Thursday, June 7, 2018

Why I'm not super excited about Valve's new Steam policy

In case you haven't heard: Valve recently announced it won't attempt to moderate the content on Steam anymore except when legally required to, or when it's "obvious trolling", whatever that is.

On the face of it, this is supposedly a net-win for queer people and marginalized creators. Supposedly I'll be able to publish as much dick as I want! But after many years of dealing with platforms, and their intentionally vague policies and selective enforcement, I've grown extremely wary of these many public statements that promise to do better, and then never do. Even if this new policy is for real, I can easily imagine a future where Valve suddenly changes its mind to disallow my games -- I'm used to being treated as a "controversial" edge case in games, and all these companies have successfully trained me not to trust them or take their word for it.

There's a lot to unpack in Valve's post, and you can read a lot of different editorials all around the internet for the full scope of those ideas. Personally I'm not interested in regulating "spam games" or "asset flips", and my analysis will focus more on my experience and attitude in using Steam as a developer.

I think one big problem with "Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store" is that it doesn't recognize how some developers are more On The Steam Store than others.

1. "No moderation" as no relationship

If gatekeeping is about who holds power and access to the platform, then fixing Steam's gatekeeping involves fixing Valve's broken relationship with small developers and creators.

Was this new policy supposed to help me, personally, with one of the most-banned highest-profile gay erotic games on Steam? I don't know! They never talk to me!! Gosh, why am I so ungrateful and insolent, why can't I read their minds?

It'd help if I (or any Steam dev) could reliably talk to a Steam rep or several, it'd help if Steam reps would automatically talk to first-time devs and ask if they had any questions, it'd help if I could get a sense of how Valve treats other developers to know if I'm being treated fairly... it would help if Valve would recognize the existing power dynamic and work to counteract that.

I don't know how many people Valve should hire or what that ideal engagement process looks like. I'm also not sure if I see a real difference between oppressive people or oppressive systems (designed by people). I just want the outcome of more robust transparency, better communication, and a healthier relationship with my benevolent corporate overlord somehow, which would mean more to me than a stated policy that may or may not happen.

Some developers are more equal than others. I get it. I'm sure some people deserve great healthy relationships with Valve, and I'm sure they take impeccable selfies in front of the valve sculpture in the lobby and everything. The new policy will preserve their great relationships / active line of communication, while I get to maintain my non-relationship and non-communication. What a great win for me.

Valve's blog post seems to argue that the best relationship (at least for the least lucrative devs) is no relationship, and some magical content filters / the invisible sacred hand of capitalism will solve racism. (The anime-filter joke, after a recent and shocking Steam ban threat against previously approved "sexy anime games", also feels a bit tone-deaf. They don't seem to understand how that threat has hurt a lot of people.)

2. "No moderation" as crowd-sourced gatekeeping

The hands-off approach also doesn't address the toxic communities that make managing a Steam presence such a burdensome risk. Instead, it invites conservative hate mobs and racists to claim more power across Steam, and they will further weaponize the bad faith already afforded to them.

"Just ignore them." Blocking bigots on my accounts barely even helps me personally, and definitely does not help my audience or players subjected to their abuse. Are my many anti-gay "reviewers" entitled to use my store page to tell gay people they're disgusting, are they allowed to harass my players on the Steam forum that Valve forces me to maintain? Can alt-right white nationalists review-bomb games with black protagonists? Do they count as dangerous racist harassers, or are they just "harmlessly" theorizing mass violence and deportation against people of color? And how helpful are US hate speech and harassment laws here anyway? (Hint: often very difficult to litigate, acts as a minimal floor for only the most extreme cases, if even that.)

No one is saying this work is simple. It's definitely easier for a company to disengage. It's more profitable for them too. But if you believe some causes are more important than profits, then Valve's new non-policy ends up feeling like a weird retreat instead of a proactive investment towards inclusion and retention.

Their stated focus on being a neutral platform is worrying. You could argue that no neutrality is possible when Valve collects a hefty share of sales from every game, including the assorted homophobia simulators and misogyny simulators, thus encouraging these awful communities to feel tacitly supported on Steam. Offending other users isn't just about an "inconvenient" user experience, it's also about intimidation and forcing people off the platform. How can I ever feel truly welcome and included in any place like that? Is the idea that "racists deserve to be heard" really a "neutral" stance? (My opinion: no.)

Conservative forces in games want to make the psychological burden of being on Steam as high as possible. This policy seems to encourage them to do that, and alt-right communities basically celebrated Valve's decision.

3. "No moderation" as no governance
    My NYU Game Center colleague Bennett Foddy argues that relying on Valve to fix Steam establishes a dangerous reliance on a corporation to govern its users, and instead it's better to have an elected government with legal and regulatory institutions to truly bring Steam into compliance. In the most extreme case, we should perhaps nationalize Steam, to hold it more accountable in this legal sense.

    We should definitely reshape the industry so that we don't need trust or benevolence from corporations. That's an admirable long term goal if there's a less-terrible national government involved. However I think we've already passed this terrible point where corporations are already acting as governments, and the terrible dystopian future of "corporate responsibility" is already happening. Until the revolution, I also support the medium term goal of breaking Steam's monopoly on PC game sales by supporting more socially-engaged storefronts like

    But in the short term and likely scenario, the game industry doesn't change and many people continue to rely on Valve and Steam.

    These people will probably need more than a pinky swear that everything will be OK, and I think that starts with (a) more direct relationships / conversations between Valve and vulnerable people on Steam, and (b) better moderation to make Steam less of a stressful annoying dangerous place that we're forced to exist in.

    Maybe the most likely outcome is that Valve will (c) let all the vulnerable people continue to feel neglected and burn out from Steam anyway, and then (d) years later, implement an opt-in nazi filter that the nazis will delight in circumventing.

    I wish I could end this blog post with a more hopeful note! So, uh, imagine I did.

    (Comments are disabled, sorry. Writing this post has already taken too much of my life.)