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.
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.