Thursday, November 5, 2015

Organizers of South by Southwest balked at threats against discussions of sexual harassment and diversity in the gaming community. Now there’s a separate program for that. How does that reflect on the main show that goes on without them?

Anita Sarkeesian pulled out of an appearance at Utah State University due to death threats.
Credit: Ian Linkletter on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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(WOMENSENEWS)–The presence of guns in public places like conferences and campuses and a not-so-silent subculture that seeks to silence women and other underrepresented people with opinions is a worrisome fact of American life.

How can we exchange ideas with a gun, real and imagined, to our heads?

Recent events reveal the risks.

For example, noted feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian pulled out of a planned appearance at Utah State University in 2014 when officials received threats from someone claiming to “have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs.” She ultimately cancelled after learning Utah law prevented officials from banning firearms at the event due to the state’s concealed carry laws.

Likewise, the threat of on-site violence offered organizers of South by Southwest (SXSW), two unpleasant choices last week: Prepare and stand up to threats against two planned discussions on sexual harassment and diversity in the gaming community during its 2016 conference — or cancel.

They cancelled them from the main schedule, but responded to a backlash to the decision by arranging a full-day online harassment summit for March 12, a few days before the festival of film, music and interactive media takes place in Austin on March 17-19.

The initial cancellation reaction “sent the message that being a woman who addresses controversial topics in public is a liability,” said Katherine Cross, a sociologist and speaker on one of the panels, which had the effect of “telling online harassers that their threats are a winning strategy.”

These events say a lot about the nature of difficult conversations in gaming and beyond.

Speech and Money

The role and voice of women in the burgeoning tech sector is an issue of speech and money.

Consider the opportunities this industry represents: Video games are a $21 billion industry, and nearly half of gamers are women (48 percent), according to the Entertainment Software Association. The gaming workforce, however, is overwhelmingly male (76 percent). Work-wise, the industry contributes new jobs at a faster rate than other areas of the economy: Direct employment in the U.S. video game industry grew at a 9 percent annual rate compared with .7 percent overall between 2009-2012, according to Stephen Siwek in a 2014 report by the Entertainment Software Association.

So while the goal of “maintaining civil and respective dialogue,” as SXSW head Hugh Forrest said, is admirable, time and opportunity is of the essence right now.

In other words, if women are going to get in on the expanding gaming industry, we need to address the attacks that are coming at us in a big way. Remember what happened to Zoe Quinn in 2014? When she pointed out rampant sexism within the industry, she faced (and still faces) an onslaught of death threats for speaking out.

Civil dialogue has already ended when threats of murder and rape are leveled against people. We have a choice on campuses, in communities and innovation events that purport to celebrate the best ideas wherever they come from: Do we preserve group camaraderie (and likely sponsorships) and silence those trying to tell their stories about being harassed? Or do we allow people to share their stories of being harassed and solutions to combat this phenomenon?

Whose comfort should we worry about?

Debates over carrying concealed weapons within University of Texas classrooms have raised similar issues by faculty concerned about their ability to safely discuss structural bias, racial oppression and gender inequity in the classroom.

Difficult dialogues are the foundation of critical thinking, and without them, we will be forced to retreat to “safe spaces” where only those who concur with our ideas can be found. Texas isn’t alone in confronting the danger of guns on campus: Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, Texas and Wisconsin have similar laws.

One must respect concerns about safety at large events and take explicit threats seriously, if an organization as large and well-organized as SXSW feels it is unable to protect those speaking about difficult topics.

But when that happens, what safety is there for people talking about controversial issues in coffee shops and bus stops? When someone is silenced and labeled as disruptive for pointing out violence that is being leveraged against them it raises the question about who or what is being disrupted. It is exactly those sorts of spaces that are worth disrupting!

In the end, the victims of harassment scheduled to speak at the conference receive daily threats through the web, whether SXSW gives them a platform to voice their ideas or not. While not a part of the annual event, the newly announced day of dialogue will help counter the notion that women who speak out against bias and oppression are best swept under the rug.

Jayme Dale Mallindine recently graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and Heather Hindman, Ph.D., is an Asian studies professor and Public Voices Fellow at UT-Austin.