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Why I deleted my Steam account

Valve's dominance in the PC gaming space is made more harmful by its tolerance for toxic users

Earlier this week I wrote about a recurring problem in games, and what I was going to do as a member of the media to try and fix it. Today I'm going to talk about something I'm doing to fix it as a customer and gamer.

I hadn't intended to write a follow-up piece, but I hit a bit of a breaking point this week with the one-two punch of PewDiePie dropping the n-word on stream and Bungie removing a white supremacist symbol from its Destiny 2.

Both events are part of a wretched pattern that has been recurring in games for several years now, a pattern where we see some deep-seated prejudices in gaming culture come to the fore in alarming clarity for a moment, everyone points and decries the awfulness, then everyone else gets angry at the people who didn't like the awful thing. If we're very lucky, the people who screwed up in the first place publicly apologize, reflect on their mistakes and try to do better the next time. It's much, much rarer to see anyone indirectly responsible for this pattern take an honest look at their role in it, and we absolutely need them to if this is ever going to get better.

"People talk about racism, sexism, transphobia and the like as if they are diseases, but maybe we should think of these things less like contagions and more like environmental pollutants"

People talk about racism, sexism, transphobia and the like as if they are diseases, like it's something binary you either have or you don't. "This is racist. That is not racist." But maybe we should think of these things less like contagions and more like environmental pollutants. They surround us at all times, but in varying concentrations. They're like arsenic in your drinking water, or rat feces in your popcorn; we should aspire to have none at all, but that's a difficult enough task that we "accept" both in small quantities. (Seriously.) When they are present in very small amounts, the damage they do is manageable. But when the concentration is high enough, they can be fatal.

This is a cultural problem, which means all of us play a small role in making it better or worse. Like riding a bike instead of driving a car or using LEDs instead of incandescent lights, our actions don't move the needle on their own, but can add up to something significant when combined with the actions of enough others. This week's events left me wanting to do something to make things better, and that's when I saw a NSFW tweet with some screen caps of the Firewatch Steam forum.

After PewDiePie dropped his racist interjection, Firewatch developer Campo Santo had the popular streamer's video of the game pulled from YouTube using the service's copyright claims process. Angry gamers then began review bombing the title on Steam, and poured into the game-specific forums to flood them with abuse. Because that's how it's done now. Because we are gamers and every avenue of feedback available to us must be weaponized so that we can have things our way. Because we're so upset about a developer using a questionable invocation of the DMCA that we would crusade arm-in-arm with overt racists and human garbage rather than let our rage go unvented for even a moment. (See also: People actually concerned with ethics in games journalism who provided willing cover for virulent misogynists and harassers during GamerGate.)

Most of those threads in the Firewatch forum have since been consolidated, with the most exceptionally racist ones being deleted. But it wasn't Valve who handled the clean up, because Valve offloads moderation of game-specific forums to the developers. Just like translation of its store pages or curation of its catalog, Valve seems to like nothing more to offload the work on others. That approach might be fine for some functions, but the company cannot abdicate responsibility for the community and culture that has come from its own neglect.

"Valve's dogmatic commitment to removing human judgment from every aspect of the operation is in effect a judgment call of its own"

That's why I'm terminating my Steam account.

For as much as Valve's actions have revitalized the PC gaming scene in the last dozen years, its inaction has been steadily deteriorating gaming culture. Our own Rob Fahey has covered Steam's community woes before, but the company's dogmatic commitment to removing human judgment from every aspect of the operation is in effect a judgment call of its own, one that presumes everything is acceptable and there are no limits other than legal ones. And on the rare occasion Valve actually deviates from that approach and enforces some standards, it does so reluctantly.

Right now you can find Hatred, Playing History 2 - Slave Trade, and House Party on the storefront, showing that Valve has no problem with the glorification of mass shootings, the trivialization of atrocities, or the gamification of rape. We can give them some points for consistency though, as the availability of Paranautical Activity suggests Valve is unwilling to take a stand even against death threats to its own founder.

This same approach of course applies to the Steam community, which technically has guidelines, but little interest in enforcing them. Hey, there's a guideline forbidding racism and discrimination, weird. I guess "Nazi Recruitment Group Order#1" (NSFW) with the swastika logo and 76 members has just fallen through the cracks for the last two years. And that user, "F*** Blacks," with a graphic avatar of a man fellating himself? I'm sure he just changed it and I just happened to visit the site in the split-second that was online before he was banned.

steamgroup2

A lightly censored image of a group Valve has hosted for more than two years.

