- With over 200 million active users, Valve’s Steam service is the world’s largest digital game platform.
- A controversial game on Steam had players playing the role of a school shooter, which sparked outrage after images of the game went viral. The game was removed from Steam by Valve.
- As a result, Valve is revising Steam’s policy on what content is allowed: Going forward, all games are allowed on Steam. The company will create tools so users can filter what content they do and don’t see.
- Valve says the policy is a means of enabling users to police themselves. As a Steam user, it’s hard to see this policy as anything other than Valve abdicating responsibility for its massive platform.
In late May, Roseanne Barr opened Twitter and made a huge mistake: She tweeted a horrifically offensive, racist remark.
Hours later, despite the massive success of the “Roseanne” revival, ABC canceled her show. It was a decisive move with no caveat. “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said in a statement.
It stands in glaring contrast to the response from Valve, the company in charge of the world’s largest digital storefront, when faced with offensive content on its platform: The company is giving up on regulation, almost entirely.
Around the same time of Barr’s tweet, images of a game named “Active-Shooter” started going viral. Like Barr’s tweet, it was nakedly offensive – the game enables players to take on the role of a school shooter, gunning down police and civilians.
People were outraged, including at least one Senator and several parents of victims of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A petition was created which quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
And Valve, which operates the enormous Steam digital storefront, had its hand forced: The company removed “Active-Shooter” from Steam on the same day that Barr made her racist tweet.
Valve issued a statement to Business Insider alongside the news, calling the game’s developer, “a troll, with a history of customer abuse, publishing copyrighted material, and user review manipulation.” The game wasn’t removed for being offensive – for depicting a school shooting from the role of the shooter – it was removed for “trolling.”
An internal investigation at Valve found that the game’s developer had a history of creating cheap “asset flip” games like “Active-Shooter” – games which are developed with pre-made game “assets” (artwork and similar, often the defaults in game design software) and rudimentary systems, engineered to be as inexpensive to create as possible. Sometimes they outright steal content from other games and repurpose it. Sometimes they create fake user accounts to boost the game’s review score, thus gaming Steam’s algorithm into surfacing the game for more people.
In short: They’re terrible games that rely on gimmicks to trick players into buying them – gimmicks like being able to play the role of a shooter in a school shooting.
“We are not going to do business with people who act like this towards our customers or Valve,” a representative said.
That message was an indication of what was to come: Valve revising its policy on what is and isn’t allowed on Steam.
This past Wednesday, Valve executive Erik Johnson published an explanation of how Steam will handle content going forward. “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,” Johnson wrote.
Put more simply: Valve will no longer police its own service.
Instead, Valve is creating tools for its 200-plus million users to police their own experience. Rather than owning up to the responsibility of operating a service with over 200-plus million users, Valve is washing its hands and abdicating responsibility to its users.
“We are going to enable you to override our recommendation algorithms and hide games containing the topics you’re not interested in,” Johnson said. “So if you don’t want to see anime games on your Store, you’ll be able to make that choice.”
There is, of course, a massive difference between games like “Active-Shooter” and “anime games.” And in blurring the line between that difference, Valve is making a hugely irresponsible mistake.
Here’s another line from Johnson’s explanation that gives pause (emphasis ours):
“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.”
Again, Valve’s Erik Johnson equates difficult topics – like politics, sexuality, gender, violence, and identity – with offensive subject matter (like racism).
Yes, these are all complex subjects with shades of grey in terms of how artwork like video games handles them. But games like “Active-Shooter” aren’t tackling complex subjects – they’re taking advantage of offensive content. There’s no message being expressed that’s divisive, no niche group banging a drum for its value.
Imagine if Twitter announced it was going to stop moderating hate speech. That is what Valve is doing with Steam by enacting an anything-goes policy. It’s a bizarre philosophical gamble to take for a service so large, and a truly disappointing one from a user perspective.
Instead of curating the experience for the vast majority of its hundreds of millions of users – and taking a moral stance as a private company operating a private service – Valve is opening the floodgates, putting the responsibility on its users, and taking its hands off the wheel.
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