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A Red Flag for Greenlight

Valve was laudably quick to deal with homophobia, but Greenlight is still failing devs and consumers alike

Valve's Steam Greenlight service, designed as a community-driven way to gauge support for an indie game in development and thus clear them for release on the Steam service proper, has been back in the news this week for all the wrong reasons. LA-based developer Randall Herman used the service to post what he claimed was a mini-game from a more ambitious upcoming open-world game project; a game titled "Kill the Faggot" which awarded players with points for killing gay and transgendered characters (rendered, predictably, as unimaginative stereotypes), subtracted them for killing heterosexual characters and featured such charming lines of "kill confirmed" dialogue as "AIDS-carrier eliminated." All of this delectable stuff was right there on Steam's Greenlight system for the world to see. Needless to say, a lot of people were pretty unhappy about this state of affairs.

Let's get the obvious out of the way; this is plumbing some pretty grim depths of human awfulness. Herman claimed that his game was a protest against political correctness, a flag raised in defence of all those viciously persecuted individuals who get criticised just for expressing discriminatory viewpoints about LGBT people. Herman, who lives on a planet where people are murdered every day simply for their sexuality or gender identity, is very clear that the real victims with whom we should be concerned are people who are told off on the Internet for saying awful things, the poor lambs. From his embattled standpoint in a US state which only last year banned murder suspects from getting off scot-free by using the defence that they had "panicked" upon meeting a gay or transgendered person and thus beaten them to death in justifiable self-defence, Herman bravely chose to display the true violence inherent in the system by releasing his game as a "sociological experiment."

I can speak with a little authority on sociological experiments, being involved with a faculty that is active in the development of experimental methods in sociology. In those academic circles, there's a technical term for the kind of experiment Herman was conducting here; it's called "that's not an experiment, that's just you being a massive asshole."

"Is this not, as many commentators would have it, a ringing condemnation of how Valve is operating its service?"

Randall Herman, his damaged mind and his blackened, twisted soul aren't really our concern here, though. We're concerned with Greenlight; with what the presence of a game like this on the "feeder" service of the industry's most prestigious and successful digital retail channel says about its management and its policies. Is this not, as many commentators would have it, a ringing condemnation of how Valve is operating its service?

I'm going to depart from the chorus here, if I may, and say that I don't actually think this is a dreadful Valve-is-evil event. In fact, I think Valve handled the whole thing swiftly and correctly. The game was only on Greenlight for about two hours before being pulled. In terms of a response to complaints from a company the size of Valve, that's lightning-fast; if anything, one could argue that it proves that the system works. Someone puts a dreadful thing on Greenlight; people complain; Valve rapidly assesses those complaints, makes a decision that no reasonable person could disagree with, and takes action. Honestly, under the circumstances, well done Valve.

Of course, that praise is essentially saying "Valve did the best they could under the existing system"; as praise goes, it's somewhat less glowing when you consider that Valve actually created that system in the first place. It was Valve who chose to allow anyone at all to pay $100 and upload whatever they like onto Greenlight; Valve who decided that there should be no pre-screening, no attempt to filter what ends up being available for votes. There's a fervent ideological belief at work here, one which says that the most open system is the best system; kill the gatekeepers and haul open the portcullis, let everyone flood in and then allow a combination of the marketplace and algorithmic wizardry to sort the wheat from the chaff. Sure, it needs a bit of tending when some of the chaff turns out to be downright poisonous, but by and large the item of faith writ large by Greenlight's policies is that the cacophonous roar of the community can be filtered through market logic and algorithms to become a clear, pure voice expressing the wisdom of the crowd.

"There's a fervent ideological belief at work here, one which says that the most open system is the best system"

If that were true, though, why does Greenlight exist at all? What is Greenlight, after all, if not a holding pen designed to keep the vast tsunami of games - many if not most of them absolutely terrible - off the hallowed Steam service itself? If Valve truly believes in openness, in the intelligence of crowds mediated through the mechanisms of markets, then why doesn't it just let everyone release whatever they want on Steam, subject to rudimentary technical checks to make sure they're not actually distributing viruses or malware? In fact, that's Valve's stated long-term goal; an open Steam, with Greenlight gone and new games pouring onto the platform constantly, to sink or swim according to the pure will of the market.

