Opinion: Valve should stop acting like Steam is the only place to buy PC games.
Valve recently announced that it would change Steam’s policy to allow everything onto the platform, as long as they didn’t deem it illegal or “straight up trolling.” They said they want “to focus less on trying to police what should be on Steam.” That desire was spurred by a recent incident where Valve threatened to ban a handful of erotic games, and then actually did ban a school shooting simulator as well as a handful of other games.
I appreciate Valve making this statement because it will demystify the questions around why certain games make the cut when others don’t — although the loose definition (read: none) of what “trolling” means exactly does give them free reign to keep banning anything they want as usual. What I don’t appreciate is the enormous pedestal Valve has seemingly put Steam on.
Their wording throughout the announcement implies Steam is the only option out there, therefore justifying this new policy by basically saying it would be morally wrong of Valve to act as gatekeepers. Here are a few examples:
“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.”
“…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 & consume the content you choose.“
“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.”
The phrasing of these statements either reveals Valve’s massive ego or their complete lack of awareness of games distribution in 2018.
I 100% agree that creators should have the freedom to create what they want, offensive or not. But that doesn’t mean an independent storefront is duty-bound to be the platform through which any trash some idiot makes gets support and exposure. Nordstrom and Macy’s aren’t stepping on the first amendment rights of some poor independent t-shirt creator by refusing to sell a shirt with a swastika made of penises on it, and Valve isn’t taking the moral high-ground by saying they have to protect the creative freedom of someone who makes a game called ISIS Simulator.
It’s true that Steam has evolved into the de facto PC games distributor over the last decade, but it’s by no means a developer’s only outlet for creative expression. Independent distribution, dozens of different online stores, and loads of other options mean that if you have something you want to share with the world it’s really not that hard. Selling a game on itch.io, for example, can take a matter of hours to set up, while Steam takes weeks.
Burying good games under pointlessly offensive trash does significantly more harm to creative expression than banning a school shooting simulator would.
And while Steam may still be the best distribution option right now, Valve consistently makes decisions that will eventually undermine that. Policy decisions like this one have led to Steam being flooded with junk, forcing gamers and developers alike to look elsewhere. So many games are piling onto the store that finding something new worth your time is nearly impossible without an outside opinion. Valve wants to offer better tools to cut through all that, but it’s still a problem they caused.
To be clear, I’m not saying Valve should go on a takedown spree. I’m just saying they have every right to decide what does or doesn’t show up on a platform they privately own. Barring a game entry to Steam does not equate to stifling a creator, and Valve needs to stop pretending it does. Burying good games that are truly worth spending money on under a mountain of achievement spam games, asset flips, and pointlessly offensive trash does significantly more harm to creative expression than banning a school shooting simulator would.
Valve should be adding more, diverse hands-on curation to Steam, not less. What any storefront chooses to sell will always have a certain degree of bias to it (I doubt we’ll see that change as we start to learn what Valve considers “trolling”) and having literally no content regulations is a destructive solution to that problem.
Steam grew to be something special and instead of rising to the occasion, Valve has spent the last few years pulling away and abdicating as much responsibility as they possibly can for the mess the platform has become. It’s good that we know where they stand now, but I can’t help but be disappointed with the spot they picked.
Tom Marks is IGN’s PC Editor and pie maker. You can follow him on Twitter.