WARNING: This article contains content which some readers may find upsetting.
Expected to be valued at over $90 billion by 2020, the video games market continues to rise in popularity. With software games making up 80% of sales, it is integral that Valve Corporation-owned Steam, the most popular distributor of PC games, is able to consistently control what should be allowed on the platform. Steam’s current submission system, Steam Direct, has failed to do that once again.
Valve’s most recent controversy surrounds a sociopath-oriented game called Rape Day, a visual novel where players assume the role of a serial rapist during a zombie apocalypse and aim to ‘verbally harass, kill, and rape women’. As of 6th March, the game has been removed from Steam after ‘significant fact-finding and discussion’ due to posing ‘unknown costs and risks’. However, issues arise due to the game being listed for multiple weeks despite not being available for purchase, its page allegedly including a preview of a ‘baby-killing scene’ which was later removed by the developer due to backlash. Steam Direct (the current submission system) and its lax policy are to blame.
On 6th June 2018, Valve unveiled their policy on what they allow on their digital game distribution site. They summarised in an official blog post that ‘the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling’.
In an ideal world, this is a sound policy, as it allows both sides of the community to have full control of what they produce and engage with. Valve claimed that this policy was put in place due to developer-based factors, as developers try new gameplay and explore what constitutes a game, as well as user-oriented factors, using preferences to give users full control over what they want to see without affecting other users’ experiences. Although in reality, issues in gaming go beyond personal preference and modernism, as the notoriously lax policy allows games that are offensive and damaging to be advertised and bought.
Rape Day is not the first instance of a damaging and disturbing game listed on the site. Previous controversies include an ISIS simulator game and Active Shooter, a game that simulated a school shooting. Valve’s notorious lack of control over what is distributed on Steam can also be boiled down to Steam Direct’s free-for-all approach to submission. It allows all games from all developers to be put on the site, as long as an app fee is paid and the developer undergoes a ‘brief review process’ where their identity and game are checked. The current overview of the process clearly states when the game is checked for running issues, however does not state if and when the game is checked for sensitive content.
These issues bring up the question of when games are properly checked for inappropriate material. Steam currently have 7 clear guidelines on what shouldn’t be distributed, including games with child-abuse, viruses and defamatory statements, but there are no mentions of restrictions on sensitive themes such as rape. Members of the gaming community speculate that Rape Day was removed due to potential legal issues, rather than for going against content guidelines:
Amazing how carefully worded this is to avoid saying anything at all about how the game does or doesn’t meet their content standards
— Cool World™ for Nintendo® Game Boy® (@BobLoblaw324) March 6, 2019
This controversy calls for Valve to tighten their policy on what is allowed on Steam. The rise of gaming popularity comes with the great responsibility of distributors monitoring what is allowed on their sites, as sensitive and offensive content should be regulated, rather than be reduced to personal preference.