The Pros & Cons of Valve's Content Decision

The backlash has been swift and fierce, but is it deserved?

It's been a confusing couple of weeks for Valve and the people that entrust their games to the Steam marketplace. What started as a full-blown panic over a notice to creators of risque visual novels, then turned into a vague retraction after a developer exodus to, pivoted into a convenient ban on a game about being a school shooter, and culminated with a sweeping statement from the company on the role they will play in vetting content being added to the site.

The short answer is, that role will be none at all, meaning Valve will relinquish any responsibility towards what games end up on the marketplace, with the (admittedly vague) exception of games that are illegal or "trolling". That exception leaves Valve with a lot of leeway on actually banning games if they deem necessary, while at the same time opening them up to posit that they are in no way meant to decide what is or is not offensive content.

This being the internet, the community response has been predictably polarizing, with one side applauding the move for its bold stance on censorship when other large companies have bent to fervent social and political pressure as of late. The other side has plenty of counterpoints, many of which also make sense, including the position that discriminatory and hate-centric content does little to boost the (so far scientifically credible) argument that games do not incite violence in players, which has been a powder-keg issue in the mainstream news lately, primarily because of all the recent school shootings.

In the statement released by Valve, executive Erik Johnson, who handles a wide array of responsibilities at the company, admitted that the decision is controversial even within the ranks of the company itself. However, it is disappointing that no further information was given as to why the whole debacle came about in the first place, and it's likely that we will never get those answers. Why did developers of titles with sexual content receive notices in the first place? Did this decision have anything to do with Apple blocking the Steam Link app in the app store? Were the recent changes to default privacy settings a result of this? What even constitutes an "illegal" or "trolling" game? The world may never know.

Valve is a rarity in today's business world in that it is worth billions of dollars and yet has never gone public. The company is notorious for its secrecy and unorthodox working conditions, and yes of course we could talk at length about the cult of GabeN, but in the end their corporate structure means they hold no obligation to traditional outside influencers like shareholders or even customers. Whether the government steps in or not is yet to be seen, but historically those measures have been defeated in the courts.

The only times Valve has ever changed its mind on a position they've taken, is when the consumers and developers have voted with their wallets (provided their wallets are still intact after all the Steam sales) and it appears this time has been no different. After many developers revolted and took their business instead to GOG and, Valve seemed to have a "change of heart" about re-reviewing games with sexually explicit content. If that is the cornerstone factor in this turnabout, then people will be hard pressed to get them to reverse this latest policy decision.

I want to take the second half of this article and review the arguments both for, and against, this decision and play Devil's Advocate to them. First let's look at the proponent's logic.

PRO #1: Games are Art and therefore protected by the First Amendement

There's always the First Amendment people in almost every argument, despite the fact that the First Amendment is a lot more narrow than most people seem to understand, but let's not dwell on semantics. The argument is essentially that people should have the right to express their opinions, no matter how universally vile or hurtful they may be. This personally seems rather silly. Games that are deliberately intended to harm a group or individual have no place on the store. The challenge of course is identifying whether something has been crafted with the specific intention to do so. Bigots and trolls routinely hide behind the pretext of "satire", no matter how flimsy the justification may be. 

At the same time, there is legitimate content that will no doubt offend someone, somewhere on this great green ball of mud, regardless of how socially acceptable it is in another part of the world. So where is the line drawn? In Valve's case, they are somewhat forced to pretend there is no line, because the line on what is appropriate is, in most cases, wholly subjective.

PRO #2: A Free Market will correct itself by voting with its wallet (or just voting on the game in general)

While it's true that I am much less likely to buy a game that has a negative or even mixed rating on Steam, the reality is that getting a game on the platform is so incredibly simple now, such that one could churn out a hundred low-quality asset flippers in a matter of weeks, if not days, and flood the new release section with a shitstorm of...well...shit. This is already happening as a consequence of the switch from Greenlight (which had its own issues) to the even-more-easily-circumvented Steam Direct. When you have dozens of creators engaging in this practice at the same time, finding new titles worthy of your attention is practically impossible depending on the area of the storefront you are visiting.

Valve has tried to combat this by offering up a number of solutions, from personalized filters to approved curators, but nothing thus far has truly combated the core of the problem, and every day we find the garbage piling up more and more. 

That being said, while it is certainly a point of contention among users, level of quality is not the intended issue being addressed by the direction Valve is taking here. Is it Valve's responsibility to take sides against games that could be considered offensive? Or should we as consumers take it upon ourselves to protest the game's existence or shame its developer? You can't vote a game down without having purchased it so it's a Catch-22. You literally have to support the person creating the content you are against in order to have a say in its reputation on the platform under which it is sold. And considering that a successfully defeated developer can just spin up a new company and start releasing content again, even this defense is futile.

As an aside: Some Awesome was created in part on the back of this very problem. Why go searching through pages full of crap when you can get honest opinions about games here on the site and just pick a good one to play?

