Valve's Troubling Decision About Steam Reeks of Corporate Greed
Valve’s recent decision to allow almost anyone to list games on their digital marketplace Steam is another misstep in a catalogue of self-serving errors from the publisher. This week’s decision follows the uproar over the listing and subsequent removal of Active Shooter, a crass school shooting FPS which was pulled after an anti-gun violence charity and the families of victims killed in real-life school shootings condemned the developer, Ata Bediyev.
Valve’s response, however, seemed to be less focused on the game content, and more about the developer’s history and interaction with Valve itself. The decision came due to Bediyev being involved in “customer abuse, publishing copyrighted material and user review manipulation.” It seems that the game itself was considered fine to publish, indicating that Valve was more concerned with its own business interests than policing its content — except, that clearly isn’t the case. Only last month, Valve contacted numerous developers of anime games, such as Mutiny!! to warn them that their content was considered “pornography”.
Why the discrepancy between the two cases? It seems Valve itself has the answer.
“Valve is not a small company - we're not a homogeneous group. The online debates around these topics play out inside Valve as well. We don't all agree on what deserves to be on the Store.”
So, in order to avoid making individual decisions about what should and should not be published on Steam, Valve has decided to remove that decision-making almost entirely. “Almost”, because they’ve left themselves a little wiggle room:
“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.”
Trolling is as grey an area as you’re likely to see. Art is entirely subjective: one person’s satire is another’s real-life experience. If a developer creates a horrific game in the name of sarcasm which no-one else gets, where will Valve sit on the matter? Taking a step back and permitting all games on their platform should be an all-or-nothing approach. Either you’re fully behind free speech — and it can be argued that this a cowardly catch-all for refusing to keep your house in order — or you aren’t, and you want control over the content you publish. Valve wants to straddle both sides of the fence, presumably because the 30% cut they take off every sale is too juicy a prospect to throw out entirely.
Additionally, the free speech argument itself holds little water here. Valve’s comment to developers that “we shouldn't be choosing what content you're allowed to create,” and to gamers that “we shouldn't be choosing what content you're allowed to buy,” simply reeks of hubris. Valve has established itself as the main platform for digital distribution of PC games, and has earned billions in doing so. But this doesn’t mean that it is the only place you can obtain games. It is not the gatekeeper of an entire platform, as much as it believes itself to be. The decision to allow any content on Steam indicates that Valve thinks it’s serving a more liberal purpose and defending freedom of expression. In reality, it’s defending its decision not to make a decision, by suggesting that by not allowing any and all content, that content simply wouldn't see the light of day. This simply isn't the case.
Controversial art — be it books, films and yes, video games — is nothing new. However, the difference between a piece’s success or failure is often down to two things: the appetite of a potential audience, and the ability of that piece to reach the hands of the audience. In the case of Active Shooter, a bland, tedious rehash of the kinds of FPS that have plagued the Steam store for years, the demand for the game is minimal. It’s highly likely that the first time you heard about the game was when it came to light in news articles following the Parkland school shooting. Its content is wilfully controversial, but as an artistic piece, it is utterly without merit — designed to deliberately provoke, while containing no worthwhile characteristics to warrant playing.
If a controversial film is created, it is unlikely to see the light of day unless it is deemed to have artistic content which distributors believe will be of interest to audiences. Valve doesn’t believe it should hold itself up to the same standards, and instead has decided to abstain from any future decision-making about the content it publishes and profits from. This last point is important. Valve’s role in its removal due to business-related reasons highlights two things: Valve is and always will be a business, and Valve’s business hierarchy appears to contain no moral compass. Huge corporations have a duty of care to perform, as Facebook and Google have recently discovered. Policing the content of its own storefront is the least that Valve can do, especially given the often toxic nature of the gaming community, which so often courts controversy with the wider world. The vague notion of removing "illegal" and "trolling" material is open to so much debate and nuance that it is barely worth including in its statement, other than as a spineless gotcha for those times that Valve decides that it might intervene after all.
By taking a step back and saying “have at it”, Valve is washing its hands of responsibility. Games by their very nature appeal to younger people as well as older, and it’s this former group who are most likely to be influenced by the content they watch, read, and play. While we do not believe that censorship of controversial content for the sake of being controversial is right, that doesn’t mean that the platform for obtaining that content should be as broad and accessible as possible. Valve claims to be opening Steam up to all comers because otherwise that same content would otherwise never get into the hands of the public. This is the crucial distinction to make — if someone wants to buy a school shooting simulator, as disgusting as the content may be, they should be allowed to do so. However, that doesn’t mean that the game should be made widely available or promoted on the world’s biggest gaming distribution platform. Nor should we believe for one moment that Valve are doing this out of respect for developers and gamers. When they stated their case for removing Active Shooter, they set out their stall early. It seems that Valve has more interest in developers meeting the business terms and conditions of Steam, than taking responsibility for ensuring they also meet the ethical terms and conditions of the content published on the platform.
The dissonance within the company is troubling, and Gabe Newell’s laissez-faire approach to the situation solves none of those issues. Yet as long as that 30% cut keeps rolling into the bank, are they ever likely to step up and make a moral stand?