Valve has never been particularly interested in customer service or in providing a clear, concise set of rules for what kind of content is or is not acceptable on its platforms. To some extent, this problem affects every modern internet company, and firms like Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, and Reddit have also struggled to balance their desire to appeal to any and all users with the need to gate-keep against trolls or to prevent illegal activity. But unlike these other companies, all of whom have at least paid lip service to the idea of community standards and the need to maintain them, Valve’s latest big idea is to quit trying altogether.
In recent weeks, Valve has come under fire for some confusing policy changes of its own, including sweeping various erotic games up in a dragnet while leaving others online, and a controversy over a title named Active Shooter following a school shooting in the United States. Valve removed the latter game because its developer had previously violated Steam policies, not because of the subject matter in the title, but the issues surrounding the topic have continued to spark discussion both at Valve and in the wider gaming world. Now, Valve has decided to head in a different direction than many of its corporate fellows, as explained by Erik Johnson.
The challenge is that this problem is not simply about whether or not the Steam Store should contain games with adult or violent content. Instead, it’s about whether the Store contains games within an entire range of controversial topics – politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on. In addition, there are controversial topics that are particular to games – like what even constitutes a “game”, or what level of quality is appropriate before something can be released…
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.
With that principle in mind, we’ve decided that the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.
The post ends with Johnson articulating that a game’s presence on Steam is not an endorsement or recommendation from Valve, that the company takes no position on any title and declares “[O]ffending someone shouldn’t take away your game’s voice. We believe you should be able to express yourself like everyone else, and to find others who want to play your game. But that’s it.”
Valve’s high-minded discussion of values sounds like an appealing call for tolerance and understanding. It isn’t. It’s a profit-maximizing move from a company far more interested in extracting a toll from every transaction in PC gaming than it is in managing its own platform.
Start with the company’s list of “controversial topics.” In Valve parlance, these include: “politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, whether something is or is not a game, and whether it lives up to the technical standards expected from a game.”
By grouping these together, Valve is explicitly saying that the question of whether it’s appropriate to sell a game in which you engage in brutal ethnic cleansing is on par with the question of whether Farmville should be considered a game. Regardless of how you’d answer either, it’s obvious that these aren’t the same type of question, except inasmuch that both are “tough” questions that Valve doesn’t even want to attempt to answer.
Valve is completely washing its hands from any responsibility whatsoever when it comes to shaping the products that other people come in contact with. While Johnson’s missive emphasizes that the company wants to deploy better search tools to its customers, it makes clear that the responsibility for figuring out how to use those tools to navigate the ocean of dreck Valve is prepared to unleash is entirely in the hands of the consumer, not the incredibly rich company that built the platform and practically owns the PC market.
Johnson goes to great lengths to declare that allowing any kind of content on Steam is not an example of Steam endorsing that content. That fact is directly undercut by the fact that Valve makes a cut on every game it sells. While most people likely don’t think about the issue in these terms, large corporations have shaped American buying preferences for decades by making decisions about what products they will and won’t sell. In many cases, these decisions aren’t shaped by content. If Walmart or Costco decides not to do business with a vendor over concerns about that vendor’s product quality, they’re still shaping the products that American consumers will choose from when they go to the store. The idea that one of a store’s most basic functions is to curate purchases isn’t something we invented with the internet; it’s supposed to be one of the most basic advantages of shopping from a reputable company. Most companies are aware that when they sell something, they are effectively endorsing it, and that they’ll be held to task for having done so in the event of a product failure or problem. But not Valve.
Johnson is right. It’s hard to curate. It’s hard to develop clear, consistent community standards and guidelines. It’s hard to make certain that adult content is only sold to people of appropriate age, that people are aware that a game might contain controversial material before they buy it, that products are held to a high standard of technical quality, or that the rights of people to buy a title that others might see as crass, offensive, or even blasphemous are balanced against the right of other people to enjoy that content. I’ve got no problem with Valve acknowledging the fundamental difficulty of these issues. It’s the company’s declaration that it’s abandoning the fight and opening the sewage sluice gates to everything that isn’t technically illegal or “straight up trolling” that’s so cowardly. It’s all the more cowardly because that last bit, “straight up trolling,” is itself a weasel phrase that can be read to mean a great deal of things depending on context, setting, and individual interpretation. Valve, in other words, is totally giving up its curator position vis-à-vis the industry it now owns, except when it needs to claw that ownership back for PR purposes.
In recent years, Steam has been rocked by illegal gambling, various scams, review bombing (angry fans or readers targeting a developer by giving a game poor ratings), quality control issues related to Early Access, the difficulty of finding good games (made far worse by the sharp increase of total games published there each year), and the proliferation of hate groups across the platform. In the midst of these and other challenges, the company has decided the best way to deal with them is not to deal with them at all.