It's a very pure vision. It's also not one that works very well on either iOS' App Store or Google Play right now, as any developer struggling with visibility on those services can tell you. The sheer flood of titles, many of them miserably bad, has created a few isolated success stories - but it has also twisted the market itself to the point where consumers burned by rubbish and by cynical scammers generally won't look beyond the top-10 charts or the latest fad game, and certainly won't pay up front for anything at all. Is that where Steam wants to end up? I'd imagine that most Steam developers would look at the situation on a store like Google Play now and shudder in horror; the damage that opening up Steam to that kind of market behaviour would do to their livelihoods would be severe.

From that angle, it's easy to see why Valve wants to maintain Greenlight (albeit with regular reminders that they view it as a temporary stopgap); as a holding pen for the torrent of games that would otherwise swamp Steam, it's very useful. It really just moves the same set of problems one step down the chain, though. Developers on Greenlight find visibility increasingly hard as the system becomes inundated with clones, knockoffs, low-quality shovel ware and, apparently, "sociological experiments." The mantra of an open store curated only by algorithms that react to community ratings makes simply being on Greenlight meaningless; as long as that's true, discoverability on that store will be disastrous. Without Greenlight, the disaster would move downstream to the Steam store itself - at least now, getting promoted off Greenlight to Steam remains a useful holy grail for developers to chase, however awful the visibility problems they must surmount first may be.

"The mantra of an open store curated only by algorithms that react to community ratings makes simply being on Greenlight meaningless; as long as that's true, discoverability on that store will be disastrous"

One way to improve this, however ideologically impure, would be to drop the slain gatekeepers in a Lazarus Pit and get them back on the job - albeit in some reduced capacity. Sure, Valve doesn't want to be the arbiter of taste; but it wouldn't be unreasonable for them to erect a reasonably low fence that games have to jump before they get in. Basic technical competence, actually functioning as a game, not being a cheeky rip-off of someone else's game, oh - and not being grossly offensive. Such things can be checked and filtered without really getting into the realms of "curation" or "gatekeeping." There would still be a lot of games on Greenlight, because there are a lot of talented indie devs out there; visibility wouldn't be fixed overnight, but at least the community wouldn't have to wade through a ceaseless torrent of excrement just in order to find things worth voting on.

I think that for all that it clings to the ideology of the free, open and automated store, Valve understands that there's still a need for control to be exercised over content. By and large, Steam remains a carefully curated store - although it has slipped up a few times, most notably when the unfinished and decidedly scammy The War Z was released on the service. Sometimes it doesn't really seem to know what it thinks about content curation - as with the pulling and subsequent reinstatement of that other noted "oh look we're so clever and edgy with our sociological experiment" game, Hatred. (I'm not sure how often a sociological experiment proving that "humans get upset over genuinely terrible, distressing stuff" needs to be repeated, but damn, it seems that there's a weird community out there that really needs to test that point.) Whether Hatred should have been pulled or not is really neither here nor there; it just needs to have been done in line with a consistent and solid set of guidelines which are properly enforced up-front.

Right now we have the worst of both worlds - no clarity, no solid guidelines, a Greenlight system clogged with rubbish and equally lacking transparency in its systems, and viciously bigoted trolling content (which I should note, perhaps redundantly, was also clearly a terribly made and amateurishly animated game) uploaded and not removed until complaints roll in. Whatever system Valve puts in place must be better than this, simply by merit of being a system at all - and given the huge and growing importance of Steam to games as a whole, it truly deserves better than what it's got right now.

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Latest comments (23)

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
"that's not an experiment, that's just you being a massive asshole."
Made me laugh (which this morning is a hard thing to do).

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 8th May 2015 9:23am

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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead StudiosA year ago
maybe some kind of keyword system, so if you try and upload something with 'f****t' in the title (or a similarly offensive word) it gets flagged, and you can't upload until Valve verifies the game (or something)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Marty Howe on 8th May 2015 9:47am

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrendA year ago
I know Valve don't want it to be true, but most users of Steam want there to be curated games on Steam and not a free-for-all. Steam is a great delivery platform and I know Gabe wants to do this as hands-off as he can, but as mentioned you have to put a quality bar there somewhere.

Some of the crud I have seen on Steam beggars belief, but as long as there is a few bucks to be made off them they will continue to be let on the platform. No, I wouldn't say Valve are evil, but I would say they are true capitalists.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 8th May 2015 10:12am

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Show all comments (23)
Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
I don't think company curation is A Good Thing - making Valve pick-and-choose what people want to play, without any alternative, is just not a great system. Yeah, there's some very bad games out there, but stopping them from being on Steam is not the right way to handle it - consider that something like AssCreed Unity could easily have been prevented a Steam release due to poor quality, and you can see how silly an idea it is. I think what is needed is a further iteration of the Steam Curators system (which I would expect is being worked on), and a very basic keyword-flagging system, so that employees can quickly check on questionable material before it goes live on Greenlight.

