Valve’s (almost) ‘anything goes’ content policy devalues Steam and harms developers

Valve’s recent brush with obscene and harmful content is the latest incident that exposes one of Steam’s key weaknesses. Abdicating its responsibility as a content host has led the market leader to alienate developers and damage its own brand.

Steam’s content policy has been a regular source of confusion, coming to a boil in mid-2018. The company issued delisting warnings to developers of visual novels aimed at an adult audience and featuring nudity.

The storefront ultimately relaxed its warnings, but had already tipped off a series of questions about its ambiguous definitions of what is acceptable on Steam. The result was a reaffirmation that Valve is willing to take money from almost any developer, provided the content isn’t deemed by Valve to be “illegal or straight up trolling.”

A few months later, Steam permitted the first uncensored adult game, leaning on filters to weed out sexual content. While PIN-protected family accounts might safeguard minors, they don’t shield developers who are caught in the blast zone when Steam lets a game like Hatred or the recently removed sexual violence fantasy Rape Day from developer Desk Plant come anywhere near its store.

It’s easy to forget that digital storefronts still adhere to retail paradigms. While there are no physical shelves upon which boxes sit, games (and developers) are still judged by the company they keep. On Steam, that comes in the form of a set of recommendations on every store page labeled “More Like This.”

Two days after Rape Day made news, Valve announced that it had decided not to allow the game on its store. During that time, a full store page was live, complete with a “More Like This” section.

That recommendation engine is driven by user tags. That’s how Curtel Games’ The Ballad Singer ended up in Rape Day’s “More Like This” section. The two games share three tags: adventure, nudity, and sexual content. The developers couldn’t be more different in their approaches to such a sensitive topic.

“The fact that the Ballad Singer is recommended under Rape Day is probably related to the fact that in the game we have indicated that there are nude scenes (not explicit),” Curtel Games project manager Riccardo Bandera told Polygon via email. “A rape choice is included in our game. But what we tried to do compared to Rape Day is completely different. We try to sensitize the player on this issue, entering the mind of those who suffer violence and trying to educate the player, despite being free to do what he wants. In my opinion it is a good thing that our game is recommended, provides a different point of view that allows players to understand the victim, trying to bring a real social value through the video game.”

While Bandera is glad that The Ballad Singer has the chance to provide a different perspective than Desk Plant’s endorsement of sexual violence, he does not condone Rape Day’s content.

“Rape is not a game but probably one of the worst violence that a person could suffer,” he says. “I think it’s an insult to all the victims to include a rape game inside Steam.”

He isn’t the only developer to have a strong reaction to Valve’s decision to keep Desk Plant’s game on its storefront even for the few days it lived there. One More Story Games CEO Jean Leggett suggests that Steam’s current content policy is alienating for some developers.

“I don’t want to put my game, which is a thoughtful and sensitive approach to PTSD and sexual violence, [on Steam],” she says. “I would be absolutely livid if that came under the ‘More Like This’ section.”

Leggett has opted to steer her company’s games toward platforms that do take a stand on safety with clear content policies.

“It’s already difficult enough to do the kind of content that I’m doing,” she explains. “That’s why it feels safer, more appropriate, and ethically responsible to put our games out on the App Store and the Play Store. They do gate against those kinds of things.”

The Epic Games Store is currently curating its content leading up to when the company casts a wider net later in 2019. Despite founder Tim Sweeney’s vocal support of open platforms, Epic didn’t throw the door open. The company has built an enormous following of young Fortnite fans. While the company hasn’t commented, it’s hard to imagine Epic giving Rape Day anything other than a hard “No.”

This is, in part, because large companies and PR agencies make it their job to know how their content is being positioned internally and on external platforms. Brands need to be regularly tended and curated, otherwise someone else will start defining what they stand for.

”There are entire teams of people at agencies whose sole job is brand safety,” an experienced marketer told us under condition of anonymity to protect their career. “We work really hard to ensure that our content isn’t seen alongside certain content. Brands have lists of other brands or verticals that may not appear alongside their content. This is super common in advertising online. When someone tells us that our videos or other content have preroll for certain products or brands, like a tobacco company, alcohol, or sex products, we work with Google or Youtube or whomever to fix that ASAP.”

Valve’s statement about removing Rape Day continues a trend of obfuscation and confusion about what content the company finds unacceptable. Even the explanation amounts to a wishy-washy recitation of, “I’ll know it when I see it” while burying the lede.

“After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think ‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam,” Valve says. Those unknown costs and risks? Alienating developers who already see Valve’s value proposition waning and potentially drawing unwanted government attention. While the United States government and state officials might be loathe to wade into this matter, the same can’t be said for other countries. Members of U.K.’s Parliament and the Scottish Parliament have called for stronger legislation around content like Rape Day.

“One day, tech industry in general will have to learn that taking responsibility and preventing bad things from happening rather than asking for forgiveness after fucking up is the only way we’ll stop uninformed government legislation,” said Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail on Twitter in response to U.K. government officials chiming in. “The games industry doesn’t need permission from anyone. We are not and should not be beholden to any one government. But my word, do we need to do a better job of convincing the world at large that we don’t need a babysitter to tell us ‘don’t do the bad thing’ sometimes.”

Valve’s “unknown costs and risks” caveat are absent from its longer post of June 2018 in which it specifies that it will only restrict content that is “illegal or straight up trolling.” All of this perpetuates uncertainty around what material is allowed on Steam, a problem the platform has been facing since before its haphazard choices around adult visual novels last year.

That isn’t to suggest Valve made the wrong decision here. Clearly Rape Day is a flippant treatment of sexual violence that mishandles the real trauma faced by survivors. But there’s nothing to say that a game just like it won’t appear tomorrow. Valve’s reactionary process ensures that almost anything can exist on Steam, even for a few days, and wreak havoc on other developers.

“Sometimes all it can take is a single image or memory to form an association forever,” a community lead who asked to remain anonymous to protect their career and employer told Polygon. “If someone is browsing the ‘More Like This’ section because they want to avoid similar things, innocent games could be caught in the crossfire. Someone’s work, forever discarded because of a false association with a game about rape.”

That’s not just an unknown cost or risk. Valve is inviting this to happen again by refusing to be proactive. Whether developers stick around when new entrants like the Epic Games Store are providing both more money and better security is a bet Steam seems willing to make, at least for now.

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