The goalposts have changed, and precious few sales platforms are equipped to deal with it
This week, Valve announced they would permit any game to be hosted on its market-leading platform, Steam, as long as it did not contain illegal content and is not what can be classified as a “trolling game”. This met with praise from people who criticise what they perceive as any form of censorship, but also with a lot of annoyance and anger from people who felt that Valve was washing its hands of its responsibility to reduce hostility on the Steam marketplace.
A little bit of the background leading up to this decision — Steam has seen a spate of games recently (and perhaps not so recently, if you count examples such as Shower With Your Dad Simulator and Hatred) that could be said to have no artistic merit and are instead aimed solely at enraging people. It also faced recent controversy after cracking down on games with erotic content, a policy that disproportionately ended up affecting LGBTQA+ and erotic visual novel content. Valve later apologised, looked at its decision to issue take-down notices again, trotted off with its tail between its legs and duly sat down to consider how it was going to respond to the changing landscape of content people put up for sale on Steam.
I was seeing a lot of ire directed specifically at Valve, and I do believe that they have misstepped in their new policy (which has already displayed potential for confusion). However, I’m not sure it’s that helpful to look just at Valve. It seems as though a lot of the potential fixes for Valve’s laissez-faire approach are hindered by just how out of touch moderation and classification of games is as a whole. Instead, it feels as though we should be looking into why Valve have reacted the way they did and look to changing the entire system behind approving games for sale. I really look forward to hearing your opinions on Valve’s reaction in the comments, since I know mine might not be shared by everyone!
So, why did Valve react the way they did?
I don’t feel like Valve reacted maliciously here or with any sort of bias when it comes to personal politics. Valve, reacting as a business who needs to keep hold of as many customers as possible to make money, panicked and tried to do the crowd-pleasing thing of keeping the market as open as possible. And in response to the VN scandal mentioned above, this reaction seems to make sense: revert to free-market principles and let those with the money sort the wheat from the chaff.
But it’s this panicked reaction — or what some people might instead see as giving up entirely — that is a big problem. Valve doesn’t have a monopoly when it comes to selling digital games for PC/Mac/Linux, but it sure holds a massive market share, with figures steadily increasing year on year to 18.6 million users as of January 2018.
Steam gets mentioned in the same breath as Uplay, Origin, GOG, and itch.io, but it seems to have an extra level of fame beyond those platforms, in part due to its vastness and also due to its incentives (trading cards) and branching out to other ventures, such as the Steam Machines and the Steam controller. For a giant in the market to throw its hands up and say it doesn’t want to deal with the issue of excessively violent or bullying content sets a precedent, and a potentially dangerous one at that.
OK, but why do you care about violence or nasty content on the internet? You can always just not click on a link or walk away from your computer.
Sure, I can, and I have done. But there are people who are more sensitive, whether based on age or due to personal experience, who might not be able to just walk away. There is a separate issue of making sure that sensitive content that might be completely harmless for some people, but deeply upsetting to others, is flagged properly. Yet some content is so egregious that flagging it so that those affected by the issue don’t stumble across it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the problem with the game (see Active Shooter).
When it comes to age, you might argue that it is the parents’ responsibility to watch their sprogs and make sure they’re not playing a game stuffed to the gills with gore and profanity. That’s true, but this doesn’t address the harm that is done. If a parent fails in their duty not to hand a violent game to their young child, saying, “oh well, it’s the parents’ fault” doesn’t actually fix anything; the kid is still harmed, and parents of course don’t have a right to harm their kids. This is why moderation and classification are important.
And I have, from time to time, accidentally stumbled across something that distressed me greatly. A writer recently wrote a (great) article about how Saya No Uta is an unsung VN that people should give a chance. Unfortunately, against my better judgment and warnings from the article, I dug deeper, and could not get the thoughts of that game out of my head for a couple of days, I was so disturbed by it.
The games community doesn’t really have a duty to protect people like me from their own idiocy, but people do end up seeing content that really gets under their skin in a bad way all the time for all kinds of reasons, perhaps while looking for something else, or while taken over by morbid curiosity. A measured approach to stopping the most extreme instances of this is a pretty good idea.
OK, so what’s the problem with Valve’s new approach?
Thankfully, Valve has set some standards for its current approach to moderation — well, not allowing illegal content on Steam is not really a standard they’ve set for themselves since they have to comply with that anyway. It’s still open to argument as to what counts as a “trolling” game. What if one of the aforementioned school shooter games actually went to great efforts with its mechanics to resemble an earnest attempt at an FPS game? Does it still count as a trolling game?
The real problem with this approach is that many games can pick out certain groups for harassment or abuse, but then bury it under a layer of good game design so that it sneaks past the moderators. And while realistically, this will be the case more often for games with abject homophobia, sexism, etc., it can work in all different directions and against all different groups of people.
If I look back at the piece I wrote on the swatting phenomenon a little while back, people do seem a little more impressionable than they did back in the days when the Hot Coffee argument was a big deal, since gaming culture has become more networked and more entrenched in people’s personal lives. We literally have a camera into the lives of other gamers, now. While violence and sexual content are absolutely not off the table when it comes to games, cooling it a little with the extremism, again, isn’t a bad idea.
It’s not just that, though — what counts as illegal? Some games with loot boxes count as gambling and are therefore facing prohibition in the Netherlands. Valve has been shockingly lax about this theme in the past, particularly given the popularity of these games with minors and the seriousness of gambling addiction.
It’s a paper thin moderation policy that isn’t really going to hold up for very long, as the gaming community starts mercilessly poking holes in it.
How does this link to the classification of games?
