Steam Content Curation

Hey Folks,

I promised to explore here some of the stray thoughts and avenues of research that my thesis doesn’t quite encompass. A large portion of what researchers read, ponder, and model doesn’t make its way into their research artefacts, and sometimes it can be interesting to look at the tangentially relevant. So here’s the first one.

As I mentioned before my thesis is in the disciple of game studies. I’m largely approaching from an arts perspective since that’s my background, and it’s actually surprising how often analogies drawn from writing or literary studies can be applied to games scene. I suppose from a media studies perspective they’re all branches of the same tree.

Some of you may be familiar with the latest Steam controversy, but if you’re not I’ll break it down for you. Steam is the world’s largest digital distributor for video games, and since the last decade has seen digital sales vastly outstrip physical sales (ESA 2018) Steam is now the world’s single largest videogame retailer. They’re also a publisher and a developer, and a console manufacturer, and… well they do a lot of things. The thing to remember is that they’re *really* big, and that decisions they make have incalculable flow-on effects to the greater games economy.

Anyway, back to the controversy. The first blip on the radar popped up on May 25th (Verge) in the form of somewhat bizarre emails sent to some developers on Steam. All of the developers had published anime themed, vaguely sexual titles on the Steam platform. Steam doesn’t prohibit nudity (or sexual themes), but it does prohibit pornography. Up until they received the email, all of the developers had considered their games 100% kosher (not pornography). But the emails implied otherwise, and told the developers they had two weeks to clean up their act…

Before the developers could do much more than say ‘Huh?’ they received another email from Steam. This one asked them to disregard the first email, explained that Steam was undergoing a review of its content policies and left it at that. It was the herald before the storm. On the 7th of June (two weeks after the ‘porn’ incident) Steam released a blog post explaining its new policy (the policy was actually officially announced shortly before the blog, but nobody understood the actual policy, so the blog post was written to explain it). The policy still stands, and it boils down to this:

[…} 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.

People are pissed, of course, because it’s the internet. But it invites some interesting questions. What is the responsibility of a retailer (with an effective monopoly) to curate the titles in its store? If someone makes a game called Babykilla 2000 where you play a neo-Nazi who murders as many non-Aryan babies in a rural town before he is caught by the police… is it Steam’s responsibility to shut the game down? Obviously they could call that ‘trolling’, but what if you toned down the content? At what point is hate-speech not considered trolling? At what point is it not Steam’s responsibility to police?

Their rationale at the moment is pretty much ‘If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.’ They’re stepping out of the content-policing business and letting the market (and their search algorithms) deal with questionable content by relegating it to obscurity. They see themselves as a facilitator between you (the consumer) and the game developers. They don’t care what content gets passed between the two of you (which they profit from), so long as you don’t see that content unless you’re looking for it (which is really what they’re focusing on from here on out).

This post ended up a bit of a mess, probably because it’s just me throwing out thoughts as they came to me. But hopefully it gave you something to think about, and I’d love to discuss the topic with you further in the comment section below.

Cheers,
Doug

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