Valve has announced that it will now stop monitoring the Steam storefront altogether. Adopting the “If I put my fingers in my ears and say ‘la la la’ repeatedly it’s almost like this isn’t happening” approach, Valve will now let its users decide which content will be published to the Steam Store. This comes after several controversies regarding Valve’s lax moderation, most recently its publishing of Active Shooter, a game which allowed players to assume the role of a school shooter. Valve has stated that only games that are “illegal” or “straight-up trolling” will be moderated, loosely defined terms that, given Valve’s history, are unlikely to be enforced in any meaningful capacity.
GameRevolution Senior Editor Jason Faulkner published his thoughts on why this is a welcome move by Valve, though I respectfully disagree. Scratch beneath the surface of the Steam Store and you’ll find a slew of awful games, with assets outright copied from other titles. It’s a mess and many have complained about it for years, with developers abusing the lack of moderation in order to pump out cheaply made and routinely tasteless games. Of course, it’s not difficult to spot a terrible game on Steam given the required trailer and screenshots, meaning that many tend to slip by unnoticed. However, over the past couple of years, some devs have taken to purposely courting controversy, creating games with obscene concepts in an effort to garner attention.
Active Shooter was one such game, with it allowing players to kill students (its trailer solely featured female NPCs being murdered) in a high school. It was a clear and pitiful attempt at generating outrage, with even the BBC reporting on it. The common counter-argument is that if you don’t pay attention to these games, there’s no issue. If outlets such as GR didn’t report on Active Shooter, who would have known about it?
Valve doesn’t know how to handle Steam
While true, this masks the heart of the issue — Valve takes a significant cut of the profits of any and all dross that is published on the Steam Store. At this point, it’s clear that regardless of how tasteless or downright abhorrent a game is, Valve isn’t going to oversee it or decide whether or not it should be allowed on Steam. Now the Steam “community” will decide — as if such a thing exists — so we all know that the end result will be a bunch of edgelord gamers furiously responding to the backlash against this system, increasing the prominence of controversial games while Valve stands idly by until it’s inevitably forced to do something.
Valve is a multi-billion dollar company that does not want to invest in quality control. Steam is over-saturated with terrible and near unplayable games, which is a problem in and of itself, but what happens when hateful content is published to the platform? Well, Valve has a laissez-faire attitude to that, too, as evidenced on multiple occasions outside of Active Shooter. Back in 2015, a game titled Kill the F****ts was published to Steam Greenlight, a service which allowed players to vote on indie games they wanted to see published on Steam’s marketplace. Valve required a $100 fee from developers to have their game submitted to Greenlight, though this clearly didn’t do enough to prevent games such as Kill the F*****s from being hosted on there. The game was available to download by Steam users, with it revolving around killing LGBT+ civilians. After it received media attention, the game was pulled from the Steam Store, with its developer complaining about how “overly sensitive and how easily offended people are by every little thing.”
The blog post outlining Steam’s new policies tackles the subject of offense in detail. “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,” Valve’s Erik Johnson wrote. “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. However, offending 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.”
The problem with this statement is that it’s difficult to read it as Valve wanting to maintain an open platform for creators. Instead, it reads as though Valve doesn’t want to invest in a proper moderation team when it could instead simply keep turning a profit from every atrocity churned out onto its marketplace, even the ones it doesn’t “approve or agree with.” I can understand not wanting to intervene in developers’ visions and Valve opposing strict rules that could stifle creativity, but Gay World — a homophobic game where you play as a gay police officer arresting straight people and then forcing them to “squat on bottles” — has been available to purchase on Steam since January, even after Waypoint published an article pointing it out.
The media is Valve’s moderation team
Right now, the media has been doing the job of Valve’s moderation team. A dev makes a bigoted video game, publishes it to the Steam store, Valve takes a cut of whatever sales they manage to achieve, then the game is occasionally pulled depending on the intensity of the backlash. Steam users face the possibility that they’re going to find a game created by someone who hates their existence, and who has used their game to amplify that belief, with media involvement being the only thing that can inspire Valve to take action. With these new policies in place, we’re going to see a lot more of these games, with developers emboldened by Valve somehow employing even less moderation than it did before.
Valve’s statement is arguably an effort to please the crowd while simultaneously doing the bare minimum. This is the easiest and cheapest option right now, but the issue is that Steam games net them cash — a lot of cash — and by profiting off games with extremely questionable or downright hateful content, it isn’t exactly unreasonable to predict that this is going to garner them much more negative press in the future. Active Shooter received a fair amount of media attention, with it being covered by traditional media outlets on an international level. Now that more games along those lines seem destined to make their way to the platform, it’s pretty easy to conclude that this level of attention will increase, spelling trouble for Valve in the process.
Valve may give users the opportunity to filter out some of its vilest content, but that doesn’t mean that this content will cease to exist, and as they make a profit from these games then they are directly responsible for whatever makes its way to Steam, no matter how much they throw their hands up and point at their community. This isn’t a victory for creative freedom from a company looking out for developers’ best interests; it’s a company refusing to moderate its service for harmful content and passing it off as a moral decision.