Online harassment and sexism is demeaning women and can no longer be brushed aside as an ugly side of social media and the gaming industry if they are to thrive, panellists on Saturday said at the South By Southwest (SXSW) tech meeting in Austin.

The gaming summit at one of the premier events on the global tech calendar had faced threats of violence, prompting 
organizers in October to initially suspend two panels on the subject. After facing a flood of criticism from online media 
firms, SXSW organizers reversed course and set up a full day of discussions on the subject.

Online harassment of women, often involving threats of horrific violence, has become a big issue — and video games are a frequent flashpoint. Two years ago, the online "Gamergate" movement, ostensibly a protest over the ethics of game journalists, also fuelled Twitter attacks on female critics replete with gutter-level abuse and assault threats. Some targets left their homes or canceled speaking engagements, fearing for their safety.

In the male-dominated world of multiplayer online games like Grand Theft AutoHalo, and Call of Duty, many women say they've had to take drastic steps to escape harassment, stalking and violent threats from male players. Some quit particular games. Others change their screen names or make sure they play only with friends.

Panelist Wendy Davis, a former Texas Democratic senator who lost a race for governor in 2014, said she has been a target of extensive harassment since rising to national fame in 2013 by staging an 11-hour filibuster to block an abortion restriction bill.

"It's really important for the women who were subject of that ...  to speak up and speak out, and to name the fact that 
it's happening," she said in a session titled "Women in the Media and Online Harassment."


'Let's all decide and agree that it's not playing victim to call it [harassment] out when it's happening. Because if we don't, we empower it to continue," said former Texas state Senator Wendy Davis at a session at online harassment at the South by Southwest tech summit in Austin, Texas, Saturday. (Sachi Jenkins/Reuters)

She said a flood of articles and comments were published about her personal life and appearance "that would not have even been a topic of conversation" for male politicians.

Online harassment is a pervasive but often hidden from view. According to Pew Research Center, 40 per cent of internet users have personally experienced harassment online, such as name-calling, sexual harassment and stalking.

Young adults are the most likely demographic group to be victims, while women are often treated unfairly and harassed, the centre said.

"Let's all decide and agree that it's not playing victim to call it out when it's happening. Because if we don't, we empower it to continue." Davis said.

Not always effective

However, some victims say that doesn't always work.

Becky Heineman, the 52-year-old founder of the Olde Skuul game studio in Seattle, was an aficionado of shoot-em-ups like Halo and Call of Duty. But constant catcalls from other players and questions about her bra size or "whether I do it on top or bottom, or other derogatory things," she says, wore her down.

Reporting her harassers never seemed to make a difference, she told the Associated Press ahead of the gaming summit. She limited her play to friends for a while, but now mostly focuses on simple single-player games like Cookie Clicker on her phone and computer.

Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association acknowledges that dealing with harassment is a difficult challenge. "You're dealing with minors versus adults," she says. "You're dealing with free speech issues. It's a struggle for companies to figure out exactly how to approach it."

Security was tight in the venue where the summit was held, with bag checks required and police stationed in each room. 

With files from the Associated Press