Steam's turned toxic, and Valve doesn't care
PC gaming's most important storefront is all too often an unmoderated playground for harassers and trolls, damaging developers and gamers alike
Steam saved PC gaming. As retailers aggressively reduced the shelf space afforded to PC titles - blaming piracy, but equally motivated, no doubt, by the proliferation of MMO and other online titles which had little or no resale value - Valve took matters into its own hands and delivered on the long-empty promises of digital distribution. It was a bumpy ride at first, but the service Valve created ushered in a new and exciting era for games on the PC. Freed from the shackles of traditional publishing and retail, it's become a thriving platform that teems with creativity and experimentation. Steam still isn't all things to all people, but it saved PC gaming.
Sometimes, though, you look at Steam and wonder if PC gaming was worth saving. All too often, browsing through Steam to look for interesting things to try out leaves you feeling not so much that you want to close the application in disgust, but that you'd like to set the whole damned thing on fire. The reason isn't usability, or bugginess, or anything like that - Steam has its issues, but by and large it's a solid piece of technology - but rather the "community" that Valve has allowed to thrive on its platform. On a platform that aims to expose and promote great games from newcomers and relatively unknown indies, community feedback, reviews and recommendations are vital components, but a legacy of poor and deeply misguided decision making from Valve has meant that engaging with those aspects of Steam can all too often feel like swimming through hot sewerage.
"Steam is almost entirely unmoderated, and Valve makes pretty much zero effort to reign in any behaviour on its platform that isn't outright illegal"
The problem is this; Steam is almost entirely unmoderated, and Valve makes pretty much zero effort to reign in any behaviour on its platform that isn't outright illegal. As a consequence, it's open season for the worst behaviours and tactics of the Internet's reactionary malcontents - the weapon of choice being brigading, whereby huge numbers of users from one of the Internet's cesspits are sent to downvote, post terrible reviews or simply fill content pages with bile. Targets are chosen for daring to include content that doesn't please the reactionary hordes, or for being made by a developer who once said a vaguely liberal thing on Twitter, or - of course - for being made by a woman, or for whatever other thing simply doesn't please the trolls on any given day. The reviews on almost any game on Steam will often contain some pretty choice language and viewpoints, but hitting upon a game that's been targeted for brigading is like running headlong into a wall of pure, frothing hatred.
Of course, Steam's not the worst of it in most regards; the places that spawn these brigades in the first place, places like Reddit and 4chan, are far, far worse, and concoct many other malicious ways to hurt and harass their targets. That Steam permits this behaviour on an ongoing basis is, however, a huge problem - not least because Steam is a commercial platform, and provides harassers and trolls with an opportunity to directly damage the income of the developers they target.
It's not that Valve doesn't care about the quality of its platform. Just this week, it implemented a new feature allowing customers to see scores from recent reviews, rather than overall scores, so you can get a sense of how a game has changed since its original launch. It's a good, pretty well considered feature. Yet its arrival really just highlights how little Valve seems to care that its storefront is being used as a tool by harassers, and filled up on a regular basis with vicious, abusive reviews and comments that no customer wants to be confronted with when browsing. Sure, traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I'm reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw.
"traditional retail may have been hanging PC gaming out to dry all those years ago, but at least I'm reasonably sure that most traditional retail stores would have kicked out anyone who ran into their store and started screaming obscenities in the face of the first girl they saw"
And look - I get that community moderation is hard. It's really hard. Much harder than throwing in a quick algorithm to compute review scores from recent reviews only, which is why that got tackled first; but harassment and brigading isn't a new problem on Steam, or on the Internet in general, and there are only so many times that you can claim to simply be picking low-hanging fruit before someone points out that you haven't even brought a ladder to the orchard. You're not even trying. You don't even want to try. I stated earlier on that Steam ended up this way because of bad decision making down the years, and this is what I meant; there has never been a sense that Valve wants to tackle this problem. Rather, they've given the impression that they hope they can fix it with some clever engineering tweak, some genius little bit of code that'll somehow balance the need for community feedback to expose good games against the need to stop harassers and trolls from treating the platform as a 24 hour public toilet.
That's not how community moderation works. It's a fundamental, obtuse misunderstanding of how any sort of system designed to manage, build and support a community works - from statecraft right on down to housemate meetings to discuss unwashed dishes. You need people; you need actual people doing actual moderation jobs, granted the training and the authority to step in and put the community back on the rails when it falls off. It's hard, and it's actually pretty expensive, and it takes a lot of care and attention - but it's not impossible. Look at the progress Riot Games has made in turning around the community of League of Legends, which was formerly one of the most grossly toxic communities in gaming. It's still by no means perfect, but Riot has shown that it cares, and that it's willing to fight to improve things, and LoL is by far a better, more welcoming and more fun game for it. Some of that was achieved with tweaks to systems and protocols; but in the end, it takes a real, breathing, thinking human to counteract attempts by other humans to be unpleasant to one another, because if there's one thing our species has demonstrated extraordinary affinity for over the centuries, it's finding creative ways to skirt around rules in pursuit of being unpleasant to other people.
"Riot's done a good job of this because, I believe, Riot genuinely believes that it's the right thing to do. Therein lies the rub; I don't think Valve caresRiot's done a good job of this because, I believe, Riot genuinely believes that it's the right thing to do. Therein lies the rub; I don't think Valve cares"
Riot's done a good job of this because, I believe, Riot genuinely believes that it's the right thing to do. Therein lies the rub; I don't think Valve cares. It should care. It has a damn-near monopoly on PC game distribution through its storefront, and that gives it responsibilities - if it doesn't like or want those responsibilities, that's sad in and of itself, but I'm sure a quick dip in the swimming pools they're filling with money from Steam might take the edge off the pain. It should also care, though, because there's a hard limit on how much a business can grow if it permits abusive behaviour towards whole classes of customers or clients. Anyone making a game that tackles a tough subject, or aims at a non-traditional audience, or who is themselves a member of a minority group; well, they'd probably love to be on Steam, but they're thinking twice about whether it's a good move. That's not conjecture - it's something I hear almost every week from developers in that position, developers whose starry-eyed view of Steam from only a few years ago has been replaced with absolute trepidation or even outright rejection of the idea of exposing themselves to the storefront's warped excuse for a "community".
Today, that might just mean Steam is losing out on a few bucks here and there from creators and customers who have had enough of the toxic environment it permits; but markets diversify as they grow. Steam took over when retailers failed to serve customers with an appetite for PC games. What, then, will happen to Steam if new waves of customers - younger and more diverse - find that games and creators they like are treated abysmally by the service? Valve shouldn't need a commercial incentive to fix this problem; they should fix it because it's the right thing to do, because tacitly enabling and permitting abuse is really little better than engaging in harassment yourself. If that's not enough, though, there absolutely is a commercial incentive too; Steam may be dominant, but it's not the only option for either consumers or creators. There are far more sales to be lost from permitting abuse than from telling harassers they're no longer welcome. Valve should give the latter a try.