All this talk so far has been about Valve’s moderation policy, which is indeed a set policy — you can’t have mods arbitrarily determining what they find great and what they find disgusting. For one, you only need one mod to go mad with power for chaos to ensue, and two, if anyone starts questioning why their game has been taken down, and the reason is entirely down to individual moderator discretion, it’s a media shitstorm waiting to happen.
As I’ve said before, this moderation policy is fragile, though it is a policy nonetheless. It is also not a curation approach, where Valve is openly saying it will only allow quality, hand-picked content onto its platform, but rather an approach borne from morality.
If you boil it down, it looks kinda like Valve has created its own classification system for games, albeit not one based on several age categories, but rather one resembling the decision between a game being rated M or AO using the ESRB standards. If a game is rated AO, it is basically unsellable, since it can’t be put on the shelves in stores and console manufacturers don’t support AO games; if Valve deems a game immoral by its own narrow standards, it can’t go up on the store. If it is a digital game, given the considerable number of people who turn to Steam for their game downloads, this can be the kiss of death. Very similar principle.
This is important because it gives us extra room to look at alternatives for Valve’s issue. As I said, it seems like at best, Valve is in a panic, and at worst, it has given up. Because Steam has not opted to use local game classification standards, unlike console platforms, it can do as it likes when it comes to gatekeeping for its own store.
What it could do is put in place a system similar to ESRB, or wholesale adopt ESRB rules, even if the specific game it is looking at hasn’t been run past the board – say, if the game will never appear on consoles and therefore does not have to be looked at by a classification board in order to be waved through by Sony or Nintendo.
The excellent side to the console system of classification is that the permissions step is removed from the people who have an interest in selling as many games as possible (Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo), meaning that the entire process is carried out without bias or economic motivations. That everything is housed within Valve at the moment for Steam (both setting the classification rules and applying them) is not the most ethical policy on the planet.
Well, the good thing about Steam is that you don’t have to show ID to buy a game, but OK, I’ll bite… let’s use game classification standards when deciding what games go up on Steam.
Not so fast, bud. Theoretically, this might be a good idea, but each classification system has its own share of problems.
There are so many regional classification systems for games that trying to count them makes my head spin, and it’s not as simple as harmonising everything. There is a solid reason why we have so many different classification systems, for good or for ill, and that’s that regional ideas of “morality” vary drastically from country to country. You’re more likely to find guns and blood in an 18-rated game in the US that you are to see a bare breast, but in other regions, the opposite might be true. So trying to come up with a unified standard would be a logistical nightmare that practically nobody would agree to follow.
But, OK, let’s say because Valve is based in the US, it piggybacks off ESRB standards; it already shows ESRB ratings if they happen to already be available for the game. As I said before, Westernised standards are more permissive with violence than they are with sexual content, which might be part of the reason why the VN scandal happened in the first place. There has also been some backlash against Agony for its fairly unnuanced and perverted look at a hellscape, which is a console game on general release in the US and Europe, and therefore passed muster with both PEGI and ESRB.
But the appetite for games that explore sexuality and allow people who are queer to see representation on screen has grown in recent times, and the classification boards haven’t quite caught up with this yet. The idea that sexual content might not be to titillate but to educate and to express different lifestyles is a relatively new one.
With the raft of active shooter sims and such, it’s worth pointing out that boards have, for a while, taken into consideration not just levels of violence but also the spirit behind such violence. The meandering, also pornographic focus on executions in Manhunt 2 is precisely why that game juddered to a halt with the BBFC in the UK (the BBFC is a non-governmental, independent classification board in the UK that acts parallel to PEGI). But we haven’t quite seen violence so gaudy and empty as we do with the recent wave of “troll” games.
A classification board would also struggle to handle the concept of an “AIDS Simulator” game since it’s hard to point a finger at what traditional category its objectionable nature fits into. There’s no especially horrific violence, drug use, gambling, fear or sex involved; the problem is its racist undertones and, well, “are you fucking kidding me, this is sick, show some goddamn respect”.
So a lot of classification systems need dragging by their hair into the 21st century, which sort of explains why Valve has been having so many issues with its moderation policy but paints us into a bit of a corner when it comes to finding a solution for this mess.
itch.io’s CEO has spoken on the issue and the consensus seems to be that itch.io’s approach strikes an excellent balance, but it is operating on a much smaller scale than Steam. Perhaps it hasn’t dealt with a wave of abusive games like Steam has, precisely because it is more developer-oriented than consumer-oriented and because it doesn’t get quite the same level of attention as Steam. GOG also became an unlikely champion of erotic VNs as a medium, and so I have hope that some platforms can set their own standards and execute them well, refraining from yucking on other people’s yums. Some platforms, like Steam, struggle and require external help. But I’m not sure the external help is there just yet.
So ultimately, you’re saying that when a platform runs into multiple scandals, it should have to follow external standards. Isn’t that a bit menacing and infringing on Valve’s right to run its own business?
With a lot of businesses, whenever standards are lagging, the inspectors come in, be that health inspection, school inspections or simply someone from head office coming in to check whether a franchise is being run correctly. Since Steam deals with sensitive content, I find it a little hard to believe that Valve would be left to its own devices on this one, especially when some of its direct competitors have bowed deeply to external standards, e.g. the console market.
The best thing for Valve, if it is really struggling to put together a sensible policy, is to apply a policy drafted externally. This could be using its own mods, or it could separate the process entirely by using external mods. While not acting with any form of intent to cause harm, Valve’s indecisiveness is a product of a lack of checks and balances. If we can get on top of the issue of games classification, on the whole, being a bit borked, then we will have a suitable set of checks and balances that can be applied at any time – once Valve holds its hands up and admits it has no idea what it’s doing.
What are your thoughts on Valve’s new policy? Do you think Valve got it spot on, or is it going off the rails? What do you think about the idea of Valve abdicating responsibility for approving games to a third party? Let me know in the comments down below!