Bear in mind, also, that there's a Report system on Steam-proper, and one of the flags is"hate speech". To me, that pretty clearly says that games with content like this just wouldn't make it onto Steam. At which point, the dev has just chucked $100 (almost all of which goes to Child's Play) to make an arse of himself. You've got to wonder, at that point, if it's better for Valve to leave it as is - at least a charity makes some money off of a foul game's brief publicity.

Also, relevant: http://store.steampowered.com/app/219820/
Before you post your game to Steam Greenlight, you must agree to the following:

You own the rights to sell the game you are posting, or you have specific authorization to represent the developer
You agree to the terms and conditions of the Steam Subscriber Agreement

Additionally, you agree not post any item to Greenlight that contains the following:

Someone else’s game, unless you have specific authorization to do so
Porn, inappropriate or offensive content, warez or leaked content
Cheating, hacking, game exploits
Threats of violence or harassment, even as a joke
Games using copyright material such as assets or intellectual property without permission from the owner
Soliciting, begging, auctioning, selling, advertising, referrals racism, discrimination

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 8th May 2015 12:36pm

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Brendan Sinclair Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA year ago
Morville, It's fine to say "no inappropriate or offensive content," but that's a pretty huge judgment call. Lots of people would say that applies to Hatred. Lots of people would say it applies to Mortal Kombat. Some would say it applies to Mass Effect or Dragon Age. It does very little to make those rules clear or consistent. Same with porn and any other "I'll know it when I see it" categories.

Also, what's "referrals racism"? i might not know that even if I did see it.
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We need to start using AO as a valid descriptor.

Guess what? You have a title that's flagged as Inappropriate/Offensive/OverlySexual; you don't get banned, but only accounts that are 18+ get to see your content. We need to stop with this binary/ether-or scenario where if something is distasteful then no-one is allowed to view it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jason A Bentley on 8th May 2015 3:05pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
@ Brendan

Mmmm... This is true. But surely this is why it's better to be vague and have the keyword-filter system for examining content closer, than have very specific clear-cut rules?

Sincere question: Is there any way to keep content that's acceptable on Steam to everyone except the Westboro Baptist Church, whilst at the same time being more specific about what's not allowed? Narrow it down and say no homophobic or racist terms at all, and you exclude potential products examining the Baltimore riots, or the decriminalisation of homosexuality, for instance.

Personally, I think Valve are once again being naive - they didn't think Greenlight would be used for such awful content. I'm sure they thought that developers would use their common sense, and know when porn (as an example) is allowed in the context of the game, and when it's not.
Also, what's "referrals racism"? i might not know that even if I did see it.
Valve in not proof-reading shocker! :) Obviously (?) that's meant to be "references racism". Though, again, context is key - look at South Park: The Stick of Truth (not on Greenlight, but on Steam). Derogatory terms abound, but in the context of the South Park universe, it's acceptable. (Offensive, yes. But it makes sense.)

I'll hasten to say that I'm not trying to defend Valve's stance particularly, I just think responsibility for what's on Steam should be shared. Valve should step-up with a filtering system, people shouldn't be such assholes, and when they are, other people call them out on it. :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 8th May 2015 3:13pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
@ Jason

Absolutely. There's games on Steam that I wouldn't want a child of mine stumbling onto, but that I also don't want to see banned/removed. I think it's pretty weak that Valve continue to pretend that everything on Steam is fine-and-dandy just because they have an age-check system, whilst simultaneously disallowing actual adult content.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 8th May 2015 3:28pm

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Lucas Seuren Freelance, Only NetworkA year ago
@Brendan We could of course simply use the law as a starting point. Being offensive is not enough, but racism and discrimination are. In that system, a game where you kill homosexuals is clearly out, but a game where you just randomly slaughter civilians is in.

Sure, there can be discussions about what constitutes racism and what does not. But it certainly is possible to set up some rules and guidelines. And if developers and consumers don't agree with those guidelines, you either change them, or they more to a different publishing platform: "haters are us", for example.
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Ruben Monteiro Engineer A year ago
I know Valve don't want it to be true, but most users of Steam want there to be curated games on Steam and not a free-for-all.
That's not what people want. What they want is not have to wade through piles of games they consider crap to get to the one they'd like.
The quantity and quality of games wanting to coming out is only going to increase (or more likely, explode) over the next years, to a degree that it will simply be impossible to control this at curation level, without leaving really good games or niche stuff out of the loop.

