Yesterday, Valve announced a sweeping new policy for Steam: From now on, the platform will allow "everything" except for games Valve decides are "illegal, or straight up trolling". In light of controversies such as the recently removed school shooter game Active Shooter, the announcement came as a surprise to those who were expecting Valve to offer a solution, rather than wash its hands of the task. But that's what Valve does.
Image: Tara Jacoby
Valve's post laid bare a set of ethos that have been driving Steam nearly since its inception, even if Valve rarely discusses them: A desire for openness, a hands-off approach to platform ownership, and an irrational fear of controversy that directly implicates Valve.
In this particular case, Valve's Erik Johnson espoused meritocratic, libertarian-style market openness while pointing to a vague notion of "controversy" as a key factor in Valve's decision-making process. He explained that the company is reacting to controversies surrounding potentially "offensive" content such as Active Shooter and a bevy of explicitly sexual games not by hiring more people to do a more comprehensive job of moderating Steam, but by opening the floodgates even wider.
This is because, he wrote, good moderation of Steam looks vastly different depending on who's doing the looking, and "there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad".
Since yesterday, there's been tremendous blowback to Valve's decision from developers, critics and journalists. "Shit, Valve, if your new platform content policy is the policy even the toxic hellfires that social media are slowly backing away from after years of troubles, that doesn't bode very good for the content of your platform," wrote Vlambeer's Rami Ismail on Twitter.
"A platform that allows 'everything, unless it's illegal or straight up trolling' is ridiculous," said Leaf Corcoran, creator of indie game storefront Itch.io, a Steam competitor. "Please keep your malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content off Itch.io. Our ban buttons are ready."
Critics' fears that Steam will become a cesspit of gross content aren't just hypothetical: Steam isn't just a store, and Valve has already done similar things with other portions of Steam, often to disastrous results.
"You're assuming this is still some kind of abstract 'slippery slope' hypothetical?" Robert Yang, a developer of queer sex games who's had a bumpy relationship with Steam in the past, said on Twitter in response to the idea that it could be bad if corporations got to decide what was and wasn't moral.
"They're already picking bad moral norms, they're already governing, they're already giving tacit support to steam nazis to call me a degenerate."
In the case of games such as Yang's, Valve's devotion to openness will solve the problem. The lack of clarity surrounding sex games - even ones that try to explore nuanced ideas such as sexuality and queerness instead of falling back on basic titillation - has been a constant thorn in developers' sides. It's good to hear that it shouldn't be an issue any more.
But is it worth it for Yang et al to be able to publish their games on Steam when Valve won't clean up the rest of it?
And yes, ideally, corporations should not be the sole deciders of what is and is not moral and ethical, because that's a one-way trip to an even bleaker dystopia than the one we're already occupying. But that isn't really what this is about. This is about basic safeguards that Valve has consistently failed to provide.
Over the years, Valve's particular brand of openness has repeatedly resulted in messes that, somehow, the company evidently hasn't learned from.
If you need examples from the past, look no further than the proliferation of hate groups in Steam's inconsistently policed community section, the Digital Homicide fiasco, the endless flood of "fake games" taking advantage of an exploit in Steam's trading card system, the normalisation of review bombs as a viable tactic to try and tank games' sales, or the multi-billion dollar underage Counter-Strike gambling ring that sprung up in Valve's backyard.
In those cases and many more, Valve didn't take action until controversy came knocking. Only after sustained user outcry, lawsuits or negative mainstream press does it crack down - whether quietly, or in more legally fraught cases such as the gambling issue, publicly.
When it comes to Steam, Valve rarely acts; it mostly reacts. In the meantime, problems fester and ultimately come to define the platform's caustic, oftentimes abusive culture.
It would be downright bizarre to see Valve throw its hands up at the idea of sifting through Steam's endless game flood - despite having barely tried to do so previously - if this wasn't so similar to decisions it's made countless times before.