Nope, still there.

Oh, and this one, "Whites Only," (NSFW) a group "for any fellow White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anyone who just hates colored people!" (If you must click through, be warned it only gets more racist from there.) Maybe nobody's noticed them. Oh wait, no, here's a post in the Steam help forums asking people to help ban the group for being racist. Well maybe Valve hasn't seen it. Oh, wait. There's a post from a Valve community mod locking the thread and linking to the support page on how to report abusive behavior.

That's one of 29 community mods volunteering their time "to help keep discussions clean and on topic, and remove reported user generated content around the Steam Community." If you talk about actual Valve employees, people who might theoretically be trained and compensated to do the job, there are apparently only 12 that mod the community. Even they aren't necessarily focused on the task; they include programmers, software engineers, and UI designers that the company simply says "spend some time" helping out on the forums.

"Whatever its motives, Valve is clearly just fine operating an online toilet that harbors the worst dregs of society"

By the way, Steam had 12.9 million users online at the same time today. Steam is a massive chunk of the gaming community and Valve has offloaded moderation responsibilities to the developers and the users to a staggering degree. The company is so dedicated to having other people fix its problems that when I filed my request to terminate the account because I was sick of the toxicity, the first response I got from Steam Support said, "Please make sure you're using the 'Report Violation' feature to report inappropriate behavior or users on Steam."

Whatever its motives, Valve is clearly just fine operating an online toilet that harbors the worst dregs of society. But if it isn't willing to staff up a reasonable amount of dedicated community management people, enforce even the minimal guidelines it claims to have, and excise these bad faith actors from its community, then I have no choice but to believe Valve wants them there. And if Valve wants them there, it's fair to hold the company responsible for all the vileness they spew from the platform it owns and completely controls. Whatever benefit Steam once offered me has been more than offset by the harm it causes to its marginalized users, gaming culture, and society as a whole. I won't be a part of that community any longer.

So my Steam account is gone, or presumably will be once Steam Support gets around to fulfilling my request. While I would encourage everyone reading this to consider whether Steam is a community they want to associate themselves with, I have to acknowledge this is not a huge sacrifice for me. I'm losing access to dozens of games and a backlog of purchased-but-unplayed titles, but I'm not primarily a PC gamer.

Having acknowledged that, it would seem unreasonable that my "call to action" be for everyone to delete their Steam accounts, or for developers to pull their games from a store that provides an overwhelming majority of their business. Instead, I would simply ask that everyone do what they can to foster viable alternatives. As consumers, we can stop buying new games from Steam if they are available on GOG.com, itch.io, or an alternative storefront. Developers, make it a priority to get your games on as many storefronts as possible, even if they only incrementally boost the bottom line. Because right now the PC gaming industry is entirely too dependent on a company with entirely too little interest in basic human decency, and it's hurting us all.

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Latest comments (20)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 days ago
Not on the same page here when it comes to blaming the entire community for some of the idiots it harbors. I am not sure Valve needs more staff to moderate, maybe they need to let go even more. All it takes is better tools for self-governance of the community to crack down on user names, group names and pictures. Works for reddit, works for Wikimedia, why shouldn't it work for Steam? A single fansite for a single game can easily have 50 people working on it. Having 30 people for the entirety of Steam is not a commitment, it is but a fig leave. Valve does not just need more people, they first need a system that can scale up by itself.

Indignant ragequitting is not the answer. You give up on Steam and it will happen elsewhere. Humble Sexgame Bundle Outrage anyone?
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief8 days ago
7 years ago, I wrote an (admittedly inflammatory) post about 5 ways in which Steam could destroy the PC games industry. At its heart was the argument that if Steam gets too successful, it becomes its own beast: it doesn't have to respond to criticism, or competitive threats, because there are none. I didn't predict this level of toxicity but in the absence of a large commercial rival to take up the users who like to switch, Steam is definitely damaging the PC gaming community.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Nicholas Lovell on 14th September 2017 4:16pm

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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief8 days ago
I forgot to link to the post, if you are interested. I get a lot of comments on it (still) telling me how wrong I am. Five reasons why Steam will destroy the PC games industry

http://www.gamesbrief.com/2010/05/five-reasons-why-steam-will-destroy-the-pc-games-industry/

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Nicholas Lovell on 14th September 2017 4:15pm

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Show all comments (20)
Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd8 days ago
Very well said. While I have too much tied to my Steam account to close it altogether, I avoid spending money there these days, either buying on other stores or asking developers if they can make their games available elsewhere as well when this isn't an option.

