Video game company Valve—which last week was weighed down with the controversy over its hosting of the virtual school simulator Active Shooter (since pulled)—is out with a new content policy. From a libertarian perspective, it's pretty amazing.
In a Wednesday blog post, Valve employee Erik Johnson laid out a vision for what kind of games will be allowed on Steam. According to Johnson, that will include pretty much anything save those titles that "are illegal, or straight up trolling."
"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," wrote Johnson. "Our role should be to provide systems and tools to support your efforts to make these choices for yourself, and to help you do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable."
For a company who earns its keep selling all sorts of games to all sorts of gamers this comes across as eminently sensible. It amounts to the realization that taste is subjective, and that it is near impossible to impose objective standards of permissible content that will please all the company's customers and vendors.
The issue is tricky enough that debates over what content can go on Steam are occurring not just in the wider world but indeed within Valve itself.
As Johnson wrote, "Valve is not a small company—we're not a homogeneous group. The online debates around these topics play out inside Valve as well. We don't all agree on what deserves to be on the Store. So when we say there's no way to avoid making a bunch of people mad when making decisions in this space, we're including our own employees, their families and their communities in that."
As if to prove Valve's point that there is no way to make everyone happy, video game journalists have reacted with near-apoplectic rage that the company will be less-than-proactive in telling its customers what kind of games they're allowed to play.
For Kotaku's Nathan Grayson, Valve's new policy reeks of hypocritical nihilism. Grayson writes on Twitter that "Valve dedicates so much of this post to talking about how allowing a game onto steam doesn't constitute an expression of values or taking a 'side.' but the knowing creation of an all-is-permitted libertarian paradise ABSOLUTELY constitutes an expression of values"
The argument here seems to be that no content policy can exist in an ideological vacuum, and Valve has chosen the wrong ideology by trying to choose none of them. The right policy, Grayson seems to be arguing, would have Valve act as a screener not just for illegal content but for acceptable content. The folks who run Valve clearly don't want that role, both because it would be a monstrous headache and because they have taken the stance that it is not up to them to make hosting decisions based on personal taste.
For a long time, this is how the internet worked and what made it a force for democratization and liberation. Every type of person could find content and products to suit their tastes somewhere on the legal web. That kind of freedom, however, is now being recast as a total abdication of responsibility that will invite the worst kinds of abuses. Grayson expressed fears, for instance, that woke game developers will be scared off Steam by an imminent flood of neo-nazi games.
Over at video game website Polygon, Ben Kuchera excoriates Valve for asking individual gamers to make decisions about what they want. "Saying there are no rules is a good way to make sure no one gets mad, and if people get upset about the flood of abusive and hateful games that now, by policy, have a home on Steam…well, tough shit," writes Kuchera. "This solution keeps things simple, and profitable. Anything goes, and Valve is going to make money on all of it."
But gamers who don't want to play Nazi games don't have to and won't have to. They may have to live with the knowledge that these games exist, just as they have to live with the knowledge that Nazis exist. Neither Kuchera nor Grayson have done much to articulate the full spectrum of "hateful and abusive" games. Would it be limited to admittedly repugnant titles like Active Shooter? Or would we have to start roping in more mainstream titles like Grand Theft Auto, which that lets you beat prostitutes, kill cops, and hunt down illegal immigrants? Should Valve start going after seemingly sedate strategy games like Rome: Total War, where players can use their legions to commit genocide? What about Hearts of Iron, which features Nazi Germany as a playable faction?
These questions bedevil line drawers of all stripes, and Valve is making the prudent decision to not put itself in the middle of these contentious debates.
And it's not like the company would be free of controversy had they gone the other way and come out with a vague, mealy-mouthed policy against "hate games." The Graysons and Kucheras of the world would be asking why this or that offensive game could still be found on Steam's digital shelves, while other gamers might be litigating why seemingly mainstream titles like those mentioned above are suddenly unacceptable.
This is exactly what happened to music-streaming service Spotify when it came out with its own "hate content" policy. Within days, feminist group Ultraviolet published a list of artists it wanted suppressed on the app, arguing convincingly that the company's new policy of not promoting artists who've done evil and obscene things was not being applied as broadly as the company's language seemingly allowed.
Rather than engage in this never-ending debate, Valve has decided to take a step back from it, letting user tastes dictate what gains a following on the platform. That's a refreshing and broadly liberal attitude that a lot more content platforms would do well to adopt.