Valve Clears Up Nothing With Its Latest Explanation Of What Games It Will Ban As ‘Troll Games’

You will recall that several months back, Valve released a statement outlining what it considered to be sweeping changes to its game curation duties. While the company made a great deal of forthcoming tools on the Steam store for filtering game searches, pretty much everyone focused on the platform’s claim that it would no longer keep any game off its platform unless it was “illegal or a troll game.” That, of course, still left all kinds of ambiguity as to what is and is not allowed on the platform and it provided a wide avenue through which Steam could still drive its oversight truck. This led to our having a podcast discussion in which I pointed out repeatedly that this was every bit as opaque a policy as the one that proceeded it, which was followed by the real-world example of developers across the spectrum pointing out that they in fact had no idea what the policy actually meant. In other words, the whole thing has generally been an unproductive mess.

A mess which Valve tried to clean up this past week in an extensive blog post on its site which attempted to define what it meant by “troll games.” As the folks at Ars point out, this attempt at clarity is anything but. Much of what Valve lays out as “troll games” makes sense: scam games that work Steam’s inventory system, or try to manipulate developer Steam keys, or games that are simply broken due to a lack of seriousness on the part of the developer. But then it also said the definition included what most people thought of in the original announcement: games that “just try to incite and sow discord.”

Valve’s Doug Lombardi said at the time that Active Shooter was removed from Steam because it was “designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict through its existence.” That designation came despite the fact that the developer said the game was “a dynamic SWAT simulator in which dynamic roles are offered to players” and that he would “likely remove the shooter’s role in the game by the release” after popular backlash to the idea.

As the developer noted at the time, too, “there are games like Hatred, Postal, Carmageddon and etc., which are even [worse] compared to Active Shooter and literally focuses on mass shootings/killings of people.”

It’s as good an example as any for pointing out what has always been true about art forms: one person’s inflammatory content is another person’s artistic genius. More worrisome, Valve’s own words on its policy put the company squarely in the business of mind-reading, with its post suggesting that troll developers are those that aren’t actually interested in making or selling a game. It relies on Valve’s own analysis of a developer’s “good faith” in putting forth the game.

While good-faith developer efforts can obviously lead to “crude or lower quality games” on Steam, Valve says that “it really does seem like bad games are made by bad people.” And it’s those bad games from bad people that Valve doesn’t want on Steam.

Absent a mind-reading device, determining a developer’s motives isn’t an easy task. Defining what separates a good faith effort to sell a game from a “troll” involves a “deep assessment” of the developer, Valve says, including a look at “what they’ve done in the past, their behavior on Steam as a developer, as a customer, their banking information, developers they associate with, and more.”

We could spend a great deal of time discussing how qualified Valve is in making these determinations, or what value such curation provides for a platform like Steam. Or we could talk instead about whether this treatment sets video games back a notch or two as an art form, with corporate oversight playing the role of evaluating each artist’s intent.

But the real lesson here is that, whatever you think of Valve’s definitions above, it is clear as day that these explanations are not in line with the overall message in Valve’s original notice of the change in policy. The company explicitly said at that time that it didn’t believe it should be in the business of deciding what types of games with what types of content users should see on the platform. The whole point of this was for wide inclusion, whereas it seems really hard to see any daylight from this updated explanation and Steam’s historical curation policy. Valve still gets to decide what goes on the platform.

So many words and so much time for so little effect, in other words.

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