Why Valve Shouldn’t Mince Words
Valve recently announced that they would be lifting restrictions on games they publish to pursue a more laissez faire approach – opening the steam store up for any and all games that aren’t outright illegal or “straight-up trolling”. As Valve’s Erik Johnson said in his blog post:
“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 & consume the content you choose.”
On the face of it, this sounds like great news, right? Developers are free to make what they choose and we’re free to self-curate about the sort of content we want to see. Everyone’s happy, right? I was particularly pleased to see this line:
“People have falsely assumed these decisions are heavily affected by our payment processors, or outside interest groups. Nope, it’s just us grappling with a really hard problem.”
It’s clarification like this that will hopefully end the incessant belief that there’s some secretive and powerful cabal of “SJWs” pulling Valve’s strings. It’s times like this that I feel filled with hope that we can finally end these incessant, nasty and fundamentally dishonest “free speech” debates that have bitterly riven the gaming community. Maybe we can all finally agree with eachother that as gamers, whatever games we like or don’t like, we all respect their right to exist. Then we can go back to discussing this incredible interactive artform we all love respectfully – without demonizing and witch-hunting eachother. Valve had a chance to create a broad consensus on this issue that would unite developers and gamers, but their statement on the issue still leaves too much ambiguity, and leaves too many unanswered questions.
The first thing they should have more clearly addressed was the many creators of sexually explicit hentai and ecchi games who have unjustly been given cause to worry that their games would be taken off Steam. Though Erik’s more recent announcement apologized indirectly to these companies for the uncertainty caused, there needs to be a much more clear statement of support for these companies to ensure they never feel worried or marginalized again.
Those who enjoy sexual fantasy should be free to do so without judgement as long as they’re not hurting anyone. Some might say that these sorts of games propagate negative attitudes towards sexuality. However, as demented presidents looking for scapegoats for school shootings might not admit, this flies in the face of nigh-on every psychological study that’s been done on the issue. Just because you go on a killing spree in Grand Theft Auto doesn’t mean you’re a budding psychopath in training and I’m sure Valve would acknowledge this having made plenty of violent games themselves! There should be an end to the double standard about this regarding sexuality and a similar acknowledgement that just because you enjoy a good game of Gal Gun doesn’t mean you’re the next Bill Cosby. When governments the world over are censoring games like this a statement of support from Valve would have been welcome.
I get what Erik is saying about it being hard to speak on behalf of all employees, but the company has to take some sort of curatorial stance. Makers of sexy games like this do not deserve to be potentially lumped in with racists, homophobes and other bigots as people “some of Valve’s employees” would “hate” and “want to see fail”. There should have been a more clear outline about where Valve, at least in a broad sense, actually stands on this issue so these developers aren’t potentially caught off guard again next time there’s some knee jerk announcement on the issue. Developers of hentai titles like Makina and the City of Ruins have had to deal with uncertainty over whether they’re allowed to include sexually explicit scenes in their game, or whether they need to make players go through the minor but annoying inconvenience of downloading those scenes via online patches off Steam. So is sex still too steamy for Steam or not? Developers need answers.
Just as the statement risks coming across as patronizing to hentai developers, it risks coming off as patronizing to those who criticize games that deal with controversial content in a way they don’t agree with, but still appreciate the right of those games to exist.
Where do you draw the line?
Some gamers (particularly gamers who write about games!) are maligned as perpetually offended, and desiring all games they disagree with be censored. In reality though, this is very seldom true.
Just because a studio delves into some sensitive topics, but ends up offending some, doesn’t mean that the people offended would want the game banned. For example, I think Mafia III dealt with the topic of racism as a rather cheap and gimmicky seasoning for a murder simulator rather than genuinely exploring it, but Jimminy Christmas, I wouldn’t challenge its right to exist or campaign to have it banned because of that! Knowing quite a few odd gamers who are plenty into social justice and looking at the problematic issues many popular games have, I can confidently say that not a single one of them would question the right of those games to exist or to be on Steam. It’s patronizing and unfair to treat them this way.
It should be made clear that games which broach sensitive issues – even if they do so in a ham-fisted or lazy way – shouldn’t be lumped in with games that are quite explicitly and intentionally bigoted (which are relatively rare but do exist). Many might say that it’s a blurry line dividing the two, but it’s Valve’s job to make it more clear for developers who put hard work into localizing and adjusting their games so they can sell them on digital distribution platforms. If the line is not drawn then more games will appear that will force Valve to draw the line.
“The line must be drawn HERE!”
When Voltaire was misquoted as saying “I disagree with what you say sir, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” it was considered to be a defining statement of what freedom of speech is. Just because someone has a right to say something though, doesn’t necessarily mean a private company has an obligation to provide a platform for it. I definitely don’t think Steam has any moral obligation to provide a platform for games like “Ethnic Cleansing” where the objective of the game is to violently murder racist caricatures of various minorities. Likewise, the awfully homophobic “Kill the F****t” was removed from the Steam store because it was about pretty much what it said on the tin: gleefully ridiculing the murder of LGBT people.
Games like this don’t contribute to any meaningful to debates on difficult subjects. They exist solely to tell minority groups that they should feel afraid or ashamed. Actively providing a platform for a message like that isn’t “respecting free speech”, it would be Valve making a choice to actively promote and profit off something truly vile. Are we going to see games like “Kill the F****t” or “Ethnic Cleansing” on the Steam store now Valve have announced their bold new direction? Almost certainly not, no, because it would quickly and rightly destroy Steam’s reputation. I’m generously assuming that Erik’s statement of disincluding games that are “actively trolling” is meant to cover unashamedly nasty titles like this, but more of an effort should have been made to directly address outright bigotry and make it clear there’s no place for it on Steam. The definition of “trolling” could be something as innocuous as rickrolling a friend, but it’s also been used to define doxxing and harrassment, which is why crystal clear clarity is needed here. There shouldn’t be any seemier folks out there gleefully rubbing their hands at the prospect of Holocaust Simulator 2019 on Steam because of this announcement.
Kicking the Can Down the Road
So there’s three things Valve needed to re-assure people on:
- They needed to re-assure hard-working developers of hentai/ecchi games who are open and honest in submitting their titles to Steam that they would not suddenly find their platform yanked out from under them.
- They needed to assure gamers who enjoy games that deal with sensitive topics and the developers who make games for them – even if it’s in a way that’s potentially insensitive or offensive – that they would not be lumped in and demonized with actual bigots.
- They needed to reassure people that they’re not going to use the immense platform they have to promote games that serve no purpose but to explicitly promote hatred on sexual, religious or racial lines.
In practice, this new announcement probably means we can feel reassured about the above laundry list of concerns. However, the statement has been made in such an ambiguous way that there’s still plenty of room for doubt.
Valve had a chance to take a clear stand to say in no uncertain terms that they support the right of people to enjoy whatever sexual fantasies they choose without judgement and to enjoy fiction involving potentially offensive subject matter. They had a chance to say that while still asserting their right, as a diverse group, not to promote those who hate that very diversity. Valve could have taken a clear stand, but instead of giving the full clarity that developers urgently need, they might just be putting off making some difficult decisions till later – and the longer they put those decisions off, the worse it’ll be for everyone.