This is a data mining problem and needs to be solved with algorithmics. It's not easy, but anything else is an half-solution.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
That's not what people want. What they want is not have to wade through piles of games they consider crap to get to the one they'd like.
Just so. There's a difference between "too many games" and "I can't find games relevant to me". Too many times the two are mistaken for the same thing.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer A year ago
I'm "greenlit" but it hasn't helped one iota.

I have no idea how to use Greenlight to actually get greenlit... to actually raise funding.
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA CanadaA year ago
I'm pretty happy with the degree of curation on Steam. It's not flooded with garbage like App Stores, and that's hugely important to keeping the ecosystem viable. Discoverability is always going to be a problem in this day and age, there's no way around that.

Agreed that AO should be something used for curation, particularly in something like Greenlight. Using Hatred as an example, I think it's a loathsome pile of crap, but it deserves to exist if there's a market for it. The game the article references is clearly in breach of hate speech laws, so it deserves to be banned. "I'll know it when I see it" is a crappy way to do things, but I haven't seen a better option yet either.
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Jeremy Eden Co-Founder, JForce GamesA year ago
More vague, unjustified and ill-conceived Steam criticism. I'm going to keep refuting these arguments since every time I do, there is no counter-argument offered. I win these debates every single time (here and here are a couple examples, and no one responded to my comment on your previous article either). The same thing will happen again here. I'll refute your unthought-out, emotionally-driven arguments, and no one will offer any rebuttals and it will give me even more proof that the anti-Greenlighters are objectively wrong about this, and that open marketplaces are, in fact, superior to the more closed marketplaces that you feel are so necessary.

"We're concerned with Greenlight; with what the presence of a game like this on the "feeder" service of the industry's most prestigious and successful digital retail channel says about its management and its policies. Is this not, as many commentators would have it, a ringing condemnation of how Valve is operating its service?"

And it was removed swiftly. No harm done. At all. I think you're being irrational if you think this game's brief presence (on Greenlight, not the actual marketplace) was somehow a bad thing and a reason to condemn Valve, just like it'd be irrational to condemn Youtube for relying on their users to remove this type of content. You just had a strong negative emotional reaction to the game which makes you feel like something needs to be done, when in reality nothing needs to be done. Greenlight did its job. Basically, that emotion you felt is what's driving you, and you then come up with other arguments to try and legitimatize that emotion.

The only real proposition that was stated (vaguely) in this article is essentially: "It's too difficult for some in-demand games to get through Greenlight, therefore Valve should check for technical competence, IP infringement, and overly offensive content before a game can be on Greenlight." I'd like to see some proof of this difficulty. Show me an in-demand game that's been stuck in Greenlight for "too long" and I'll show you a game that's hardly in-demand as evidenced by the fact that it's stuck in Greenlight. (It didn't seem very hard for our two games to get Greenlit, but we actually make in-demand games, so it shouldn't be hard for us.) I wonder if you actually had any 'stuck-in-Greenlight' games in mind when saying this. Did you have a single one in mind? Or were you just [insert something snarky here]?

And your solution for these apparent stuck-in-Greenlight games is to have Valve check every game submitted to Greenlight? Why? So users "wouldn't have to wade through a ceaseless torrent of excrement in order to find things worth voting on"...? O rly? But all you want Valve to do is check for "basic technical competence" (I hope you mean by just looking at videos/pics of the game), IP infringement, and overly offensive content. I'm "wading" through the Greenlight section right now (read: I'm simply scrolling down and clicking on games that I like, it's hardly "wading")...and a game with any of those 3 attributes seems to be extremely rare. In fact I don't see anything that's IP infringing or overly offensive on the first few pages, and it would surely be rare for me to click on a game that displays "technical incompetence" (whatever that means) in its trailer/pics. This is a far cry from "wading through a ceaseless torrent of excrement."

To simplify and to show that your argument was ill-conceived:
(Technically incompetent, IP infringing, Overly offensive games = TIO)

You basically just said,
"We don't want users "wading through a ceaseless torrent of excrement" in Greenlight, therefore Valve should prevent TIO by checking games before they're submitted to Greenlight."

But browsing through Greenlight I see very little, if any TIO, so preventing TIO from entering Greenlight is obviously not going to remove this imagined "ceaseless torrent of excrement" (especially since an overly offensive game can get removed within 2 hours by user reporting). So that argument is refuted. You'll have to modify it or come up with another reason to justify this seemingly tiny change that you think is so important.

