It's almost become a running joke within parts of the gaming community that the medium has been associated with so much controversy in the eyes of the wider public, especially when it comes to violent content. It seems that ever since games have existed they've faced backlash for the things they portray, and indeed they should be held accountable, just like anything else is. Now a game called Rape Day has got everyone casting a critical eye at the gaming space once more, specifically at Valve, which allowed it on its Steam platform, except now it's more complicated than just a bit of violence.
Before taking a closer look at this particular title let's move our minds back to the early days of controversy in gaming, in the broadest strokes possible. It's no secret that games like Mortal Kombat have attracted ire from the public for their excessive violence (Netherrealm's fighting game was instrumental in the creation of the ESRB ratings board in the USA, after all), and when crimes have taken place such as the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, again heads were turned towards titles like Doom for the violence within.
This isn't just an argument from years ago though; it's a conversation that has continued into the modern day. Admittedly the argument focused solely against games with excessive violence has died down a little bit, perhaps due to desensitisation and overexposure. After all, Cassie Cage literally kicks Kano in the nuts so hard in the Mortal Kombat 11 trailer below that his spine and skull launch out of his upper half - rather than shock and horror most people would say this is just the expected thing from the franchise.
As time has moved on though, Steam, in particular, has attracted heat for the controversial content that appears on the platform. In the last year alone there have been a number of incidents that have led to the situation we're in now, and it feels like things are reaching a bit of a breaking point.
Back in May last year, for example, a game called Active Shooter appeared on the platform in which players were free to engage in a school shooting, targeting innocent pupils in the process, and to make matters worse it came mere months after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. The developer Ata Berdiyev (whose other games include one called White Power: Pure Voltage) had the game removed, but that wasn't the last we'd hear of games being taken off of Steam.
In December Valve also banned a load of sexually-themed games from the platform, which was specifically because the content either said or implied that the female characters - some of which appeared in school settings and outfits - were under the age of 18.
These games were taken down because Valve made clear in a post in June last year that anything "illegal, or straight up trolling" would be removed from Steam. While that sounds good at a glance, when you read the full section, then it becomes startlingly clear that Steam's regulations aren't tight whatsoever:
"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. Taking this approach allows us to focus less on trying to police what should be on Steam, and more on building those tools to give people control over what kinds of content they see."
That brings us to right now, and the above paragraph is pretty much the reason why a game like Rape Day was allowed to appear on Steam's page at all. We don't need to go into what the game is about and why it attracted controversy - it's all in the title - but this time it wasn't just a game with blood and gore, but a game that lets players rape women, rape being something we've rarely seen before in the space. It's a serious subject that games have seldom waded into, and for good reason. However, this latest controversial title has got people talking yet again about how Steam could let this happen, and why it wasn't stopped.
The answer is because Valve has made it clear they'll "allow everything onto the Steam Store". In fact, if you take a look at the Steamworks guidelines, you'll see that the things you shouldn't publish on Steam include "Adult content that isn't appropriately labelled and age-gated". The developer of Rape Day knew this and flagged the content included, meaning it complied with Steam's loose guidelines and was therefore allowed on the platform, hence why the creator wrote on the game's website that there shouldn't really be any reason for the game to be removed. They were almost asking for a negative response because they knew the guidelines would protect them.
It didn't take long before the game was removed, but the explanation from Valve was far from satisfactory. Rather than make a stand and tread on their own toes when it came to the loose guidelines, Valve instead made a vague statement in which they claimed its removal was down to "unknown costs and risks." No doubt it was because of the public backlash that it got taken down, but it's important that this wasn't specified as the reason. Valve wasn't doing it because of the content, but because of whatever "costs and risks" they alluded to in this statement.
It was the exact same case with Active Shooter as well. In a statement to Kotaku at the time Valve said the creator had "a history of customer abuse, publishing copyrighted material, and user review manipulation" and that "we are not going to do business with people who act like this towards our customers or Valve."
Yet again this is a statement that sounds good, but there's one important fact to point out - the game was removed because of the creator's offences against the customers, which was used as a smokescreen to make people happy. It was not removed because of its content, and by neglecting to mention this in both the cases of Rape Day and Active Shooter, Valve is implying that the content is fine for their platform. This isn't just turning a blind eye to the bad stuff; this is tacit approval of their existence.
So where do we go from here? In the wake of the Rape Day controversy Scottish MPs have spoken out encouraging government reviews on this type of content, but the real solution lies within Steam and Valve. As long as their policies are purposefully this loose, this will keep happening again, whether it's violent games, sexually explicit ones, or something even worse that lies in wait in the coming months and years. As long as it's not "illegal" or "trolling", anything can get through the gates, and that's the heart of the problem.
The good thing about Valve right now as opposed to a year ago is that they're not alone in the PC space anymore, as others like Discord and Epic Games are hosting their own stores and platforms on PC. In fact, we got in touch with both companies to hear about their own policies when it came to games, and they're rather different from Steam's.
A Discord representative informed us that their store doesn't sell anything that isn't vetted internally by their own team first, meaning that everything is checked before it goes on the Discord Store.
An Epic spokesperson, on the other hand, told us that games are not allowed on the Epic Games Store if they have an Adults Only rating (or local equivalent) or have not received a rating at all.
It goes without saying but it's worth spelling out - both Discord and Epic have tighter restrictions and checks in place when looking at what content is allowed into each of their marketplaces and, consequently, into the hands of players. It's not just about gating games based on their rating either, but having the companies themselves examine what's coming in so they can make a decision as to whether it goes any further, rather than Steam's own policy of allowing everything and then scrambling to take it down for one reason or another.
