Gaming giant Valve has decided that the best way to deal with controversial titles on Steam, one of the biggest video game platforms in the world, is to give you a better pair of blindfolds.
In a blog post, Valve’s Erik Johnson said the company’s policy towards incendiary content on Steam will be to allow everything short of “things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.”
Consumers will also be given greater control over what they’ll be shown, including an option to override Steam’s recommendation algorithm.
“Those choices should be yours to make,” Johnson continues. “Our role should be to provide systems and tools to support your efforts to make these choices for yourself, and to help you do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable.”
The post comes after the backlash to Active Shooter, a game that put players in the role of a SWAT officer or a mass murderer shooting up a school. It was barred from release on Steam after mounting controversy, but Valve never mentioned the content of the game when explaining why it was banned, instead choosing to focus on the game developer’s history of abusing other users, infringing on copyright, and review manipulation.
This is the classic engineering blunder: Create a platform where everything is permissible and let the free market sort itself out. We’ve seen plenty of tech companies try this approach before with disastrous results. Facebook’s hands off approach helped facilitate an Islamaphobic pogrom in Sri Lanka. Reddit hosted /r/jailbait, a sub-section dedicated to sexually suggestive photos of underage girls.
But Valve thinks it can do better. In his blog post, Johnson says employees still review all of the controversial titles that get submitted to Steam. At the same time, though, he also argued that considering the company’s size and scope it’s nearly impossible to keep everyone happy.
“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,” Johnson wrote.
He’s right, and I sympathize. This is a very complex problem with no clear solutions. Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe that the company has truly exhausted all possible options, as Johnson suggests, especially when you consider how Valve has dealt with similarly daunting issues by turning to high-profile experts.
Valve knows when it needs outside help
Valve hired Mike Ambinder, an experimental psychologist, to leverage big data into the company’s game development process. The economist Yanis Varoufakis was also brought in as a private consultant to study in-game currencies shortly after the company converted Team Fortress 2 into a free-to-play title and as it was preparing to launch Dota 2. Varoufakis eventually went on to serve as Greece’s Minister of Finance.
So it seems that Valve is will to work towards rigorous solutions, just as long as it can make more money as a result. Hiring a world-class economist to study digital markets is fine, but finding an expert to determine the merits of a game made by developers with suspected links to anti-Muslim hate groups is a bridge too far.
Hatred let people play as a mass-murdering sociopath determined to carry out global genocide. According to developer Destructive Creations, it was made in direct response to “politically correct” games. In response, Steam briefly pulled it from sale, then reinstated a day later with a personal apology from Valve co-founder Gabe Newell.
Not only is Hatred still available on Steam for $6.99 (that’s right, Valve makes money off this game), but the developers behind it are already hard at work on another title. IS Defense will let you play as a European soldier fighting off an ISIS invasion of Europe. And if this week’s news is any indication, Valve won’t do anything about this game either.
Valve isn’t washing its hands of any of this. Instead, it’s hoping you either won’t notice or won’t care that developers who don’t consider Muslims to be human beings are monetizing bigotry and kicking a hefty chunk of the profit up to Valve.
The free speech argument
Game designer Brenda Romero recently tweeted her support of Valve’s decision, arguing that many public markets are filled with games that could be considered offensive — DOOM, Grand Theft Auto, and God of War among others. She went on to say she was offended by Active Shooter but doesn’t think any game should be barred from sale based on offensiveness.
But you can’t summon free speech as a catch-all defense without making a distinction between the type of speech being used. Is it fair to claim that a game about gunning down Africans is the deserves the same sort of protections as a game about slaughtering demons?
Both Romero and Johnson emphasized the importance of personal choice when dealing with these so-called “controversial” topics. They view things like racism as abstractions. Who cares if someone made a game about ethnic cleansing? Just ignore it. Out of sight, out of mind.
That’s because when Romero and Johnson talk about racism, they’re talking about personal feelings of prejudice. When I talk about racism, I’m referring to systematic policies such as the Japanese American internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which were implemented under the belief that Asians were vicious, subhuman predators.
The xenophobic sentiment behind titles like Hatred and AIDS Simulator isn’t theoretical. Explaining them away as nothing more than controversial speech ignores how they reflect and support concrete political policies used to dehumanize, exploit, and kill marginalized people. Valve is literally funding developers who think that the eradication of non-white people is a reasonable belief (and making some money in the process).
If Valve can’t understand that, then maybe it’s time they used some of that money to hire an ethicist.