In May 2018, video game developer Valve began to remove games from their popular online storefront Steam. Some of these games were new to the market, while others had been released for years. The target market for most of the removed games was adults, and some were amongst the few games on the site that featured sexual content. In that same month, another game, “Active Shooter,” a game built around the idea of putting players in the role of a gunman assaulting a school, was scrutinized and later removed.
As news of these removals came to light, criticism of Valve began to mount. Some voiced concern over the fact that adult-themed games that had been on Steam for years were only now coming under fire, while others worried that the removal of “Active Shooter” was a form of censorship against game developers.
Those anxieties soon turned into a debate over the rules governing game makers and freedom of speech. While developers, the press and Steam customers were discussing the issue, Valve came up with their own solution. They gave up.
this is all just so exasperating. valve finally acknowledges that there are human ethos underlying steam, but then posits that this decision frees the platform of overriding influence when in fact it's just putting steam's levers in different hands https://t.co/t4iG0k9VBJ
— nathan grayson (@Vahn16) June 6, 2018
“If you’re a player, we shouldn’t be choosing for you what content you can or can’t buy,” Erik Johnson of Valve said in an article posted to Steam. “If you’re a developer, we shouldn’t be choosing what content you’re allowed to create.”
Here are four reasons why Valve’s decision to not censor Steam is taking the coward’s way out.
1.Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Mean Freedom From Consequences
When a company stops selling creative works because of controversy, it’s easy to conclude that it must be a case of censorship. Freedom of speech means Americans don’t have to fear censorship after all, so the uproar is understandable. However, removing “Active Shooter” and adult games from sale on Steam is not a violation of freedom of speech. The makers of the game have every right to continue producing the series, but Valve has no constitutional obligation to retail a game that reflects so insensitively on the issue of gun control.
No, the question of whether what Valve is doing right isn’t a legal one, it’s a moral one. Erik Johnson doesn’t say that they can’t tell you what may or may not buy, he only says that they shouldn’t. On its own, this is a good sentiment to have, but Valve isn’t doing this to support open creativity. They are doing it because they are scared.
2. Valve Is Afraid of Failure…
By deciding to no longer police the products being sold on Steam, Valve is trying to run away from their problems. The mistakes they have made in the past have caused them to fear the public backlash.
“The challenge is that this problem is not simply about whether or not the Steam Store should contain games with adult or violent content,” wrote Johnson on a Stream blog. “Instead, it’s about whether the Store contains games within an entire range of controversial topics: politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on …. The harsh reality of this space, that lies at the root of our dilemma, is that there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad.”
Is it just me or is this line equating/comparing stuff like "game that depicts a school shooting" with "walking simulators" pic.twitter.com/sXubv8nrj9
— Jonathan Ore (@Jon_Ore) June 6, 2018
The blog post shows the fear gripping Valve. Johnson talks about how hard it is to police Steam and how angry people get when they mess things up. None of this is new for Steam, or for Valve.
Developers using the platform have long complained about the way that Valve goes back and forth with their rules for games, and pleas for simple guidelines have always been met with more revisions and mistakes. Apparently, Valve is tired of making those mistakes now.
3. … and Afraid of Taking a Stand
Taking a moral stance and defending it isn’t easy. Giving up is. Valve, ideally, wants to absolve themselves of anything that happens.
“…. if we allow your game onto the Store, it does not mean we approve or agree with anything you’re trying to say with it,” Johnson explained. “If you’re a developer of offensive games, this isn’t us siding with you against all the people you’re offending.”
Johnson tries to distance Valve by saying they aren’t taking sides ever again. Whatever happens, happens.
It’s important to note, however, that this problem is not unique to Valve or Steam. Amazon pulled products from their marketplace this January that celebrated slavery. A similar market to Steam, eBay, has very defined rules and guidelines on what they allow. Unlike Valve, these two companies chose a moral stance and act on it rather than ignoring the problem. There is a clear line that their vendors are not allowed to cross.
Valve allows themselves an easy excuse to act if the public outrage gets to be too much though. Johnson allows that if a game is found to be “trolling” they reserve the right to remove it. If the subject matter of a game is illegal or offensive just to rile people up, they might take some action. Or they might not.
One of the biggest problems with Steam is how little Valve does to make it a better place, outside of generating more money. Their response to criticism of this policy: double down on doing nothing. https://t.co/llAG54jsLC
— Patrick Klepek (@patrickklepek) June 6, 2018
Valve’s new stance lets them be the hero and coward, depending on the situation. When the publicity is good, they’ll act. If it is uncertain which way public opinion will go, they can simply ignore what’s happening. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too, and it isn’t going to work.
4. Ignoring Responsibility Doesn’t Excuse Valve from Criticism
Valve’s history of removing games from Steam doesn’t start here. There’s the example of a game centered around mass murder, a game with a homophobic title and a fighting game removed in Malaysia because of religious concerns in the country. Some of these titles are worse than others, but all drew strong enough outrage that Valve felt the need to act. Under their new rules, nothing would be done to stop these games now. If their aim is to avoid criticism, then this course of action makes no sense.
Criticism won’t disappear because Valve is turning a blind eye. Allowing harm to occur is just as bad as committing it yourself, and when something offensive pops up on Steam people will blame the company that allows it to stay on the platform.
If Valve’s plan is to excuse themselves from the problem, it’s not going to work. The finger pointing is still going to happen. If it gets bad enough, Valve is going to have to act regardless of their policy.
“To see the right and not to do it is cowardice” – Confucius
In the end, few actions come without criticism. There will always be opposition when something controversial comes up. Valve cannot make every customer happy, and they shouldn’t be trying to. They should only be trying to do the right thing. Instead, they are giving up and letting their storefront run wild. Sure, they have the option of going back on their word if the criticism gets too heated, but that’s another act of cowardice worse than this policy itself.
Controversial topics aren’t easy, and they aren’t supposed to be. There’s no simple answer. Being afraid of making people angry as you search for an answer is not an excuse though. By ignoring the problem, Valve isn’t saying they lack the ability to fix the issues on Steam. They’re saying they don’t have the backbone to figure it out.