PRO #3: If you don't like it you can GTFO

Obviously, yes, that's an option. There are other stores like GOG and that have a lot of the same games, or you could just play games on your phone, or get a console, or use UPlay or Origin or look exclusively for DRM-free titles. But it's also a little unfair to those who have sunk a considerable amount of time and money into their Steam accounts. It's difficult enough (depending who you are) to avoid potentially offensive material on the home page itself, but it's practically impossible to avoid the same titles that are picked up by the games journalism industry and reported on for being exactly that. Then you know the game exists and if you suddenly have a bone to pick with it, there's no going back at that point.

Of course, you then have the wonderful people who argue that the offended parties just need to stop being whiny liberal snowflake SJW cucks, which seriously gets us nowhere in the grand scheme of things. It should be pretty apparent by now that trying to solve the problem of people being offended, by offending them, is counterproductive. There needs to be a better way.

Do the critics have a better way? Here are a few of their grievances.

CON #1: Social Media Company X and News Organization Y are held accountable so Valve should be too

Except Steam is not a social media platform. I mean, yes, it does have some social aspects to it, but we're not talking about fake reviews or voice chat harassment here. Steam is a storefront, in the same way that EBay is a storefront, or the Android Marketplace is a storefront. The product is not the user, like it is with Facebook and YouTube, where the money comes from advertising, which is essentially a paid attempt to influence the user on those platforms, not limited to encouraging a purchase. Does Steam have a section where they feature certain games for (assumably) an additional fee? Yes. Do you see any of the games that would be blatantly problematic on there? Maybe, but only if you are taking issue with a game that offends you personally and is otherwise generally accepted in wide swaths of the world outside your door.

At the same time, Valve's statement does imply that there will absolutely some games that can be banned based on their content if it is deemed "illegal". There ARE hate speech laws in a number of countries. The US is particularly lax on legal repercussions for hate speech, but the US is not the only country that Valve caters to. There are laws against child pornography, inciting riots, copyright infringement, spreading malware, false advertising, and any other number of declared, on-the-books illegal activities that a game could supposedly engage with. Whether or not you believe that Valve will proactively seek out and remove these developers is up to you, but at least they have addressed it.

CON #2: This decision will result in a significant increase in depraved and deplorable content

Have you seen this new game Agony? What about Hatred or even Grand Theft Auto V? There's plenty of morally suspect content on Steam already. And if you're one of the people who already think that the visual novel genre is a hotbed of harlotry, then it's already too late. There's stuff on here man, stuff you can't unsee.

But what's the difference between this and the rest of the internet? If content on the internet is illegal and discovered, it's cracked down on. If content on Steam is illegal and discovered, it's (allegedly) cracked down on. The problem Valve has now is convincing users that they will indeed crack down on games containing illegal content. The true difference is that Valve is not presenting you with anything without your express permission, other than the featured items on the home page, and even then you would have to consciously and intentionally buy a product that already comes with its own labels, disclaimers, and available information before you even get to the cart with it.

What you CAN expect now is increased coverage of depraved and deplorable content on Steam by the games media though, because clearly it draws the eyeballs.

CON #3: Here comes the garbage

This is a legitimate argument, and one that piggybacks off of the counterpoint in PRO #2, that Steam right now is bursting at the seams with low quality, buggy, shovelware asset flip titles. It's a real problem that Valve needs to address, unless you're fine with only buying games with marketing budgets or the occasional viral indie hit, and letting the rest of the genuinely hard-working, creative, and deserving indie developers get lost in a tempest of 99 cent garbage grabs.

The situation certainly seems opportunistic from the perspective of Valve's bottom line, so much so you could almost gin up a credible conspiracy theory for it. It wouldn't be too outrageous to think that Valve deliberately sent out misleading warnings to visual novel developers to drum up media attention towards the scourge of censorship, only to quickly reverse course on that under the auspices of nobility, in order to draw that same would-be attention away from the idea they were only doing this for the profitability. It's not a crazy conclusion to come to.

There is however a competing argument that ties into Valve's attempt to get into the iOS store with the Steam Link app, where an executive decision was made to start re-evaluating the content allowed on Steam, in accordance with the type of content that is itself allowed on the app store. When you crunch the numbers, eliminating a small percentage of games from the Steam storefront, in order to get your store in front of literally billions of people, is also a smart business decision from the perspective of profitability. At the same time Valve was getting negative press for it, they could have found a better middle ground with Apple, and simultaneously decided that they were making the wrong choice on being judge and jury when it came to the content of the games they allow on the store. This is also a feasible possibility.

The frustration comes from knowing that we'll probably never know which one it is.

My Final Take

Personally, I think Valve was damned if they did, damned if they didn't here. Yes, they could take what many would consider the high road, have every game reviewed prior to making it onto the store, stay up-to-date on all the latest social movements, or even pick a side on those, and curate as they saw fit. But like Erik Johnson says in his post, no matter what choice they made, it was going to piss off a whole bunch of people. They may have even run the numbers on that (I feel like a company that big can "run the numbers" on anything) and picked the lesser of two evils. Maybe they honestly feel like this is the better decision for developers too, but at the end of the day it's always going to come down, at least in part, to money. Every. Damn. Time.

My hope is that we get to the bottom of what I consider to be the real problem, which is the amount of absolute crap pouring in on a daily basis. In the meantime, you could always help by reviewing some games here on SomeAwesome.