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Steam is in the rape fantasy business | Opinion

Upcoming visual novel highlights the problems with Valve's refusal to apply content standards to its storefront

It's only Tuesday, but it looks like this week's big controversy will be (once again) Valve's utter lack of interest in applying any sort of reasonable standards to its storefront.

The game encapsulating that lack of interest this time is Rape Day, an upcoming self-published visual novel from a developer calling itself Desk Plant. Billed as "a game where you can rape and murder during a zombie apocalypse," it also features necrophilia, incest, and until recently, infanticide. (The developer apologetically noted in an update that the infanticide scene was cut to avoid having the game banned from the store for "child exploitation.")

The "About This Game" section on the Steam store page sells the player fantasy, saying, "Control the choices of a menacing serial killer rapist during a zombie apocalypse. Verbally harass, kill, and rape women as you choose to progress the story. It's a dangerous world with no laws. The zombies enjoy eating the flesh off warm humans and brutally raping them but you are the most dangerous rapist in town."

The first developer update on the game is dated February 19, so Valve has hosted this on its site for two weeks. In that update, Desk Plant states, "It's for a niche audience; If it's not your type of game you definitely don't need to play it but as other's have said I tried to make a game that I would enjoy playing, and there are other people like me. 4% of the general population are sociopaths and the type of people that would be entertained by a story like this is not even limited to pure sociopaths."

Most of the game's screenshots are too objectionable to include here

Most of the game's screenshots are too objectionable to include here

The first thing that comes to mind here is Valve's content policy for Steam, which it proclaimed last year would allow everything, "except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling." While that policy gives wiggle room to deal with controversial titles one way or the other, it also presents a lose-lose situation for Valve.

In the case it permits Rape Day to sell on Steam, Valve risks pushing away anyone with aspirations of respectability or mainstream acceptance.

Do the AAA publishers of the world want to sell their games on a storefront that proudly hosts rape fantasies as a matter of principle?

Do the AAA publishers of the world want to sell their games on a storefront that proudly hosts rape fantasies as a matter of principle? Valve is already facing enough competition from Epic Games store, Discord and the like that it lowered its revenue share for the sort of multi-million selling titles AAA publishers produce. And companies like Deep Silver and Ubisoft already feel comfortable skipping Steam with Metro: Exodus and The Division 2, respectively.

If Valve wants to go to bat for Rape Day, it is giving its aggressive and deep-pocketed storefront competitors a huge opening to steal away the most reputable and profitable publishers on its service.

And in the case Valve prevents the game from ever launching, it probably makes the more pragmatic decision from a profitability standpoint. But it still takes a hit to its reputation for allowing the game page to go up in the first place, for hosting it for weeks, for working with the developer to determine where it could be legally sold (according to one of the developer's updates), and then for backtracking when the entirely predictable backlash hit. Valve loses standing with those upset it would make a business out of rape fantasy games, as well as those upset it would curtail creative expression.

Free speech can be costly

In fact, Valve's content policy sounds more than a little like 8chan's content policy, which everyone became more familiar with last week when THQ Nordic decided 8chan would be a good place to hold an Ask Me Anything session to promote their games. An anonymous imageboard established as a more free speech alternative to 4chan after that site banned discussion of GamerGate, 8chan's only rule is to not post or link to content that is illegal in the United States, where its servers are located.

The refusal to apply any kind of values to content moderation turns your platform into a cesspool overflowing with people whose speech is not welcome anywhere else in society

Both are clearly embracing freedom of speech as a core value, something Valve even pointed to when it announced its content policy, saying, "the games we allow onto the Store will not be a reflection of Valve's values, beyond a simple belief that you all have the right to create and consume the content you choose."

The statement would be more accurate if we replaced "a simple belief" with "an overriding belief." It's nothing more than a declaration of priorities. Valve prioritizes the freedom to create and consume content of your choosing to the exclusion of all other values it might have. Permitting Rape Day on the storefront isn't a statement that Valve believes rape is a societal good and should be promoted as such; it's just that Valve cares about helping interactive rape fantasies reach as large an audience as possible more than it has an opinion of any kind about rape.

As a business that makes money by selling games, there's a certain depressing logic to that. But a business is just a collection of people who make all of that business' decisions and policies. And for an individual, that prioritization of values is genuinely appalling.

If you look at 8chan, you can see where this prioritization leads. The refusal to apply any kind of values to content moderation and community management certainly does protect people's right to free speech, but it also turns your platform into a cesspool overflowing with people whose speech is not welcome anywhere else in society. The kind of free speech worth protecting has plenty of other outlets it can pursue in our industry and our world, ones that don't serve to normalize and amplify humanity's many failings.

