Valve, the company behind the Steam platform that has achieved a near-monopoly on PC game sales, issued a blog post clarifying its content policies after it removed a mass shooting-themed game titled Active Shooter from its store in late May. According to Valve’s Erik Johnson, from now on the company will allow basically anything to be sold on its platform — except if it is illegal or “straight up trolling.”
“Valve shouldn’t be the ones deciding this,” Johnson wrote in a blog post. “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.”
Writing that Valve views its role as a facilitator between developers and customers, Johnson added, “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. 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.”
This would appear to be a total pivot to a laissez-faire approach to what’s available on Steam, and one that happens just weeks after the developers of adult visual novel games Mutiny!! and HuniePop were issued warnings by the company’s staff that their products may be kicked from Steam unless allegedly pornographic content was removed. Johnson wrote that the platform would instead emphasise voluntary disclosure by developers about what kind of content they’re distributing — though it would still maintain quality control for games with “issues.”
“So what does this mean?” Johnson wrote. “It means that the Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate, and don’t think should exist.”
As TechCrunch noted, this is essentially similar to (and perhaps less restrictive than) the model pursued by other platforms like YouTube, which has been accused of raking in the dollars from an ecosystem of content it denies responsibility for. Developing a content moderation policy is difficult and bound to anger at least some users, but the alternative can also be indulging the impulses of the lowest common denominator. Valve’s decision to build a backdoor into the new content policy by reserving the right to remove developers who are just “trolling,” a term that in many respects is defined by the beholder, could easily be read as cynical — it’s going to wash its hands of anything, until something comes along that it gets enough bad PR for it to hit the eject button.
As Nathan Grayson, a reporter for Gizmodo’s sister site Kotaku, noted on Twitter, the lack of moderation is and of itself an expression of libertarian values:
valve's value set–which will be expressed every time a school shooter game comes out or a blatantly racist game goes unopposed bc the mindset is basically normalized–is that some vague intention of openness matters more than the outcomes of that intention
— nathan grayson (@Vahn16) June 6, 2018
There’s an argument to be made that games about school shootings do not materially different all that much from, say, Grand Theft Auto V, in which killing crowds of civilians is just a way of passing the time between parts of the map. It seems to be somewhat more of a change in managerial perspective for Valve to potentially throw open the gates to pornographic content — or games that go beyond depicting hate speech to promoting it. At the end of the day, this screams of having less to do with diversity of ideas than Valve’s disinterest in handling controversy from the toxic segments of the gaming community.
Just keep in mind that while Valve is the one alluding to some kind of invisible hand of the market at work here, at the end of the day, they’re the ones cashing the checks.