Unpopular opinion, Steam edition: It is borderline unethical for Valve to curate the Steam store. I know that many people cannot stand the glut of releases on PC gaming’s largest digital distribution service and long for a day when only “good” games of a certain “quality” came to the platform. But Steam’s market share is so significant, and development tools are so accessible, that Valve would have an outsized and unfair influence over the potential viability of new and unexpected games. You may not agree with that assessment, but it doesn’t matter, because Valve reiterated that it believes it should not curate the store.
In a blog post on the Steam website today, longtime Valve engineer Erik Johnson explained that Valve wanted to clarify its position when it comes to “who gets to be on the Steam store?” This comes after the company began and then aborted a crackdown on adult-themed anime-style games that featured nude characters in sexual situations. At that time, I wrote that Valve was abandoning its February 2017 Steam Direct promise to not pick what kinds of games could have access to its store. That move met a backlash from fans who felt that Valve had a double-standard when it came to sex in games from Japan and sex in games from Western countries, which it did not threaten with removal.
And then at the end of May, Valve removed an appalling violence simulator called Active Shooter that mimics school shootings. The company blocked that game before it was released as survivors and the families of real-world school shootings criticized Valve for profiting off of that kind of content. In removing the game, however, Valve explained that it did so because it came from a noted troll who it had previously banned for releasing low-effort games on Steam.
This back and forth on banning games from Steam — or curating and pruning a store depending on your point of view — has left some confusion in its wake, and Johnson acknowledges that. The executive Valve engineer explained that this confusion was due in part to the company’s silence — but also because this problem is complicated.
“Decision-making in this space is particularly challenging, and one that we’ve really struggled with,” reads Johnson’s blog. “Unfortunately, our struggling has resulted in a bunch of confusion among our customers, developer partners, and even our own employees. So we’ve spent some time thinking about where we want to be on this, and we’d like to talk about it now. But we also think it’s critical to talk about how we’ve arrived at our position, so you can understand the trade-offs we’re making.”
Johnson writes that these decisions are not the result of some automated process. Humans are involved, and they are looking into controversial games that developers submit to Steam. And these controversies take many forms.
“It’s about whether the Store [should contain] games within an entire range of controversial topics: politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on,” reads Johnson’s blog. “In addition, there are controversial topics that are particular to games — like what even constitutes a ‘game,’ or what level of quality is appropriate before something can be released.”
And you might feel confident that you have answers to what makes something a “game,” but Valve is less certain. Johnson explains that the Steam Store team would ask themselves certain, obvious questions only to find out that process wasn’t helpful. Valve could try to figure out what players would want or what they would find acceptable, but it found it had no one right answer for any of those hypotheticals.
“Even when we pick a single country or state, the legal definitions around these topics can be too broad or vague to allow us to avoid making subjective and interpretive decisions,” said Johnson. “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.”
And it’s not just players that get mad. Valve claims that its own employees have voiced anger over decisions to sell or not sell certain games.
“Valve is not a small company,” reads Johnson’s blog. “We’re not a homogeneous group. The online debates around these topics play out inside Valve as well. We don’t all agree on what deserves to be on the Store. So when we say there’s no way to avoid making a bunch of people mad when making decisions in this space, we’re including our own employees, their families, and their communities in that.”
So Valve believes that even if it had an infinite number of employees working on curation, it still wouldn’t effectively pick and choose which games it should sell to create the best store for everyone. There are too many games and too many customers with impossibly varied tastes. And in the face of this reality, the company has decided once again that it shouldn’t try to curate at all.
“We ended up going back to one of the principles in the forefront of our minds when we started Steam, and more recently as we worked on Steam Direct to open up the Store to many more developers: Valve shouldn’t be the ones deciding this,” reads Johnson’s blog. “If you’re a player, we shouldn’t be choosing for you what content you can or can’t buy. If you’re a developer, we shouldn’t be choosing what content you’re allowed to create. Those choices should be yours to make. 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.”
Does that mean that Active Shooter is coming back to Steam? No. Even when it introduced Steam Direct, the company still left itself a window to block games that developers created and released on Steam in bad faith.
“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,” Johnson explained. “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.”
With that goal in mind, Valve is once again promising to improve its personalization tools that surface games that Steam thinks you will like. It has had many of these features for years now, but Johnson says that they not prominent or comprehensive enough. The Steam dev team is also going to offer you more direct control over how the store works for you.
“We are going to enable you to override our recommendation algorithms and hide games containing the topics you’re not interested in,” said Johnson. “So if you don’t want to see anime games on your Store, you’ll be able to make that choice. If you want more options to control exactly what kinds of games your kids see when they browse the Store, you’ll be able to do that.”
Finally, Valve will continue to struggle with this, according to Johnson. The company expects to make mistakes in the future, and it says it’ll have to handle every game differently because laws around the world are so varied and complex. But it thinks this is the best approach for the largest number of developers and consumers.
“So [this] means that the Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate, and don’t think should exist,” said Johnson. “Unless you don’t have any opinions, that’s guaranteed to happen. But you’re also going to see something on the Store that you believe should be there, and some other people will hate it and want it not to exist.”
And the beautiful part, at least to me, is that no one has to buy something they don’t want. I really hate pickled bologna. I find it disgusting. But when I go to the grocery store, I just don’t buy it. And then it’s still on the shelf if someone else thinks I’m missing out on a world of flavor and excitement. That gets more complicated when it comes to creative works, but the same concept still works. Those “torture porn” horror movies give me the skeeves, but I don’t think it would help if I asked Amazon to stop selling them. Instead, I just don’t buy them, and then in turn I hope that no one asks Amazon to take down the trashy romantic novels that I love to read while drinking fruity cocktails on the beach.