Granted, Valve's "no trolling" limitation means it's not as dogmatic about free speech as 8chan is, but it's a strange place to draw the line. It means literally the only thing Valve is offended by, the only action so horrific it causes the company to apply its own values and make a judgment call--is jerks trying to stir the pot for a laugh.

What platforms like Steam and 8chan seek to do when they value free speech above all is to give themselves permission to be thoughtless

As a journalist, I'm a big fan of free speech. I've built my livelihood on it. But one of the first things this field taught me is that rights carry with them responsibilities.

Free expression is a powerful thing, but you have to be thoughtful about how you exercise that power. What platforms like Steam and 8chan seek to do when they value free speech above all is to give themselves permission to be thoughtless. To not think about where they'll draw the line. To not worry about what horrid ideologies they are elevating and amplifying with their platform. To not concern themselves with the impact they are having on the world. To not consider why one depiction of rape in a game is acceptable and another is not, why it's acceptable to go on a murdering spree in the AAA blockbuster du jour but not Active Shooter, or why one prurient anime game is pornography but another is not. (That last question was essentially what prompted Valve to adopt its new content policy.)

I get why they would do this. It's not especially fun to think through these things, and you rarely wind up with a clear dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable. It's not a satisfying exercise; you never get confirmation on which calls were right and which ones were wrong. And it's nearly impossible to be consistent in applying the same set of values to each decision. But choosing not to make these calls is still a choice. Finding an excuse to forego the exercise entirely doesn't make you a principled defender of free speech; it makes you a moral coward.

So what's the response?

You may have picked up on my anger on these subjects. You may also note that it's not primarily directed at Desk Plant or 8chan. While I find both indefensible and without redeeming qualities of any kind, I can't say I expected any better of them. There will always be assholes, for lack of an equally concise word. Any individual can devote their limited time in life to spreading darkness and hurting other people, and I'm not convinced we could ever stop that from happening.

A tasteless game can be made by one person, but it takes the 170 people who make up Valve to make the game available to 125 million more

Their actions can create tragedy in and of themselves, but that tragedy can be compounded exponentially by the ways we collectively respond to them, the ways we ignore, accept, defend, normalize, and even promote them.

It only takes one PR person making a catastrophically bad decision to have an otherwise respected publisher openly courting a community that welcomes Nazis and racists, but it takes licensors of children's games and platform holders to decide such an action isn't worth publicly condemning, much less severing their business ties over. It takes the Entertainment Software Association to say nothing when one of its member companies is undermining their shared cause, directly marketing to the boogeymen that concerned parent groups have always imagined occupies every corner of gaming.

A tasteless game can be made by one person, but it takes the 170 people who make up Valve to make the game available to 125 million more, to give it a stamp of legitimacy in our culture. It takes the thousands more at Electronic Arts, Activision, Bethesda, Ubisoft, Take-Two, and every other publisher on Steam to share the platform with this content, to say that they have no problem selling their games on the same digital shelf as Rape Day.

It's time to start making these companies answer for their responses -- or lack thereof -- to the actions of the people they choose to do business with.

Valve did not return a request for comment. Neither did Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, or Bethesda, all of whom sell games through Steam. Take-Two declined to comment.

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Latest comments (13)

Sometimes… it may be better don't look for the answer, or you may find it.

Videogames companies many times manage the community in a grey area. Nor accepting things publicly, but in the practice, they tend to "look towards another side". I think this could be one of those moments.

It's posible that companies doesn't care to share shelves with Valve as long as the erotic games remains being obscure and don't getting high exposition. But maybe if the "polemic" gets more public and they get forced to take a side, it may not be the one that is in our favor.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Antonio David Lopez Corpas on 5th March 2019 10:17pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 months ago
Movies underwent an exploitation phase making heavy use of rape as a plot device (e.g. movies such as I Spit on your Grave, or Ms.45). Considering how mainstream Game of Thrones and 50 Shades of Grey are, games might head in a similar direction, with the addition of player agency making it nastier. What better way to get $0 PR than to overstep every line and rely on people publicly showing their disgust on social media? It is bad taste multi-level marketing.

I would go on a tangent about toxic masculinity and forced marriage being portrayed as viable and successful strategies for empire building in Paradox Studio games, or the unfair portrayal of all women being rampant materialists in the Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball series, but I fear it has still nothing on interactive post-apocalyptic zombie rape novels on Steam. I bet they have a sequel ready featuring Hitler, just to trigger even more people.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany2 months ago
Can't help but see those games as pure scandal seeking, it's like Klaus said; we may be in the middle of an exploitation phase.
What I'm still surprised, is that there is not yet a publisher specialized in this kind of products. Back in the day when we had movies like "I Spit on your Grave" or "Cannibal Holocaust", yes, but along with them, there were 200 clones mostly made in Italy and there were a few distributors that took care of the publishing.

