After several recent content controversies on digital storefront Steam, owner Valve has stepped forwards to show its new approach to content policing, and the company has adopted an "anything goes" stance that has stirred up its own fuss.
"Decision making in this space is particularly challenging, and one that we’ve really struggled with." writes Valve’s Erik Johnson. "Contrary to many assumptions, this isn’t a space we’ve automated – humans at Valve are very involved, with groups of people looking at the contents of every controversial title submitted to us. Similarly, people have falsely assumed these decisions are heavily affected by our payment processors, or outside interest groups. Nope, it’s just us grappling with a really hard problem."
Johnson explains that the company’s internal struggles with this problem has led to confusion from customers, developer partners and even it’s own employees. Over the last month Steam has attracted controversy for removing adult-themed visual novels from the service and also for the company’s slow response in removing school shooting simulator Active Shooter from the storefront.
Going over a host of queries and struggles the Steam team has, Johnson outlines the problems seen by the company. I won’t pull it all apart here, but the blog post is an interesting insight into an area of Steam’s business that has traditionally been somewhat opaque.
Valve has clearly been trying to make it easier to get onto its platform and recently the process has become increasingly streamlined. Now, Johnson (and Valve’s) conclusion states that the company has decided the its employees shouldn’t be the only ones to decide what appears on their storefront.
"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. Taking this approach allows us to focus less on trying to police what should be on Steam, and more on building those tools to give people control over what kinds of content they see."
Ultimately, this means that Valve’s official policy is to step away from curation and let people do whatever they want with the solution being that if a user spots something they don’t like, they hide it, with the company only stepping in if the title is illegal or trolling.
Trying to find a developer to discuss the changes with, most shied away for fear of retribution from Valve, or the larger games industry, such is its dominance in the PC space.
Mike Rose, owner of indie publisher No More Robots, said that he thought Steam was being a little heavy handed when they started removing porn games from steam, but that the furore around that decision is what likely started this train of thought.
"This new decision is obviously pretty damn hands off, and feels a bit like them washing its hands of it — but at the same time, I can see the argument in favour too," said Rose. "Who gets to decide what is ‘okay’? Should Valve decide that? You could argue its Valve’s platform, so it’s the company’s obligation – but at the same time, we all know that Steam is more than that. Steam is essentially the entire of PC games now – it’s the place you get PC games. So should Valve alone be the entity deciding what all PC gamers can and can’t access?"
Rose is correct, Steam is the only real store in town, despite the rising prominence of Itch.io and publisher specific platforms. If you’re an indie developer, despite the over-saturation on Steam, it’s your best chance to make money from your title.
The question for Rose is the definition of "illegal or trolling". Will they still sell, for example, something blatantly racist or homophobic like the titles here?
"Politics is going to be a pretty difficult one," Rose opined. "Someone with a clearly terrible political or life view is probably not doing anything illegal, or what constitutes "trolling", if they sell a game that pushes a horrible agenda. I imagine this is where Valve will be taking the hands off approach, which… well, obviously I don’t agree with it, but again, it’s easy to see the argument for it."
Indeed, I recognise that in terms of my own personal politics I’m progressive and largely left leaning. There’s a good argument that Valve shouldn’t be taking part in censorship: often censorship is used to hide away games by marginalised creators just as often as it is used to prune something most people view is distasteful.
To take the storefront analogy more seriously, if Steam was a literal supermarket, should it be making the choice over which brand of tea bags it chooses to stock? Which type of milk? How about if that milk is the american ‘superfood’ raw milk, unpasturised and likely to make you sick? Or racist eggs?
Comedic as it sounds, our entertainment is often much more political than our weekly shop, and if Steam wants to profit from these products, it has a duty of care to make sure it isn’t doing things like spreading an alt-right agenda or disseminating homophobia.
Under Steam’s new policy, would Active Shooter be allowed back on the platform, as it breaks no laws? Or would it fall under its vague "trolling" category – which could be extended to include anything that was offensive to anyone if desired.
Valve’s policy appears like the company is washing its hands of the whole matter, but the unspoken reality is this: don’t break the law, give Valve a 30 per cent cut and play ball. My feeling is that by taking 30 per cent of every product sold, Valve is aligning itself with the product and endorsing it. Whatever the company’s original intention.
This isn’t a censorship issue, but a curation issue. While history has shown that people don’t have an issue with any form of censorship that fits their individual worldview, I’d argue that Valve needs to do something to earn it’s 30 per cent, and that includes making sure their storefront doesn’t become a melting point for hate speech and distasteful views, all of which Valve would then be profiting from.