The steam store rules and accepting responsibility

Steam published a blog post on who gets to be on the steam store

With that principle in mind, 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. 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. We already have some tools, but they're too hidden and not nearly comprehensive enough. We are going to enable you to override our recommendation algorithms and hide games containing the topics you're not interested in. So if you don't want to see anime games on your Store, you'll be able to make that choice.

To be explicit about that - 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. If you're a developer of offensive games, this isn't us siding with you against all the people you're offending. There will be people throughout the Steam community who hate your games, and hope you fail to find an audience, and there will be people here at Valve who feel exactly the same way. However, offending someone shouldn't take away your game's voice. We believe you should be able to express yourself like everyone else, and to find others who want to play your game. But that's it.

As I started typing my thoughts on this post, I thought I didn't feel sure how I felt about it. By the time I finished collecting my thoughts and completed this post, I was sure where I stood. I vehemently disagree with this move.

In the recent past there's been discourse about how platforms should do more to protect people from hate speech and violence and abuse. And I believe in that too when it comes to platforms. You are ultimately responsible for what you enable. Some would say that Twitter and Steam are different. Let's break that down:

Twitter is ultimately a platform of communication. It is direct. You can directly force people to take abuse. Tweet at them. Send an angry horde their way. Dox them. Harass them. Twitter enables that, and therefore Twitter should control that. Free speech is a must. Being given a platform to be an asshole is not essential. There's no line one can argue from to say one should be given permission to abuse.

One could argue the same applies to games. I'd say it is a really fine line. Games are ultimately a form of art and storytelling after all. Games can be a powerful medium for discussing and criticising social norms for example. It's expressive. It's art.

There's also very little one can do to directly point abuse at someone and an indvidual can easily ignore it. The team at Valve would have you believe that it's possible to avoid the things you hate and disagree with by giving you smarter tools to do so. And that could be great. You don't want to see a game that does some telling of how all terrorists are "rag heads" from some middle eastern country? Valve's tools will ensure you don't have to see that part of the store. Don't want to see some person celebrating various sexualities and preferences within society? Valve's tools promise to do that too. This thing will work both ways even if one is hate and the other isn't. It's still controversy. And I'm actually in favour of that. But the idea of not playing any part in decision making leads to this question:

What happens the day you or a single indivual are part of some game as "criticism"?

There's going to come a day where an activist like Anita Sarkeesian is represented in a VR game where the entire objective of it is to abuse her within the VR environment. That sounds ugly and I can feel my innards cringing as I write that. But over the last couple of years, I've learnt that there's some really ugly shit that goes on on the internet and it's best not to avoid talking about it. It's also not illegal. And it's not direct. But the effects of it could very well spill over to real life. And not just in the form of actual physical harm. But very real mental stress. Someone is going to take a screenshot of the game, and post pictures of it all over the internet. Then what? Tell the victim to file complaints? Valve might take action citing "obvious trolling". But that's on an extreme end of the slippery slope. It can get just as bad while skirting the gray lines that exist around Valve's standards for "obvious trolling".

Ultimately, the folks at Valve will need to have their reckoning with the fact that they allowed that to happen by saying they can't be responsible for what goes on the Steam store unless it's illegal or "trolling". If they don't want to be the people who decide, then they should at least figure out how to minimize delivering damaging content via Steam. Maybe it involves direct communication with developers to say "hey, we at Valve do NOT like this stuff. Please consider not putting this game on the Steam store. Please reconsider being cruel to people you don't like". Or by nuking its discoverability. Maybe even partnering with other social media platforms to report promotion of such hateful games.

The thing is, whenever a company is faced with this decision, the first move seems to be to shake off responsibility. Free speech is the most cited reason. We don't want the power to tell people what they can and can't say. Why not? You certainly wanted to give people the power to say something. We now have enough historical notes to say that giving people anonymous and unchecked social power will result in a cesspool that is 4chan. And the historical first response given to those at the receiving end of the cesspool is to ignore or leave.

Great power. Great responsibility. You can't shut your eyes and claim that makes you innocent of everything. In this time and age, platform owners need to accept what they've made and step up to say that they will play an active part in education, arbitration, and if needed, taking action.

Posted on June 19 2018 by Adnan Issadeen