Are Valve the baddies?
Posted at 23:27 on 9th June 2018 - permalink

Valve have made an announcement about their review policy for the Steam store.

This has resulted in several extremely angry editorials from the games press, who have (perhaps reasonably) interpreted this to mean that Valve intend to take an almost completely hands-off approach to moderating their platform, in the style of leading internet hellholes Reddit or YouTube.

Some developers have tabled the contrasting view that censorship inherently chills creative expression – it shouldn’t have ever been Walmart’s job to be the morality police when it comes to stocking games and the same principle applies here. (For the benefit of the terrifying number of journos who’ve seemingly never questioned this: The present situation where a narrow band of subject matter is seen as safe for mainstream titles isn’t simply down to developers being unimaginative, or the whims of the free market, so much as to the 1990s US industry collectively deciding to shut any remotely challenging ‘adult’ content out of retail stores to avoid statutory regulation. The Comics Code, basically.)

This is a complicated topic. I think that Steam should exist as a pipeline – a thin layer of technology facilitating billing and distribution that can be freely used by anyone within the bounds of the law and societal norms. I don’t think the Steam store (versus local library management tools etc.) should exist in a weird proprietary client, and the front page of the store should be massively deprioritised as an entry point / bottleneck into their catalogue. As such, removing any part of the system that’s geared towards Steam acting as a gatekeeper or destination in its own right is a positive step.

On the other hand, we have to weigh up the reality that Steam is a monopoly, and as such shoulders a social responsibility beyond that which might apply for a smaller service provider in a truly competitive market. Its every action (or inaction) can have unforeseen and serious repercussions. Shrugging and pointing out that technically they’re not to blame when kids are exposed to bigotry through their store is a weak excuse. (YouTube could do well to learn this lesson also.)

The maddeningly ill-defined rejection criteria of anything “illegal or straight up trolling” should cover a lot of the indefensible stuff that certain journalists have assumed Valve must now endorse (and early indications are positive).

Valve’s best course of action would be to acknowledge the negative reaction to their announcement and publish a revised and clearer policy. I don’t think (mostly) recusing themselves from the content review process is going to cause their store to descend into chaos overnight, and changes to how content is organised and filtered should be in place well before that. It would be foolish to believe a company automatically endorses the message of every product they sell in their store.

Bonus miscellaneous observations:

Valve are really bad at communicating.

It would be hard to imagine Microsoft, Google, Apple or any other billion dollar tech company making such an important announcement in such vague, informal language.

Making an equivalence between the harm caused by hate speech being targeted at a vulnerable group and the ‘harm’ (mild petulant annoyance) experienced by a bored kid on seeing “shovelware” sullying the shelves of ‘their’ store is astoundingly tone deaf. The latter concern doesn’t warrant serious attention and should have been left out of this blog post.

Valve as an organisation seem to have never developed the skills at dealing with the disparate needs of their player community. They will always advocate an engineering solution first (here hinting at a keyword tagging system to automate content filtering) rather than taking the scarier, messier approach of reaching out to their users and trying to intelligently determine what would make the most positive difference. Harm being caused in society at large by hateful material being normalised won’t show up on a sales chart.

Some people have a really weird idea of what getting a game onto Steam should mean.

Steam has been around a long time, but Valve ran it as a distribution platform – to put this, uh, diplomatically – very very very suboptimally for most of its life to date, leading to the widespread misconception that having a game grace their store shelves should be some kind of exceptional value judgement, rather than something that happened infrequently because their process was terrible.

Steam is a shop, like Amazon. It has unlimited shelf space. A creator having their work accepted onto it should be the norm, not the exception. The situation where any game that was added to its catalogue was given a period of exposure (free marketing) by dint of how slowly new content was ingested by Valve was a temporary quirk, not a right every game released was entitled to forevermore.

As with the iOS App Store (or Amazon, or the PC ecosystem in general), a rising tide of low quality / uninteresting content will never overwhelm the attention available for good quality content. Distrust anyone who tries to make you angry about this imaginary boogeyman. Making and selling games is being democratised and not everything has to appeal to every player or gauge its success by the same criteria any more.

Valve’s monopoly is the problem, not how they choose to govern it.

The games press and community have a feudal mindset, quickly and eagerly pledging fealty to any corporate overlord who offers them even a scrap of comfort and convenience. Many gamers still view Nintendo’s grossly anticompetitive 1980s business practices as a noble effort to fend off the spectre of a Second Video Game Crash. Xbox Live is regarded as a bold innovation, rather than as a vendor lock in strategy that has resulted in console online services still not interoperating nearly two decades later. So of course because Steam is convenient and ubiquitous, it must be benevolent and there’s no reason to question its market dominance.

We should be asking why one company is getting to decide what gets to be commercially viable on the PC rather than petitioning them to build taller walls around their garden. Applying the ultra-strict App Store / Google Play / XBL / PSN etc. review policies to the PC would be unworkable in any case – the PC is a much too broad and adaptable a platform for a one-size-fits-all policy.

While Steam has no serious competition, Valve will be slow to fix the (many) things wrong with it. I don’t think anything is going to directly usurp Steam any time soon, but it would be nice to see other stores become established with a more narrow focus, much as Netflix, BBC, HBO etc. offer different kinds of experiences. Buy more games on, Kartridge, etc. and politely ask your favourite PC developers that only sell through Steam to offer their games elsewhere too.

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