherine Cross and Randi Harper.

Update 10:45PM ET: Added statement from the Open Gaming Society.