Valve have done a lot of good in the PC games market, but they can't continue to pretend that inaction is neutral and doesn't set the tone of the community.

When I go to Amazon, PSN or iTunes, I don't get presented with store pages plastered with messages from people who have attacked my peers and friends. Steam is a strata of broken, neglected social systems that never get fixed or removed: poorly moderated user reviews, tags, curators, groups.

The wild success of Discord should tell Valve that nobody wants to hang out in their vandalised house if they can possibly avoid it.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 days ago
@Brendon

I can see that you are a little upset here. That is your right. I am now going to say something that would best be read after you have cooled down a bit....

Your actions here have perpetuated the problem, and actively spread it to others.

I am hoping that you will hear me out on this, as it is clear that you had good intentions. Let me start with a simple quote from above:

"This is a cultural problem, which means all of us play a small role in making it better or worse."

Just as the developers of Firewatch took offence to the statements of PewDiePie, and reacted by using the DMCA to have his videos of their game taken down. Just as the community took offence to the use of the DMCA for this takedown, and reacted by spamming the forums, and reviews with their feedback. Just as you took offence to how Steam does not contribute to the policing of their community, and reacted by writing this article. All of the parties involved have chosen to pass their discomfort on to someone else. This is the cultural problem that we have. We have a culture that creates more pain, rather than reduces it.

I am not going to say that any of the facts about how Valve is negligent in their duty to support the community that they profit from are wrong (they seem pretty spot on). However, I am going to say that despite you meaning well with this article, you have shown the same behavior here, that you decry as the problem on Steam. This doesnt make things better for anyone, either on Steam, or here. It in fact, makes it worse.

What you could have done (but one example of many), is take the high road. You could have told us all (in a positive tone) why this made you want to delete your STEAM account, but instead are looking to improve the STEAM community by one person (yourself) be part of it. You could have used your power as an editorialist to occasionally take some time to point of the issues on STEAM, and encourage people to help make it a better place for all.

The way to stop bad behavior is not to repeat it (two wrong dont make a right), but to acknowledge it, and try to find others who also want to see it stop. You would be surprised at how much a difference you can make by encouraging positive actions, rather than discouraging negative actions.

You can be with those of us looking to make things better, or standing outside telling us what idiots we are for trying. The truth is that we are idiots, and we will fail a lot, but we take some pride in trying, and when we do succeed.... your welcome.
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Brendan Sinclair Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.biz7 days ago
Hey Brian, I'm not calling anyone an idiot for trying to change a toxic community from the inside, and I'm clearly not opposed to futile gestures in the name of trying to make a positive change (I'm sure Gabe Newell himself was absolutely devastated at the news that one of Steam's 125 million+ active users terminated his account). I'm just explaining what I'm doing and what my thought process is.

My general position is that none of us can be sure we have The One True Answer for fixing the world's problems, so as long as we agree on some pretty basic stuff (racism is bad), I'm going to be very reluctant to criticize how you choose to fight that battle. I can suggest a course of action (as I do here), but I'm not going to be that fussed if you don't agree.

You do you. I'm doing me, and in this case, that meant taking my business away from Valve and diverting it to other companies that are more in agreement with me on that basic stuff (racism is bad).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brendan Sinclair on 14th September 2017 9:22pm

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Max Kaftanati President, Galaxy Gaming7 days ago
So I checked out the Nazi group (says it's disabled) , obviously troll kids (screenshoted Happy May 9th thread in that nazi group, which is the day when nazi Germany surrendered ), I went on to check out White Supremacists group, it says the "This group has been administratively disabled". Is it me or someone is blowing this out of proportion?
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Adnan Ahmed Graphics Designer 7 days ago
I am not sure what difference this will make other than simply loosing access to all the investments you made on the platform.
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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ7 days ago
I kind of like how Valve does their thing.

I think they're smart people, trying to make a fairly open, democratic system, where developers can help curate their own pages.

