How SXSW Fumbled GamerGate, And What They Must Do Next

Gamer Gate - Video Game Public Relations

GamerGate is not going away, and that uncomfortable fact is something every video game PR agency must consider when crafting a campaign and positioning their messages. This dynamic is no more real than at the South By Southwest Interactive Conference. SXSW, held annually in Austin, bringing together gamers, tech innovators and industry journalists for an unequaled bacchanal of ideas, discussions, and Big Idea brainstorming.

Any discussion about possibilities and potential must, by its nature, include a careful and honest State of the Union aspect. Where are we? How did we get here? And, most importantly, how do we get where we want to be?

Gamergate Harassment Gamer Gate - Video Game Public Relations

To answer any of these questions, Gamergate proves to be an unavoidable subject. For the uninitiated, Gamergate is an ongoing controversy based on allegations of inherent sexism in gamer culture. While the critique has been around for a generation, the undercurrent exploded onto the mainstream of the industry in late summer 2014, when game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian became constant targets of threats, harassment, and all manner of vicious and negative attacks.

It takes a deft and creative touch to navigate this minefield, but someone needs to take the lead. For a conference built on innovation and forward thinking, SXSW uniquely positioned as a positive voice in a conversation just getting more caustic desperately needs a viable, authoritative voice dedicated to celebrating all gamers, regardless of gender.

Unfortunately, to date, SXSW proves entirely inept, fumbling and tone deaf in addressing this issue. Wired Magazine published a scathing article breaking down the incredible head-in-the-sand approach event organizers choose to take so far.

SXSW Gamer Gate - Video Game Public Relations

According to various reports, even when attempting to address the issues, SXSW organizers “foundered”, drastically underestimating the importance and misunderstanding the complexity and pervasive nature of this issue. Multiple reports insinuated event organizers were part of the problem. Instead of bystanders, SXSW organizers are now openly considered partisans.

If, as some gamers insist, the self-appointed social activists instigating GamerGate’s abuse of female gamers and designers, are simply expressing their opinions, however caustic, this issue might indeed fade to black. But when a significant number of any industry’s fans are “hounded from their homes” and “threatened with mass violence”, industry leaders and hopefuls must speak up.

Instead, SXSW invited a panel of GamerGate haters to join its 2016 discussion lineup. This was AFTER the conference canceled a panel on overcoming harassment in games. Taken together, this decision is doubling down in support of harassment and against any notion these actions – death threats, et al. – might be wrong.

How did SXSW end up in this mess? First, they let their audience decide which panels should be hosted with a blog comment style “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” vote. This, of course, played right into the rules of engagement established by the haters and put SXSW in the difficult position of encouraging what it claimed to wish to disparage. This message confusion enhances the position of the haters, it also alienates gamers and industry enthusiasts not taking sides in this fiasco. What are they to do or think when the Keystone conference in their life picks a side they can’t support?

sxsw gamergate Gamer Gate - Video Game Public Relations

SXSW, in a recent attempt to staunch the bleeding, reportedly also canceled the “pro” GamerGate panel. This backfired spectacularly. Now that the discussion is not being held at all, two major media players – Vox and Buzzfeed – threaten to pull out of the conference. These media outlets want SXSW to take a lead in managing this conversation. When the media understands you cannot be a bystander, you need to give them a new message … or they will run with that one.

Rumors started surfacing through various media outlets that SXSW chose to re-reinstate both panels. Nothing official … but no denials either. Waffling? Or a necessary reset? SXSW must determine a viable message promoting the latter conclusion. Right now, they blame the delay on working out safety concerns with local cops. A thin veneer at best. After this debacle, they need to do better.

Maybe they can ask Vox CEO, Jim Bankoff or Mashable CEO, Pete Cashmore, both scheduled speakers for 2016 … or even 2015 Agency of Record for the SXSW Accelerator, Leverage PR.

Whoever they hire, SXSW Interactive needs to take control of their message, repair the damage done, and fulfill their responsibility as a major voice in the industry. It will be interesting to see how they shift to navigate this issue.