From my personal P.O.V., I'm seeing this kind of games as a trend; right now, in said trend, we have a sector of the consumer that is polarized; One part that focused into the indie and more artistic, innovative and niche market, and another one that wants this kind of edgy stuff (for multiple reasons; from just owning said edgy stuff to "because free speech"). This, of course, aside form the majority that just plays the game they like without going deeper in things like AAA, publisher or whatnot.

Good thing is that, as we saw with a tittle from last year, when said products focuses in scandal over delivering a decent product, people still has the criteria to see when a product is crap.

It has been repeated a lot, but at the end of the day what works is voting with your wallet.
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Show all comments (13)
Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz2 months ago
So there was absolutely exploitation cinema back in the day, but it was shown at grindhouse theaters that specialized in that kind of film and catered to that audience. Having this game on Steam is like going down to the local megaplex and seeing the modern-day equivalent on an IMAX screen while The Avengers and Paddington are playing down the hall. The issue for me here is that Steam is the dominant mainstream PC games store and as such it has tremendous say in what is and is not acceptable for our industry. It should not have the only say in what is and is not acceptable, especially given its tolerance for content like Rape Day. So I would suggest the rest of the industry "vote with its wallet," show that it has some standard of decency and not do business with a company that would profit off of selling rape fantasies.
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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 2 months ago
I didn't expect such a long article condemning free speech, I get you get games pushing boundaries of taste but its a slipery slope when you start becoming arbiter of taste & decency. My mind wanders back to the European South Park: Stick Of Truth fiasco when that was arbitrarily cut by the European publisher.

I personally applaud Valves commitment to free Speech, if it offends you, don't buy it.
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Anthony Chan2 months ago
When Brendan questions the desire of AAA publishers wanting to sell on a storefront that also markets and sells games such as 'Rape Day'; I agree! AAA should really ask themselves if they want to be associated with a platform that has questionable content standards.

If a retail store needs to apologize for selling t-shirts with racist connotations, we know this is NOT about free speech. Free speech does not give people the right to speak about whatever they want. It gives people the right to voice an opinion (within the realm of moral and appropriate). Unfortunately society and authority decides what is moral and what is appropriate.

People will give me flak that is not free speech, but damn them. It is what it is. The comment from the dev stating that sociopaths make up 4% of society and that they should be respected as an audience. NO. ABSOLUTELY F-ING NO. Again, integrity, morality, humanity, etc; these are what decide what is appropriate and not appropriate. 'Unfortunately' we live in a world where necrophilia is NEVER appropriate, it's hazardous to health, and 'wrong'.

So if a storefront were to be selling to HUMANITY, there needs to be standards that is acceptable to HUMANITY (if you haven't got it I don't think sociopaths have a shred of humanity). If Valve cannot stand on the side of humanity, then maybe humanity should vote with their wallet. Epic is an up and coming storefront of choice. Ubisoft already picked a side with their launch of Division 2 which I am all for. The world is changing and devs and publishers have a choice unlike a decade ago.
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Sergio Rosa2 months ago
You sir are overcomplicating the issue, specially since you yourself give the answer before the middle of the article:
" The first thing that comes to mind here is Valve's content policy for Steam, which it proclaimed last year would allow everything, "except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling." "
Unless I am missing something about laws, rape is illegal, thus Steam can decide not to accept it.

You ask how come Valve decided to list the game to begin with. I ask you, did they even notice? I don't know if you are aware how Valve's approval process works but I'm inclined to think you don't: When you pay the fee you are asked to make a product page, and then it's sent for review. After the page is reviewed and approved you can literally change ANYTHING on the page (game title, screenshots, description) without Valve's intervention. The same goes for the game executable.

What that means is I can go right now and pay those $100, make a pac-man like page with a pacman-clone as a game, and then, after it's been approved by Valve, I can replace all the page for a rapelay clone and an executable that is actually a rapelay clone, and then start selling. It's been like that for ages...

I can even replace any of my currently published games for a porn game right now, and they won't notice until someone reports it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sergio Rosa on 6th March 2019 5:41pm

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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada2 months ago
@Sergio "Unless I am missing something about laws, rape is illegal, thus Steam can decide not to accept it."

But, so is murder, and robbery, etc, and we have almost certainly all played a lot of games where we are murderers en masse. This rule isn't about portraying things that are illegal, it's about a game that itself -does- something illegal.

