The heart of tech is coming to the heart of the Mediterranean. Join TNW in València this March 🇪🇸

This article was published on June 7, 2018

Steam’s hands-off approach is the only one it could take

Steam’s hands-off approach is the only one it could take
Rachel Kaser
Story by

Rachel Kaser

Internet Culture Writer

Rachel is a writer and former game critic from Central Texas. She enjoys gaming, writing mystery stories, streaming on Twitch, and horseback Rachel is a writer and former game critic from Central Texas. She enjoys gaming, writing mystery stories, streaming on Twitch, and horseback riding. Check her Twitter for curmudgeonly criticisms.

Valve yesterday announced it was revising its policy regarding which games it chooses to release on the Steam platform. From now on, the company would no longer arbitrate when it comes to which games will be allowed on Steam — from now on, all games will be allowed, with no exceptions solely for “offensive” content.

The company’s announcement outlines its new prerogative as an open marketplace: “…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.”

Given Steam’s history with controversial games, that was the only stance the company could reasonably take.

Anything Goes

In the same announcement, Valve spokespeople said it consistently faces a particular dilemma when it comes to controversial games:

Decision making in this space is particularly challenging, and one that we’ve really struggled with. Contrary to many assumptions, this isn’t a space we’ve automated – humans at Valve are very involved, with groups of people looking at the contents of every controversial title submitted to us. Similarly, people have falsely assumed these decisions are heavily affected by our payment processors, or outside interest groups. Nope, it’s just us grappling with a really hard problem.

Given Steam’s popularity as a platform for PC games — it almost has monopoly on the market — any indication that its handing down arbitrary judgments on games is a bit scary.

So, in lieu of trying to find the line between censorship and cutting malignant content, Valve is handing the reins over to us — the consumers. It eliminates the chance anyone could accuse the company of bias or accepting outside influence when deciding what to put on its store — and that’s an accusation it’s faced before.

Take a game like Hatred, the isometric shooter which garnered so much controversy and outrage back in 2014. A game in which the only objective is to massacre as many innocent people as possible, Hatred was a natural magnet for its namesake emotion. It was originally released on Greenlight, Steam’s now-defunct platform through which small-time developers could pitch their game for a Steam release. When the backlash began, the game was removed from Greenlight, only to be later reinstated with a personal apology to the developers from CEO Gabe Newell.

Hatred was eventually released to decent sales, and everyone forgot about it after a while. Then a game like Active Shooter or Super Seducer comes along and the cycle begins all over again.

In all that back-and-forth, you know who got the most bad press? Steam. With two sides pushing on a single door, the door is the one who gets all the abuse.

Full Disclosure

The flip side to this new direction — which would allow the Hatreds and the Active Shooters of the world to reside on Steam with no repercussions — is that Steam will push harder for game makers to disclose when their games contain problematic content. Any game makers that refuse to do so will not be able to do business with Steam.

The company also has itself a built-in safety valve by adding the part about games being “straight-up trolling.” That ambiguous language means the company can still swoop in on certain games if it chooses — trolling is a little hard to define.

But those who aren’t so impressed with Valve’s step might ask themselves if this is enough.

Is it enough to ask that developers admit when their games contain content a good chunk of gaming’s audience will find offensive? I would say “Yes.” But someone who doesn’t want to see games like Hatred or Active Shooter being given a chance on PC gaming’s biggest stage could say, “No” and their opinion would be just as valid as mine.

The essence of the change can be summed up in this part of the announcement:

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 final sentence is the cherry on top. Valve will offer you a storefront, but it won’t cheer for you. Given the Steam platform’s ubiquity and power with PC gamers, backing away and letting consumers decide what succeeds and what doesn’t might be the most respectful thing Valve could have done.