Let's not beat around the bush here: Valve is a stupendously wealthy and resourceful company, and it could have taken preemptive action against many of the above issues. It chose not to.
It's a matter of priorities, and Valve has proven time and time again that the particular shape Steam's culture ultimately takes is not a priority. That's a big problem, and it will almost certainly continue to be under Valve's new approach.
The language Johnson used in yesterday's post is telling of those priorities and the ways they actually threaten to undo Valve's dream of a laissez-faire paradise.
"The challenge is that this problem is not simply about whether or not the Steam Store should contain games with adult or violent content," he said. "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 lumping together so many different types of subject matter and pointing to them all as being controversial or offensive to somebody, Johnson ignores that these things are wildly different. Games with racist leanings do not even remotely pose the same kinds of problems as games about sexuality.
Not only that, these things tend to have knock-on effects. If Steam sees an upswing in overtly racist games, it's unlikely that people will want to put their games with more nuanced takes on race on the same platform, given that racism's whole thing is threatening people of certain backgrounds and identities.
It inherently makes for a more hostile environment for certain types of expression, and as we've already seen in Steam's community, white nationalists and overt Nazis are happy to invade these spaces en masse when presented with an opportunity.
Valve said it will work on providing tools that allow people to hide content that's objectionable to them on their store pages, which, besides being a solution to a different problem, is something that Valve hasn't done a great job with in the past. The tools it introduces are often exploited by malicious users.
It remains to be seen what shape those tools take, but it's hard to be hopeful - especially in light of the way that Valve framed them. It offered the example that a user might choose to hide anime games from their feed, as if that's even on the list of users' biggest problems.
Valve refuses to acknowledge the political context in which Steam exists, even as other social platforms such as Facebook face a cultural and political reckoning after embracing similar technolibertarian ideals.
Clearly, Valve is aware that things such as Nazi groups are a bad thing, given that it's gone on quiet delete sprees each time they have been specifically mentioned in the press. But there still seems to be a disconnect between that knowledge and Valve's understanding of Steam's broader cultural and political influence.
Bafflingly, however, Valve does seem very aware of Steam's influence in other ways. The company clearly understands that being able to publish on Steam is incredibly important for PC game developers - existentially so, even.
"If you're a developer," said Johnson, "we shouldn't be choosing what content you're allowed to create. Those choices should be yours to make."
Valve knows it's the biggest game in town - a company of near-monopolistic proportions - but it will only take responsibility for one side of that coin.
Johnson concluded yesterday's post by stressing that Valve does not want games on Steam to be seen as an expression of the company's values.
"If we allow your game onto the Store, it does not mean we approve or agree with anything you're trying to say with it," he said.
"If you're a developer of offensive games, this isn't us siding with you against all the people you're offending. There will be people throughout the Steam community who hate your games, and hope you fail to find an audience, and there will be people here at Valve who feel exactly the same way."
But this decision, and a procession of similar calls the company has made over the years, does constitute an expression of values. Valve just doesn't want to own up to those values or the online environment it has shaped.
The company is happy to turn a massive profit off all of it, but it doesn't care to clean up the dog shit dotting its front yard. It's just going to ask users to hide it. But it will still be there.
If nothing else, it's hard to be too disappointed that Valve refuses to moderate Steam because, frankly, it's hard to believe that such a confused, inconsistent, irresponsible company would do a passable job of it.
There is no good outcome here - the sensible thing would be to use some of Valve's enormous profits to hire more people to do a better job of moderation, but that's clearly not in the cards either.
No matter how you slice it, Valve is the problem. I've given up on hoping that will change any time soon. Meanwhile, earlier today, a game called AIDS Simulator was coming to Steam next week. It's a game where "you're mad and want to kill all Africans that gave you aids to get revenge". I wish I was joking.
It has since been removed from Steam, presumably because it violated Valve's still-nebulous rules around "straight up trolling". Still, that's something, at least.