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SXSW's Gamergate panel was as disappointing as expected

James Gregg

In the world of Gamergate, empathy isn’t allowed, the harassment women face online is exaggerated, and online abuse doesn't cause real-world harm. And that’s exactly what was heard at the SXSW "SavePoint" panel yesterday. In one of the same rooms that housed SXSW’s day-long anti-harassment summit, there was no room for sympathy for people like Brianna Wu, who days earlier offered examples of the roughly 200 times she had been attacked online, including one man telling her he would put a drill through her skull.

"We're not talking about people saying, 'You suck' on the internet," said Wu on Saturday. "It's a lot more serious than that."

"Sticks and stones," said SavePoint panelist Nick Robalik, head development at indie games company Pixel Metal. "Hopefully people learn to just ignore it."

70 percent of people stalked online are women

The panel, moderated by The Open Gaming Society founder Perry Jones, featured Robalik and the Society of Professional Journalists president-elect Lynn Walsh. The discussion ranged from ethical journalism, bias in games criticism, the sensationalist media intent on painting the gaming community in a negative light, and the how it's now impossible to conduct civil discourse online. Jones started the discussion by asking Walsh why it's "commonplace and acceptable" for journalists to sensationalize women's peril online when men face the majority of harassment. It was a bad question. The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that men face more harassment specifically in the form of name-calling, embarrassment, and even threats of violence, but women face the same kind of abuse in similar numbers while also confronting more serious forms of abuse like sexual harassment and stalking in far greater numbers. As the Women's Media Center's Soraya Chemaly noted in an op-ed last year, Justice Department records show a stunning 70 percent of people stalked online are women.

Walsh, who consistently conceded that she did not follow gaming journalism in a professional capacity, stated that it's a journalist's responsibility to do the appropriate reporting before publishing a story. "Should media try to see if this is happening to men?" she asked rhetorically. "I think they should. It's the part of the media to go in and tell that story."

Like Gamergate itself, the panel’s debate was built on dubious grounds. Jones and Robalik both took vague jabs at games journalists who show bias in their coverage, with Robalik in particular accusing critics of collusion with the video game industry and claiming outlets gave bad reviews for the sake of revenue — the same complaints Gamergaters made when the movement started. Walsh more or less agreed, but from a distance. "I don't rate video games," she said. "I don't rate products." However, she continued to stress objectivity and disclosure are important, and that reviewers should leave their biases aside when thinking about games.

There was no hard evidence as to why games journalists are bad

But, unsurprisingly, no hard evidence as to why games journalists should be mistrusted was offered during the panel. There were no named names as far as compromised journalists are concerned, or who colludes with whom. There were no hard links made to the real history of credulous reporting in the gaming industry that predates the movement. There was just a generalized sense of frustration that games reporters had gotten political and steeped in ideology.

But when it came to recognizing real online abuse, there was only hand-waving. "Grow up," Robalik said of people complaining about harassment on social media. "It's internet drama. It's not real life," he said, adding, "I completely intend for it to sound dismissive."

In a sense, the debate served its purpose in bringing the absurdity of the Gamergate movement into the real world. The overall intent of the event was the shed light on journalistic malfeasance. But the actual effect was to show that Gamergate supporters are largely disconnected from the larger reality SXSW sought to expose.

I later asked Robalik what he thought of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence calling Gamergate a hate group last year. He'd never heard of them.