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'An avoidable mess': Gamergate target Brianna Wu on SxSW cancellations

The South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin attracts thousands of technology innovators.
The South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin attracts thousands of technology innovators.
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The South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin is where gamers, tech innovators and journalists convene to talk about big ideas and, of course, socialize.

It takes place in March alongside the South by Southwest music and film festivals, so it gets a lot of attention. But now it’s getting a lot of heat.

The conference has just canceled two panels that would have addressed what’s come to be known as Gamergate — a movement that concerns sexism and progressivism in video game culture. The cancellations were due to what organizers called “numerous threats of on-site violence.”

The canceled panels include SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community, which was viewed as pro-Gamergate, and Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games, viewed as anti-Gamergate. It's important to note that neither panel explicitly mentions Gamergate in their descriptions, but panelists on both sides have ties to the issue. (You can read their responses to the cancellation here, here and here.)

In response, both Buzzfeed and Vox have threatened to pull out of the conference if the panels are not reinstated. 

The decision to cancel the panels ignited a firestorm of criticism, with several panelists saying that the conference buckled under the same kind of trolling threats that women are often subjected to online. 

South by Southwest organizers did not respond to our request for comment.

To talk more about the controversy we called Brianna Wu, a software engineer and head of development at game developer Giant Spacekat. She has been a prominent target of violent Gamergate threats.

Interview Highlights:

The Frame: What did you think about SxSW's decision to cancel these panels?

It's a mess. What I think is most frustrating is it is such an avoidable mess. We have been working with them in back channels for months, out of the public eye, trying to basically make SxSW a venue where we can talk about harassment. And from the beginning, all of us involved were trying to get harassment of women in tech as a topic in SxSW. We've been tremendously frustrated working with the organizers to make this happen.

Let's step back for a minute. For people who don't know what Gamergate is and what the threats have been like online against women, can you explain broadly what the issues are?

Sure. Gamergate is a criminal operation to harass women. [I've received] over 180 death threats. There are some men that are very threatened by the fact that women play games nowadays. And because of that, video games are changing. We're trying to move away from these hyper-sexualized depictions of women. We're trying to have a few more women heroes. For reasons that are very mysterious to me, this is very threatening to a certain group of gamers, and they react in violent, illegal ways. Literally threatening any woman that speaks up.

In your case they actually sent out your home address? 

They did. They told me they were going to murder my entire family, threatened some very specific violence against my husband. It was so bad they actually made a "Law & Order" episode about those threats. So it's hard to overstate just how much emotional damage Gamergate has caused to the women that develop video games. It's been a very frightening place for women to work this year.

The concern from the SxSW perspective seems to be safety. They say there have been threats and I'm sure there have been. What is the nature of the threats and what can the festival do to protect the people who are at the panel?

This is what's very confusing to me. I've gone and spoken at conventions all over the world this year, some of them much much smaller than SxSW. There have been bomb threats or threats to me as a person at those panels. What they've ended up doing is just providing security and sweeping the venue for bombs before it's started. I've never had anyone just cancel a panel because of these threats. So their decision to do this is very strange to me.

I actually get the sense that what they're trying to do is step out of this situation altogether. And they're so invested in being neutral that they're choosing to not give women a voice ... What is really troubling to me is the larger message that SxSW is sending. So, from now on, Gamergate has a message: If they threaten enough violence against a venue where a woman is speaking, now they have a precedent for nobody getting to speak whatsoever. So SxSW is choosing to deal with women getting harassment by silencing women [who are] getting harassment, which is a terrible precedent.

Today, Buzzfeed said they are uncomfortable covering SxSW if this action continues. I've announced on Twitter that I'm uncomfortable attending SxSW if they don't reverse their decision. I'm just really shocked by how badly this has been handled.

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