Steam, Unleashed

As many people are writing about, Steam recently revised their policy on policing the content of games sold on their platform. The new policy? Anything goes… unless it’s illegal or “trolling.”

So we ended up going back to one of the principles in the forefront of our minds when we started Steam, and more recently as we worked on Steam Direct to open up the Store to many more developers: Valve shouldn’t be the ones deciding this. If you’re a player, we shouldn’t be choosing for you what content you can or can’t buy. If you’re a developer, we shouldn’t be choosing what content you’re allowed to create. Those choices should be yours to make. Our role should be to provide systems and tools to support your efforts to make these choices for yourself, and to help you do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable.

I agree with pretty much everyone that this change will not go well for Valve.

What I don’t think is appreciated as much though, is the quandary Valve was/is in. Although there has been movements to erode it, most of the internet is still protected by Safe Harbor rules, meaning that you cannot be held responsible for content that other people post. This has led to a weird dichotomy in which Valve gets blamed for letting school shooting games slip through the cracks – and how this must reflect on Valve’s values as a company – whereas no one holds any such standards on Google, through which you can readily find the most vilest of content imaginable. “Steam is offering it for sale though!” Okay… how about Amazon and eBay and Craigslist and any ISP that allows whatever store/forum to be hosted on their bandwidth?

Do we even want these tech entities to be the arbiters of morality on our behalf?

When I saw this announcement, my first thought was “Yikes,” followed by “This is probably less bad than simply saying ‘We now allow (cartoon) porn.'” Because that is really what’s going on here, IMO. Remember the game Hatred? That was pulled from Steam for violence/controversy back in 2014… and personally reinstated the next day by Gabe Newell, who said:

Hi Jaroslaw. Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers. Good luck with your game.

Conversely, the number of uncensored hentai games on Steam can be counted with, ahem, one hand.

You can make all the “Artistic!” arguments you want, but the bottom line is that Valve had to constantly argue that Geralt having sex on a stuffed unicorn (etc) in Witcher 3 was fine, but anime boobs was going too far. Worse than literal Hitler, in fact, or outrageous violence and gore. Visual Novel studios had to censor their products, and then offer instructions on the Steam forums on how to uncensor it via patches. Until Valve cracked down on that… which then led to developers giving instructions on their own webpages and dedicated fans then relaying that info via Steam forums.

To be clear, this policy shift will unleash all sorts of actual disgusting, offensive garbage on the platform, a few clicks away from anyone. Steam will still have a long way to go to get as bad as this site, but they are certainly heading down that road.

But at some point, I have to ask… why shouldn’t Steam be a simple (DRM) platform? The argument that Steam used to be a curation of the best games is a canard from yesteryear. In 2013, there were 565 new games released on Steam. The following years, that number increased to 1772 in 2014, 2964 in 2015, 4207 in 2016 (40% of all games on the platform), and 7672 in 2017. Any sort of active curation has not been occurring for at least four years, and certainly stopped by 2016.

Amusingly, we seem to be on the pendulum backswing when it comes to videogame punditry. Back in the day, you had to rely on gaming magazines like Nintendo Power and Game Players (ah, my youth) to find out any useful information about the gaming world. Then gaming went mainstream, and for a while there you were able to consume the information available on your own. Now there are so many games and information vying for your limited attention that it’s better to just find a few websites or bloggers with similar tastes and just follow them. That’s your curation now.

Anyway, like I said before, I fully anticipate Valve being raked over the coals for this move (which they have arguably been doing for 4+ years now). It’s already happening, actually, but it will get much worse for them once (more) outright racist and sexually violent games are released and then broadcast on cable news channels. I don’t want those games to exist either… but someone apparently felt that way about uncensored Visual Novels for many years, and I didn’t think that was particularly reasonable. Those two things are not equivalent… and that’s kinda the point.

Is it that we are supposed to trust Valve’s corporate values to arbitrate the correct morality, or is it more that Valve’s (nebulous) policy provided us a lever by which we could enforce our own? With Valve throwing up their hands, we have (for now) lost that leverage, and must rely instead on the much more difficult, and potentially futile, endeavor to change hearts and minds directly.

Bleach is a much better disinfectant than sunlight, but at some point we should address the issue of why shit is getting so dirty in the first place.

Posted on June 8, 2018, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. A part of me keeps asking, “Why does Steam have to have ALL the games ever on its platform?” The indie devs have now won their long war with Steam, having complained vehemently about every possible barrier to entry that Valve has tried, from trivially small fees to having to prove their games might have any sort of following. Now Steam just asks that they don’t break the law. Take your victory lap.