And with the actual Steam marketplace, which is what matters, there is no real problem with finding games. Steam has several tools that the App Store and Google Play don't have. Valve is actually quite brilliant when it comes to this. You can browse any of the Steam curators, several of which are professional game reviewers/Youtubers. Some of them will curate games more strictly than Valve did in the past, some will curate less strictly. The choice is yours. You can also filter and sort games by user review score, genre, tags, friend recommendations, related games, queued games, and there's the top selling, most played, and popular new releases lists. You have plenty of ways to find games. The Greenlight marketplace has several of those tools as well. If your only argument is that Greenlight would be better with more of those tools than sure, I would agree with you. I think a "most popular" list added to the Greenlight section would be an improvement. But other than that, you have no argument. I challenge anyone here to try and rebut what I'm saying. I'll checkmate you just like I have with every other anti-Greenlighter I've debated.

Edited 6 times. Last edit by Jeremy Eden on 9th May 2015 7:35pm

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrendA year ago
You might want to leave your ego at the door next time Jeremy [comment moderated]

Just saying...

Edited 3 times. Last edit by a moderator on 10th May 2015 10:22pm

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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome EnterprisesA year ago
Greenlight is like Democracy, it's a terrible system but it's also the best system anyone's come up with so far. Valve created it so they don't mistakenly reject games like Minecraft, sure they might also approve a lot of duds in the process. But those bad games are pretty easy to bury, just give them a few weeks on a New list then banish them to the bottom of their category.

And they don't auto-approve everything that gets votes, proof of this is the current #1 Greenlight game The Gabe Newell Simulator. http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/updates/392310282 .
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Dan Pearson European Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA year ago
Jeremy, you might find you get more replies if you try to be a little less sanctimonious. Criticism is very welcome, but please do remain civil.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
"Herman claimed that his game was a protest against political correctness, a flag raised in defence of all those viciously persecuted individuals who get criticised just for expressing discriminatory viewpoints about LGBT people."

So now that "Hatred" opened that door, every atention-seeking idiot like this one will use the same cheap excuse?

@Jeremy: The best about this website if that you read a lot of different points of view regarding different matters. You are pretty much locking yourself out of that hen you already place yourself as the bearer of absolute truth that is totally right. You say that you are going to "win" the argument, but the only thing you inspired on me is being tempted to not reading you ever again. Also, don't forget that (since it appears right under your name) you are speaking for your company too.
So keep your ego aside and be mature and professional. This is gamesindustry.biz, not Kotaku.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 11th May 2015 8:28am

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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead StudiosA year ago
a flag raised in defence of all those viciously persecuted individuals who get criticised just for expressing discriminatory viewpoints about LGBT people."

It's ok not to accept, or support, or agree with LGBT people. But you don''t have to kill them!
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
@Marty: the same way the guy doesn't use the term "Not-supporting", but "discriminatory viewpoints". Either he is very ignorant, or an atention-seeking brat like I said before.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrendA year ago
Letting someone know they are coming off as a douche seems well within your rules, why the moderation?

Douche
1. spray or shower with water.
"she did not douche herself and the smell, at times, was off-putting"

a shower of water.
"I felt better for taking a daily douche"
a jet of liquid applied to part of the body for cleansing or medicinal purposes.

2. North Americaninformal
an obnoxious or contemptible person, typically a man.
"that guy is such a douche"


Whilst I applaud your moderation of the site to get rid of horrible stuff, I am seeing quite a lot of heavy handed moderation recently. Don't let the power go to your heads guys/girls. ;)

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 11th May 2015 10:26am

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Dan Pearson European Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA year ago
It's unnecessarily insulting, Darren, that's why it was moderated. I think the distinction between that and constructive criticism is pretty clear. As to your other point, I'd direct you to this, from our house rules:

9. Our house, our rules.

Some of you may cry "censorship!" when we moderate or delete comments. As editors of GamesIndustry.biz we determine what's appropriate and what's not, and if we feel the need to steer the conversation in a certain direction, that's our prerogative. If you can't play by our rules, then you won't be commenting here.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrendA year ago
Of course it is your prerogative to censor whatever you want, but I still think it was a little heavy handed. All I did was point towards how Jeremy came off in the post (which I could point to hundreds of similar posts on this site), I was not saying 'hey your a douche' but simply letting him know how his post made him look.

So I disagree with your assumption as it was not correct IMO, but I am not going to lose any sleep over it.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 11th May 2015 2:27pm

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