But yes, perhaps some more approved user-moderators using Valve-made tools could help to tidy up any particularly dark, dank alley bashings on the platform. :)
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James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz7 days ago
@max and others, it should be fairly obvious that the links were live at the time of writing. Brendan's work seems to have influenced people at Valve to disable them. It's unfortunate that Valve needs journalists to push them in the right direction.
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Christopher Hennen Designer 6 days ago
@Nicholas Lovell: Thanks for the 'historic' article (funny referencing 7 years ago as 'historic' but you know what I mean), always interesting to see how things were viewed from the lens of today, though in your article you note that Valve is a "monopoly"; Valve is not, nor ever was a "monopoly" you are misusing the word. Despite their size, product oriented sites have fickle audiences, the problem of "toxicity" primarily focuses around the community, there are a plethora of sites which closely emulate the user experience of Steam Community that are heavily trafficked.

In response to the article, I agree with Klaus' post, much like a multi-sided negotiation, in an online community, when you remove yourself from a community that brings some value (or has/might in the future) to you in some way, you are removing any power you have. Following the path of Reddit/wiki sites with more community self-governance might create a better end result for everyone.

Opting out of Steam because of the Community is like not buying Dove soap because you disagree with inferred pro-homosexual agenda of Ben and Jerrys' Ice Cream advertisements .
**Edit: The Dove/Ben and Jerry's reference is because they are both tied to Unilever as a parent company, much like games on a platform are unique "brands" directly tied to the parent, but operating independently for the most part. The Steam Community also operates separately and independently from the games themselves for the most part.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christopher Hennen on 15th September 2017 6:00pm

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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 days ago
@Christopher Hennen: It makes sense to me not to buy Dove because of something that Ben & Jerry's does. (I wouldn't in your example, quite the opposite, but I don't see why you shouldn't hurt the parent company in all the ways you can as a consumer, by boycotting all of their products if you wish to)
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Are people here seriously suggesting that Valve should emulate the moderation policies of Reddit, a website which has been in the news repeatedly in the last few years for harbouring and being incredibly reluctant until recently to tackle its huge communities of vicious misogynists and racists? Really? Because that sounds like just about the worst possible approach. Laissez-faire 'community management' does not work.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 6 days ago
@Jessica Hyland: Gotta say I agree and even wanted to add that Wikimedia is also not a good example given that their moderation efforts backfired on them and they had to go down the trusted curators route instead... Nothing like Steam's "system".
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 days ago
Please separate the systems of scaling up community moderation from the set of guidelines given to those who then do community moderation. Reddit and Wikimedia at least have a system to get more people, even though their guidelines are very loose.

When it comes to moderating the content, there is no shortage of video game fansites out there with a great culture of allowing people to say whatever they want without the discussions devolving into a filth pit. But to create this culture of a forum suitable for ages 12 and up, you may not allow yourself to be trolled by freedom of speech extremists. You have to be clear about where to draw the line and write that down for everybody to see. Not because you hold the users up to that standard, but because you want the users to hold your moderation up to that standard. Once that happens people will take you more serious as a forum than before. I cannot stress enough how important those visible laws are. "Why did my post get deleted" threads will eat you up in no time.

When a developer tolerates critical posts written in a non-insulting fashion he furthers a good culture of discussion. When any posts reflecting negatively on the product just vanish while users attacking each other is tolerated under freedom of speech, the forum will go south very quickly. You want people reasoning with each other using arguments, not take the easy route of insulting each other because freedom of speech.

I agree, reddit does not have the best rules for moderating a platform aimed at ages 12 and up. But they have the means to recruit people efficiently, while Valve does not. How to have a cultured communication platform is something to be learned elsewhere.

Every developer with a Steam forum can start with a sticky right here.
Rule 1: no personal attacks and insults of any kind.
Rule 2: every criticism welcome when reasons are given.
Rule 3: if people disagree with you (the forum participant), let them. Challenge them with your own reasons, if you must.
Rule 4: Merely being black, white, blue, male, female, young, old, or anything in between, does not count as a reason in itself. No racism, misogyny, or too young to understand.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 4 days ago
@Jessica: You forgot the paedophiles.
@Klaus: "But to create this culture of a forum suitable for ages 12 and up, you may not allow yourself to be trolled by freedom of speech extremists."