We also mention Discord and Epic because they are now offering competition to Steam. For the longest time Steam was the only option for PC gamers and so Valve could pretty much do whatever it wanted, but with Epic and Discord both offering more enticing revenue models (88/12 for Epic in favour of the developers, with 90/10 for Discord) and big games like Metro Exodus signing exclusivity with Epic, Steam simply cannot afford this mentality anymore. If it doesn't sharpen up, there are other platforms that can capitalise on that, and if people don't feel that they're safe from harmful content, they may well move to alternatives that are more appealing in how they handle what's shown to them. And that's without even mentioning other platforms on PC like GOG, Utomik, Origin, itch.io, Uplay, and plenty more.
Of course, neither Epic nor Discord are established enough right now to take the mammoth user base away from Steam overnight - nor is this a discussion on whether they will take popularity away from Steam overall - but the Metro Exodus deal and the growing concern over Valve's laissez-faire attitude to content are early warning signs that Steam needs to do more when tackling these issues. Epic is even gearing up for 2019 with plenty of new features outlined in a recent roadmap, so they're not slowing their pace.
So this conversation and criticism aren't solely about those who take umbrage with these sorts of games, but also for Valve's own sake. It doesn't do them any harm to restrict the smaller indies like Rape Day, and as they said themselves last year, "Valve is not a small company" -they can afford a gating process that filters out the bad stuff before it gets to see the light of day. And let's be realistic, how many people will you lose in terms of sales from a game like Active Shooter being barred from entering Steam? Not many. Moreover, an unintended consequence of removing these games after they emerge on Steam in the first place is that it actually gives these games inadvertent publicity and cult status from the drama.
It's also not good enough to wash your hands of this responsibility by saying "there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad," because Valve has a responsibility to tackle this "dilemma" they talk about. Just as the finger is pointed at figures like YouTuber Pewdiepie when they fall under scrutiny, whether they like it or not they have the responsibility to control what kind of message they want to give. By saying they don't want to make any players mad, this applies to anyone who supports the games promoting rape, school shootings, and child exploitation. Essentially if they don't want to make them mad, they're again tacitly supporting their views and validating them as a result. Sometimes when you're at the top and responsible for thousands of games and their exposure, you have to live with making some people mad.
Now, in the interest of fairness Valve also made clear in ''Who Gets To Be On Steam?' post that humans are in fact involved with the process, and that it's not just automated, which is worth pointing out. They say that there are "groups of people looking at the contents of every controversial title submitted to us", but the point is that it shouldn't be just the controversial titles. Everything should be checked, so Valve can decide (as they should) whether it can be sold and whether it's appropriate.
The Steam Direct process detailed here also says that Valve requires digital paperwork and a fee before games can make it to the review processes, which interestingly includes a search for "malicious content". This is clearly not the highest priority though, as the same section places heavier emphasis on technical checks to make sure the games run fine as well as making it easier for developers to release them. Everywhere you turn, Valve is dodging the question of harmful content, or simply sweeping it under the carpet, and that applies to the Steamworks documentation page as well.
Lastly, there's a specific message in the aforementioned post that we wanted to draw close attention to, which says that "developers who build controversial content shouldn't have to deal with harassment because their game exists, and we'll be building tools and options to support them too."
"To be explicit about that - if we allow your game onto the Store, it does not mean we approve or agree with anything you're trying to say with it. If you're a developer of offensive games, this isn't us siding with you against all the people you're offending. There will be people throughout the Steam community who hate your games, and hope you fail to find an audience, and there will be people here at Valve who feel exactly the same way. However, offending someone shouldn't take away your game's voice. We believe you should be able to express yourself like everyone else, and to find others who want to play your game. But that's it."
As we've mentioned with other examples in this article, Valve seems more concerned with protecting the free speech of developers who may choose to produce games about topics like rape than they are about imposing any sort of censorship on the content on their platform, and this is the root of all of the issues we've discussed. The consumers and what they're exposed to should be first priority, which means imposing tighter guidelines on these developers and looking over what they're making. That's the only way we won't have a complete PR disaster again as we've seen in the last few weeks. Is avoiding censorship really that important, if the result is a series of backlashes over the content that emerges in its absence?
The statement also makes it seem like there's a dilemma as to whether the slightly tongue-in-cheek content like Mr. President! - in which you play as a bodyguard protecting a satirical depiction of president Donald Trump - should be allowed. To be clear, we're not talking about restricting those games that might be offensive to one political party, but the really harmful stuff we've been seeing over the last year or so.
In a sense it's a shame that Taiwanese horror game Devotion was voluntarily removed by the developers, as the uproar from Chinese players discovering the game mocking leader Xi Jinping would have been another test as to whether Valve would have stayed back and watch it happen, or stepped in to placate those angry with the message. Again this is a game that in theory shouldn't be harmful but might rub certain nationalities and parties up the wrong way, but would Valve have allowed this to stay given Steam's popularity in China?
Valve said last year that "we won't be making significant changes to what's arriving on Steam until we've finished some of the tools we've described in this post," but something needs to be done right now before even more problematic and disturbing content emerges. It's irresponsible to expect the community to gatekeep the content, and if there are no restrictions at all, games like Active Shooter and Rape Day might just be the tip of the iceberg for worse content coming in the future, and it's only Steam that has the power to change that, or others might just come along and offer a better alternative for users.