Steam, the long-running PC games marketplace operated by Valve Software, has consistently run into issues with approved and restricted content, and arguments about those guidelines have heated up in recent weeks. After Valve removed various “ero” games and then approved the sexualized, violence-against-women simulator Agony, users began asking what was up with Steam’s content guidelines.
A lengthy blog post by Valve’s Erik Johnson, titled “Who gets to be on the Steam store?,” saw the company frankly admit that its own staff has struggled with the same question until reaching a new conclusion.
“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,” Johnson wrote. “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.”
Under this new policy, Steam may become one of the least regulated digital software storefronts in the Western world. Comparatively, marketplaces like the Apple App Store and Google Play come complete with long guideline lists that include those sellers’ ability to exercise curatorial discretion at their will. (Major rival PC games seller GOG.com, based in Poland, does not list public-facing content guidelines but does advertise its “curated” selection of games.)
This conclusion was reached, Johnson writes, after dealing with “confusion among our customers, developer partners, and even our own employees.” He alleges that Valve employs “groups of people” who examine “contents of every controversial title,” though he didn’t go so far as to clarify whether robotic automation is otherwise employed (and thus let in a remarkable number of buggy games as of late).
Johnson pointed out the subjective criteria that his team grapples with, including “politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, [and] identity,” along with regional and international considerations and even software-specific standards like “what constitutes a game” or quality requirements. In addition, Johnson alluded to disagreements and anger within Valve’s offices over Steam game standards, as he confirmed that Valve’s “employees, their families, and their communities” have gotten “mad” as a result of these disagreements.
The company opted to return to what Johnson described as a founding principle of Steam as a service: “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. Our role should be to provide systems and tools to support your efforts to make these choices for yourself and to help you do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable.”
In addition to the high-level rules about “illegal” and “straight-up trolling” content, Johnson said that Valve is considering a process that will ask developers to inform the storefront about potentially controversial or problematic content when submitting a game. Any devs who “refuse to do so honestly” will be shut off from Steam, Johnson wrote. He didn’t confirm whether Valve will proactively double-check the hundreds of games it lists on a monthly basis for adherence to these rules or whether these checks will come retroactively after customers complain about content—and whether this disclosure process will be transparent so that shoppers can see who is or isn’t abiding by it.
This policy already appears to have a major offender: last week’s controversial launch of the slow, buggy, and sexually violent game Agony. In his review of the game, Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek pointed to an apparent disconnect between its sales pitch (whose Steam listing primarily describes gameplay mechanics) and its content (which Klepek says revolves around “sexual violence, the power dynamics of sex between genders, and how society often views gay sex through the lens of straight men”).
“We will almost certainly continue to struggle with this one for a while,” Johnson added, thanks to various laws around the world and a case-by-case basis of handling game submissions.
“The Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate and don’t think should exist,” Johnson pointed out. “It also means that the games we allow onto the Store will not be a reflection of Valve’s values, beyond a simple belief that you all have the right to create and consume the content you choose. The two points above apply to all of us at Valve as well. If you see something on Steam that you think should not exist, it’s almost certain that someone at Valve is right there with you.”
The biggest issue with this stance is that Steam does not flatly list software to be organically discovered by customers. Valve has continued building and refining systems that present software based on crowd-sourced recommendations, analysis of gameplay history, “new and trending” ranks, discount promotions, and more. Posting basic free speech somewhere online and dumping software into Steam’s heavily sorted marketplace (from which Valve takes a 30-percent cut of every sale) are very different things.
Before concluding the post, Johnson also mentioned vague plans to protect game makers. “Developers who build controversial content shouldn’t have to deal with harassment because their game exists, and we’ll be building tools and options to support them, too,” Johnson wrote. But he didn’t specify which camps of game makers or types of issues Valve is looking to assist, and he didn’t say whether these efforts will go into improving the ongoing issues of users filling up a Steam game’s review or forum sections with trolling and spam.