I don't believe the game should get an audience on Steam, for the reasons Brendan states. Making it is not illegal, selling it is not illegal, and the maker should be able to sell it, but I expect they'll have to do so themselves, rather than through a respectable business.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 months ago
Steam was vilified back when they were playing gatekeeper. They were celebrated when they opened the floodgates. Now we want them to go back, because we realized we do not want Steam to have no barriers, we just want them to have moral barriers of uncertain specifications. Ok, Steam reacted and in the case of this game, but there will undoubtedly be others very soon, in addition to what exists from before. Which brings with it the issues of codification. Where do we draw a moral line?

A question which the video game industry has a history of not asking itself. The only two questions asked in the industry are 'is it illegal?' and 'will it make money?'. If the answer to the second question is yes, the video game industry will certainly do it. If both answers are yes, the industry will probably do it while taking a 'sue me' stance publicly and unashamedly. Morals do not factor into it one bit. Not when it comes to lootboxes, not when it comes to borderline false advertising, not when it comes to violence, not when it comes to treating their own employees (crunch!). We are fools to believe that sexual violence and misconduct were a sanctified border nobody would dare to cross. We are fools to believe highly questionable and offensive games could be contained in some online publishing ghetto.

Sorry Brendan, if I sound aggressive, but you do not get to vote with your wallet. You do not get to suggest it to others either. Because, if you do not draw a line in the sand as an Editor, nobody else in this industry will. So please draw a line. Voting with your wallet is not akin to political power, it is the exact opposite. It is the least efficient way of influencing known to man.

And as clear cut as it is to condemn this game for what it is, the rest of the muck is vast, infinite and unaddressed. Which reveals the real problem. Our world of business first and technology does not have rugs to sweep things under anymore. People will make it, others will help them profit from it. Which is why we need fewer apps to fake proper amounts of outrage and more tools to create people who can tell right from wrong and care to do so in more than a legal way. The rape game is not what we are afraid of and respond to with moral outrage. The response is to our perceived inability to reach the audience of such a game with reason and make sure they can tell game from reality. We simply do not trust humanity enough in that point and looking around the globe we do so for a very good reasons.
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Laura Millar Artist / CoFounder, High Tea Frog Ltd2 months ago
The game listing has been removed from Steam. Maybe we should be directing more vitriol towards the developer who made this disgusting game rather than at Valve - from their statement it sounds like they just didn't see it until blew up online. Nobody's perfect!
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Antoine Baker Artist/Designer/QA Tester 2 months ago
This is a slippery slope. We all can't just be the Decency & Morality police over everything in gaming. That will ALWAYS lead to full-on censorship. Over time the game's industry will regress to a standard that will undo the "wokeness" that most people are fighting for. We'll most likely see less females in games, more shovelware to appease the masses just so nobody "offends" anyone. I literally saw but one more article about this game. Didn't even know this game existed UNTIL the articles came around. And I'm on steam a lot.

The devs didn't even get enough press or news until the two articles sprang up. I was curious about the dev so I asked them about the game and they said they saw a small spike in interest when the articles came up before the game went down. Articles like this gave them free advertising and some cash in their pocket. Some gamers are going to buy the game out of sheer curiosity when they are brought to light. These articles have done more harm than good as you've now given them some sort of notoriety that they can use to add on to the game's mystique.

In your crusade to banish the game from "innocent eyes", you've only empowered them and others to come in the future. There were very good points made by the article and others on this thread, but sometimes mediocrity or shoddy quality games are, more often than not, a more fitting punishment for the developer in question.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Antoine Baker on 7th March 2019 12:57am

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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany2 months ago
@Craig Burkey: Like a lot of people out there; you got free speech wrong. Free speech is being able to express what you want without fear of retaliation or sanction from the authorities.
Free speech does not shield you from the consequences of what you say or do, nor the way people reacts to it.
Valve is a private company, and they have removed the game as of now. And before you say anything: that is not an attack on free speech or being an "arbiter of taste & decency" but and example on how free speech actually works in both directions. Those guys did bring that game into Steam and Valve, owner of the platform, used their freedom to decide what they don't want it there.

Also, to give you some insight on "South Park: Stick Of Truth fiasco when that was arbitrarily cut by the European publisher." The game was modified on consoles, but not on PC, a quick google search will get you the official statement and the reason for it. Modifying a game costs time, money, and potential delays. A decision like that is never "arbitrary", by the time you get your opportunity to get in the game industry, you'll see that.

Regards.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany2 months ago
@Antoine Baker: You rise a good point there, but I believe that the article here was more aiming towards telling Valve that they need to have a better overview of what gets published in their platform.
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