    And along the way Steam has gone from a place where an indie dev could make money since being there pretty much guaranteed some level of success to the 35 new games a day model where any indie dev can get in, but the chance of making money is somewhere between slim and none unless you have a built-in following already. Getting your game on Steam proves your a developer about as much as getting an ISBN number for your fanfic proves you’re an author.

    Who wins when there is such a low barrier to entry? Who wins when the number of new titles per day hits 50, and the increase is made up of porn and racism? I am not sure anything gets better and I expect things will get worse for Valve in the short term.

    Steam is not part of the government. It is a private entity. It doesn’t HAVE to allow anything it doesn’t like and it can be as arbitrary as it wants. No level of fairness is required. And, as much as some indie devs like to claim that they have no business model outside of Steam, the platform is clearly not going to solve their problem. So we’re still going to be subjected to the ongoing series of rants over at Gamasutra from devs whining about how unfair it is that people choose to buy a cup of coffee rather than their video game.

    There is clearly a problem here and I don’t know the answer and I don’t think Valve or the game devs do either.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Like I mentioned in the post, I don’t see Valve so much as capitulating to indie devs (or whoever) as I see them positioning themselves as the Google of videogames. Instead of choosing a side in the culture war, Steam is now simply the battlefield upon which the wars are to be fought. Which, conveniently, lets Valve profit from both sides.

      As for the plight of indie devs generally, I don’t see this move changing much for them. Is being buried beneath 25 new games per day any worse than 50? As with any new product in a wide market, their survival will depend more and more on marketing, word-of-mouth, and an expanding curator field.


      • Like I mentioned in the post, I don’t see Valve so much as capitulating to indie devs (or whoever) as I see them positioning themselves as the Google of videogames. Instead of choosing a side in the culture war, Steam is now simply the battlefield upon which the wars are to be fought. Which, conveniently, lets Valve profit from both sides.

        Typically battlefields are littered with dead and wounded bodies, broken machines, and unexploded munitions, and the fields themselves are usually torn up.

        I really can’t imagine this was thought through much, if at all, by Valve.


      • The thing is, allowing absolutely everything on their platform is choosing a side, the side of “I don’t give a damn about anything as long as it makes me money”. If you advertise, distribute and take a cut out of every sale of “KKK Fun Times” or whatever, saying “I don’t really support this” afterwards is meaningless. Actions speak louder than words.

        Liked by 1 person

    • > Who wins when there is such a low barrier to entry?

      Customers who like games that would have been banned can now get them on their preferred distribution platform. Those games’ devs have an easier way to distribute their product. Steam gets a cut of the sales.

      Who -doesn’t- benefit? People who not just don’t like those games, but don’t want them to exist at all. Given that the games are supposedly legal, I don’t have much sympathy for people taking such a position.

      I agree that this is a risk for Steam, depending on how much noise these people manage to make. I guess I’m glad they are taking it, though they are surely not doing it out if the goodness of their hearts.


  2. I would call this decision “Kingdom Come: Deliverence response”. If you are interested in anime porn, you will watch anime porn, instead of playing a crappy porn game. However there is a huge market for games which are “politically incorrect”, or any other way make Anita mad.

    Valve simply realized that the future is not exactly liberal, but instead of openly allowing politically incorrect games, they allow EVERYTHING, to have a cover from the boycott campaigns of the Huffpo likes.


    • …nah, it’s about the porn games.

      No one was calling for Kingdom Come to be removed from Steam for whatever views the creator had. Outside of Hatred and this most recent school shooting game, I’m not even aware of any game being removed (or censored) from Steam for anything other than sexual content. Hell, Active Shooter was removed not because of the content, but because the creator had previously been banned from the platform for asset-flipping shovelware, and he snuck back in.

      Boycotting Steam is basically boycotting PC gaming – there are no reasonable substitutes. And with this latest move, Valve is further positioning themselves as the Windows/Google of gaming.


      • Yet. Every day more and more insane things the campus crazies do. Steam did the right call to draw the line before the “X is racist because you can’t play it as a black elf”


      • If it’s a de facto monopoly, then appeals to ‘b-b-but free markets!’ don’t apply: regulate or break that shit up.


      • Yet. Every day more and more insane things the campus crazies do.

        When the best retort you have is “dumb college students are making me sad”, you might want to think about what you are arguing for.


  3. I belong to the invented-2-minutes-ago Association of Friends Against Murder. It is against my religion and morality to have such apalling games as Hitman 2 broadcast front and center on the Steam webstore. This is a basic humanitarian right obvious to everyone that we should not promote picking up a gun and glorifying murder in such realistic detail. Steam should be ashamed of themselves and should remove this game from their store immediately. Won’t somebody please think of the children?


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