Monday, July 11, 2016

Why I am one of the most banned game developers from Twitch, and 3 steps they can take to fix their broken policy

EDIT, 14 July 2016: this original post has been cross-posted (with a few additional excerpts, for context) to Polygon.

A few days ago, Twitch banned my newest release Radiator 2 from all broadcast by anyone throughout their entire site. This is the third release of mine that they've banned. I am now the 3rd most banned game developer from Twitch (or perhaps the 2nd most banned, if you count each part of Radiator 2 separately).

I'm no stranger to Twitch game bans, but this is new even for me: the games bundled in Radiator 2 are actually kinda old! For the past year and a half of press coverage, interviews, game festivals, art exhibitions, and viral videos, these games were OK to broadcast on Twitch. I had thought I found a safe ground of "acceptable sexuality" (an extremely dangerous concept in of itself) but with this move, they've now banned basically everything I've made. Now, nowhere is safe for me as a creator.

What's too gay for them, what's too sexual for them? Why did they change their mind when I re-mastered my games and put them on Steam?

I have no idea, and that's the biggest problem: Twitch never says anything. No e-mail, no notification, no rationale, no reason, no pity tweet. Am I just supposed to keep refreshing the ban list page to see if they banned me, for every single game I make, forever?

This is humiliating and dehumanizing treatment, and I wish Twitch would stop it.

* * *

Previously, I critiqued Twitch's ban policy in my talk at GDC 2016. Their policy, I argue, mimics the anti-sex strategies of banks and payment processors. Their goal is to remain vague and hazy, so that they can randomly decide what "too much sex" or the "wrong kind of sex" is, while carving out special exceptions for large companies or business partners. I'm sure this is good for business, but it's very bad for creative culture.

Maybe Twitch simply wants to "protect the children", so that's why they ban my games? That must be why they allow broadcast of countless M-rated games, games like The Witcher 3 -- which hinges its brand on its sexually-charged dark edgy fantasy politics, and even makes players walk through a house decorated with murdered raped women as the climax of an important quest. "Protecting the children" must also mean letting users broadcast South Park: Stick of Truth, a game with a brand that exists to court controversy and delight in offensive imagery, a game which makes you fight a giant penis boss monster and depicts aliens graphically probing various characters.

While I find both games to be distasteful (and lazy) about how they depict sex and sexual violence, I am glad that Twitch does not ban these games to "protect the children". Here, Twitch seems to understand that this is a job better suited for their already-existing "Mature Content" user setting, giving users more control over managing their own experience.

I just wish Twitch was nearly as understanding about my games too.

* * *

Maybe I'm being too cynical. Maybe a large committee of smart people at Twitch carefully debate the aesthetic merits of each game, before taking the nuclear step of unilaterally banning it from one of the most important game platforms in the world?

If this is the case, then I would really appreciate these following common sense reforms to the Twitch game ban policy in favor of bringing greater transparency and humanity to their ban process(NOTE: I consider these suggestions to be "cheap" operational changes which would not require major technical changes. Thus, they are just a starting point toward a better solution.)

1. Notify game creators when banning their work, and cite specific game features or content for why they were banned. The reasoning should be listed in a notification e-mail as well as on the banned game list. A ban is punishment for something, and Twitch needs to tell creators how to avoid that punishment in the future -- unless the real message is that the punishment is arbitrary, or that nothing we do will ever avoid punishment. This is the absolute bare minimum that Twitch should do. Even faceless regulatory boards like the ESRB and MPAA explain their ratings.

2. Publish and operate a formal appeals process. If a creator thinks Twitch got it wrong, who do they even talk to? Currently, the ban list page implies that there is no possible appeal. The decision to ban a game from one of the largest game culture platforms in the world should be able to withstand scrutiny and discussion, and an appeals process would give creators confidence that the ban decision was not taken lightly or made on a whim. Even a failed appeal, as much as I would disagree with it, would give me more information and demonstrate that Twitch cared a little about this, at least.

3. Maintain two classifications of games: Restricted Games and Prohibited Games. Instead of inflicting one nuclear punishment upon all games with sexual content that aren't The Witcher 3 or South Park, Twitch could maintain a second categorization that includes artistically-sexual games that don't function as pornography, which is the "compromise" that YouTube and Vimeo make in their policies. I would argue that all of my games, as well as What's Under Your Blanket? (a teenage cartoon masturbation-embarrassment comedy game) and Genital Jousting (a disembodied cartoon penis arena game) are all easily far too weird or self-conscious for most people to masturbate with. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

"Restricted Games" could require users to use the Mature Content flag -- functionality that is already implemented in Twitch -- just as YouTube routinely gates my videos and Steam gates my store page. For the record, I am completely OK with moderation and gating! This is the norm on YouTube, Vimeo, Steam... similar functionality is already in Twitch... so why on earth would you rather ban games by secret trial instead of training your community to use this tool, and making it easier to use?

* * *

If games are a form of art and protected speech, the great bold new artform of the 21st century, then could we all please, at least, wring our hands a bit more about banning games?

Do you know what offends me more than being banned? It's Twitch's cold shoulder attitude about banning everyone. If they were on a genuine anti-sex morality crusade, at least that would mean they cared about it. Instead, their silence and inconsistency just gives me the distinct impression of not giving a shit, which would be fine if only they weren't so important to the future of game culture.

If Twitch actually cares about games, it should invest time / people / resources into nurturing games as a mature creative culture, to protect whoever needs protection AS WELL AS protect creative diversity of expression at the same time. These goals are not mutually exclusive, and if any system cannot do this, then that system is broken and should be fixed.

Please fix this, Twitch.