HEAR HEAR!
Although personally I note don't believe their interest in "freedom of speech" is remotely sincere, I think Klaus has hit the nail on the head. We need to stop acting as if the blatantly false pretexts for these swarm attacks are genuine.
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Guy Technologies, Plarium4 days ago
Claiming that Valve is "operating an online toilet" because of a relatively hands-off moderation or assuming that "staffing up" would solve a problem is not only derogatory towards the company but also quite unrealistic.

Understanding that you can't outsmart the internet has been Valve's leading approach for a while, right up to Gabe Newell explaining that "You have to stop thinking that you're in charge and start thinking that you're having a dance". It worked for them very well, and it worked for countless developers enjoying Steam's tools letting them have direct interaction with their community on an unprecedented level - something most competing platforms still fail to achieve.

Communities are part of the draw to the platforms, and most of the studios I talked to praise this aspect of Steam (unlike some other aspects...). And still, it's important to remember that managing an official Steam Community is not mandatory for any developer - it's just in their best interest to understand the importance of such a feedback channel. There are other ways to interact with your audience (inside and outside of Steam).

But from a moderation perspective, there simply isn't any business sense in trying to enforce a tight authoritarian stance from Valve itself: There are millions of community groups (Just searching for the word "Game" brings up around 1M results), some with hundreds of thousands of participants. This renders any attempt to "staff up" futile because even with 1000 support personnel there would be an unreasonable amount of content to moderate.

Multiple groups are being created on a daily basis, and if someone wishes to act in bad faith either by creating a new hateful group or spamming an existing one with hateful content it's easy to do so until moderation catches up - just like any other Internet channel open to the public (from social networks to Wikis). But Valve has reporting and flagging tools in place to assist them and the community/developers with their cat-and-mouse chases and users who cross the line can have their account suspended or limited (Unlike the media and press, for gamers who have to actually pay for their games losing their Steam account is a much more serious issue than losing a meaningless twitter account). Trying to substitute such a system that works for the most part with hollow activism that lacks understanding of how and why the system works in the first place is quite futile.
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Nathan Richardsson Executive Producer 4 days ago
Judging by the answers, it really doesn't seem like many of you have managed a Steam product. I've used them for 10 years, they are great, but in some cases, not so much. I have about 400 games and always buy my games on Steam so if anything, I'm a fanboi. But I also run a business where I have families I'm responsible for and need to feed, so I have a couple of views on Steam, as a customer, game developer, and responsible for people that rely on Steam working as intended.

Developer moderation does not work as intended. The tools are ancient. And with 30% of net revenue, that's a ton of money you're paying for services not being rendered as pointed out, the terms of service that we signed up to as developers, aren't being fulfilled.

Flagging reviews for moderation is useless. I had to raise a big flag to remove someone that "wanted to strangle a kitten with a piano wire" as his review. I'm going to spare the Steam moderator and not publish his response to me.

Freedom of speech is a law which protects the citizens from the tyranny and oppression of governments. It does not remotely apply to corporations and individuals. If harassing your customers by other customers is ok - despite being strictly against the terms of service - under the flag of Freedom of Speech, it is an insult to people that don't have this right and are oppressed and persecuted by their government. Look no further than Myanmar.

So no, I wouldn't put developers in the seat of "they can do it all themselves" or that the system works in terms of dealing with toxic behaviour, through a "democratic" system for the people. Neither parties can fulfill those duties with the current setup of the tools at hand. Only Steam can. So while I don't believe in hiring 1000 moderators/customer support, although I've seen this work quite well on large MMOs, Valve isn't a company that can. But they are responsible for the platform they run, and more tools to enable the dream is needed.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nathan Richardsson on 18th September 2017 1:31pm

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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany2 days ago
@Bonnie Patterson: " I note don't believe their interest in "freedom of speech" is remotely sincere"
If we are talking about the same people (I.E: Some of those guys obsessed with gates, ethics and anime avatars), I think they call it "Freedom of speech" when they actually mean "Say whatever I want online without facing the consequences".

Needless to say, that's not how it works.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 20th September 2017 9:03am

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 1 days ago
@Alfonso Sexto:
I do wonder how concerned many of the complainants would be about PewDiePie's "Freedom of Speech" if, instead of the "N-word"* he'd said:

"Actually, it's about ethics in heroic adventuring."**

* a word associated with slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, separate-but-equal, the bombing of Black Wall Street, dispropotionate incarceration, police shootings, and ongoing inequality and dehumanization

** which already happened, and the response was to try and get the writer fired.
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