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Valve's new content policy is a gutless attempt to dodge responsibility

Company's willingness to profit by selling racist, sexist, misogynistic games speaks volumes about its values

Valve has spent years trying to lower the barriers to entry on its digital storefront. From its initial hands-on curation process to the community-voted Steam Greenlight to the current just-pay-us-$100-and-go-wild model of Steam Direct, the company has been consistent in its push to allow more games from more creators on the storefront.

Predictably, that has caused some problems, one of which has been the question of what kinds of content will Valve tolerate in its store. That question became a pressing one lately when the company sent warnings to a number of visual novel developers insisting that they tone down their risqué games or see them removed from Steam. This came as a surprise to many of the developers, considering their games were arguably less graphic in their sexual content than many other indie and AAA games happily occupying unchallenged slots on the Steam storefront.

At the same time, Valve was allowing a store page for Active Shooter, a game that allowed players to step into the role of a school shooter and rack up kill counts of civilians and police. In the wake of yet another school shooting in the US, Active Shooter was drawing widespread condemnation and the sort of mainstream coverage that gives the industry a black eye. (And in this case, a well-deserved one.) Valve eventually pulled Active Shooter's page from the storefront and banned the developer.

There is nothing so racist, sexist, misogynistic, or reprehensible that Valve will step in and say, 'You know, maybe we shouldn't be helping these people spread their message and profiting from it in the process.'

But it wasn't that Valve took issue with the content of the game; instead it found that the developer had previously been banned from the storefront for abuse of the platform and returned under another name. In explaining the Active Shooter decision, Valve said it would clarify its stance on what sort of games it would allow on the storefront soon. It followed through on that today with a statement that--after a waffling preamble about how hard the problems are and how its own employees don't agree on what to do--explained it wouldn't really be doing anything.

"Valve shouldn't be the ones deciding this. If you're a player, we shouldn't be choosing for you what content you can or can't buy. If you're a developer, we shouldn't be choosing what content you're allowed to create. Those choices should be yours to make. Our role should be to provide systems and tools to support your efforts to make these choices for yourself, and to help you do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable.

"With that principle in mind, we've decided that the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling."

There are a few simple problems with even this approach. First, it means Active Shooter (or a game like it) would probably be allowed on the storefront. There is nothing so racist, sexist, misogynistic, or reprehensible that Valve will step in and say, "You know, maybe we shouldn't be helping these people spread their message and profiting from it in the process." If you have problems with hardcore pornography, that's going to be allowed in a lot of jurisdictions, too. It's pretty much everything goes from here on out.

Second, it might seem odd to see Valve rule out "things we decide are illegal," since there are plenty of governments around the world set up to make exactly those decisions. (Incidentally, does anyone know if Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is still available in the Belgium storefront?)

Third, Valve prohibiting games that are "straight up trolling" once again introduces the sort of subjective call that the company absolutely abhors making. If I were using that as a criteria for banning games from the store, you can bet games like ISIS Simulator, Suicide Simulator, and Asset Flip Simulator would have been instantly booted rather than hosted on the storefront for months. The upcoming AIDS Simulator (from the same developer) boasts the following tagline:

"Welcome to Africa, you've got HIV! Now you're mad and want to kill all Africans that gave you aids to get revenge. AIDS Simulator is a very short first-person shooter with boring gameplay, bad graphics and generic assets."

But where I see straight-up trolling, Valve I imagine must see a valuable perspective and artistic expression worthy of supporting (minus its 30% cut of the revenue, naturally).

The logistics of enforcing this new policy aside, my biggest problem with Valve's approach is related to a passage a little later on in the company's statement:

"So what does this mean? It means that the Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate, and don't think should exist. Unless you don't have any opinions, that's guaranteed to happen. But you're also going to see something on the Store that you believe should be there, and some other people will hate it and want it not to exist.

Valve's values reflect on the rest of the industry, for good or ill. And that's a problem, because the Active Shooters and AIDS Simulators of the world should not be the face we present to the world

"It also means that 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 two points above apply to all of us at Valve as well. If you see something on Steam that you think should not exist, it's almost certain that someone at Valve is right there with you."

Frankly, this is nonsense. Valve does not get to have its cake and eat it, too. This is absolutely a reflection of Valve's values. Yes, the company values people having the right to create and consume content of their own choosing. It values that so much more than it values people who have survived a school shooting, or people who have lost their friends and family members to them. More than it values an entire continent of people being demonized on top of an epidemic on top of a history of exploitation. More than it values its position as a representative of the medium of video games. More than it values basic human decency.

Valve has made its values abundantly clear time and again. And as a dominant player in the PC gaming space, its values cannot help but reflect on the rest of the industry, for good or ill. And that's a problem, because the Active Shooters and AIDS Simulators of the world should not be the face we present to the world.

And if not for Valve, they wouldn't be. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft would never be associated with these games. I don't think any ESA member would, because they all either recognize that these games are awful and have no place on the industry's mainstream platforms, or simply because they understand it's bad business to put the Nintendo Seal of Approval on glorifications of child murder or racist genocide for entertainment's sake.

But Valve doesn't. All Valve understands is that it doesn't want to make a choice and draw a line. It doesn't want the responsibility of being the biggest platform for PC games on the planet; it just wants its 30%.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.