Letting Off Steam

            Valve is a company that makes computer/video games; they also run the Steam game distribution platform, which is an online store/licensing portal that sells games made by other companies. This week, Valve announced it would no longer curate titles on Steam, and allow any game producer to host any title in the store, for sale to the public (with the notable exceptions of games that contain illegal content and those are “straight up trolling”). [You can read the announcement at: https://store.steampowered.com/news/]

            This is fascinating, and definitely a reaction to recent public attention focused on one game that Valve took off the Steam platform (and simultaneously banned the game producer), a first-person shooter that simulated mass murder at a school, called Active Shooter. While I’m not sure how that game would run afoul of this new policy (is Active Shooter straight up trolling or illegal content? if neither, why is it still banned?), it seems very interesting to me that Valve chose to modify their approach to hosting titles as a result.

            I am a gamer. And I am interested in maximizing free speech. Valve’s decision therefore delights me greatly. Opponents of Valve’s decision (including writers from disparate sources, such as game review websites and Forbes) kind of puzzle me, and somewhat infuriate me. Their arguments seem to constitute two lines of thought: 

1) By allowing anything, Valve is taking a political stance that endorses everything.

2) By allowing anything, the online store will be swamped with material customers don’t want, such as games that include topics that bother some people, including racial bias, violence, and sexuality. Customers won’t be able to find what they want, because of all the material they don’t want; this will be particularly disturbing to sensitive customers who are offended by those topics.

            Trying to make sense of these criticisms, I draw these two conclusions:

1) I can’t possibly understand why the political stance of “allowing everything” is ugly or wrong: the entire purpose of having a free society (much less a free online store) is so that conflicting ideas and perspectives are allowed to exist (and maybe flourish)....even if most of us don’t particularly like them. Having freedom so that we can all like the same things isn’t freedom, it’s a sheep farm.

2) I don’t think the people saying this A) are gamers and B) understand how the Internet works. To explain in detail:

            A) Gaming is a participatory mode of entertainment unlike any other form of mass media: books, movies, music are all projections of the creators (writers, directors, musicians, singers) at the audience in a unilateral communication; the audience does not communicate with the artist or influence the art. (The notable exception: choose-your-own-adventure books, where outcomes are decided by readers.) In gaming, the player must take part in the activity in order to determine progress/outcome. The artist(s) can present content, but the game doesn’t actually do anything unless the player is utilizing it-- a game without a player is a title screen, and no different from wall art. In terms of recreation, this makes gaming more akin to, say, sports, than literature (with the obvious advantage that gaming does not favor only those with the biological birthright biases of ability, size, speed, etc.).

            So in order to be “affected” by a game (no matter how sensitive you are), you have to actually play the game...which is a conscious choice, and includes the option of stopping at any time. You, the player (or potential player), have full control over whether any selection from that medium, any game, affects you, personally. You have no control over whether someone else can play it or if they are affected, and nobody else has control over whether you play it or are affects. You. You alone are in charge. Compare this to, say, the television turned to full volume in the airport waiting areas: I have no choice, as an audience member, to voluntarily not participate: if I want to isolate myself from that communication, I have to take active steps (using headphones/earplugs, purposefully not looking in that direction) to insulate myself from the message.

            Gamers understand this, and relish it-- it is one of the great joys of games. There are many thousands of games I have never played, nor ever will-- those do not affect me in any way, much the same way the millions of sandwiches eaten by other people only affect those people, and not me. There is food on this planet I do not like, and would probably cause me intestinal distress: I don’t have to eat that food, and can choose not to.

            Now, is it possible that the title of a particular game offends someone, and just seeing it on a screen bothers someone? Or that hundreds of these titles, listed together, scrolling across a screen, might be distressing to a viewer? Like, if every title in a list of hundreds contained racial/religious epithets, or swear words?

            Maybe that would be bothersome to someone...or maybe it would inure that person to those words, causing those words to lose power. But that’s not really here nor there, because we go to point....

            ....B) The Internet is the best shopping market ever devised. I can find almost anything I could possibly want, in a moment, without the trouble of leaving my couch. Steam makes full use of Internet possibilities, allowing a shopper to search for particular terms (or filter out particular terms), see only titles that are preferred, or limit content in any number of ways. So not only does a gamer not have to play a particular game (or genre of games), but the gamer does not even have to see a given title or type of title.

            Those that complain Steam will be overwhelmed with undesirable games, making it difficult for shoppers to find the games they (the shoppers) like, don’t really want to shop. Because that’s what shopping is: making a choice from among options. The complainers want someone else to make the choice for them (and for all gamers) by limiting the possible options. I find that sad; when an adult wants to forego the power of their own choices, they limit themselves (and when they want to impose it on everyone, their limiting all of us).

            Might Steam get inundated with cheap, callous, crass games made by halfhearted or greedy developers less concerned with quality gameplaying experiences than turning a quick buck? Might that make it harder for a shopper to find the gems hidden in piles of dross? Possibly. But that same description could be used for major production houses right now, easily. And sifting through a bunch of crap to find a treasure is one of the great joys of one of my favorite shopping formats: the flea market. I have found some items of great value (both relative and financial) for amazing prices at flea markets...and I have spent hours in flea markets where I’ve seen nothing but crap and not made a single purpose. Did the latter experience harm me in any way? You could argue I lost the value of those hours, but that would be predicated on the assumption I didn’t receive enjoyment and entertainment value from those hours

            I assure you, I did.

            Finally, just to offer a couple thoughts on the public outrage over the specific game that started the whole conversation: Active Shooter. I am not sure why the idea of a simulation that mimics a tragedy, or where the player can pretend to be an awful person, or where entertainment is derived from violence is something to revile. I and my friends have pretended to be Nazis, done faux atrocities, and taken pleasure in murder for decades...and those were just board/tabletop games: Axis and Allies, Dungeons and Dragons, and Clue. Oddly, it has never meant that I actually want to invade Poland, slaughter hobgoblinoid people, or would take delight at a dinner party in which someone was bludgeoned to death with a heavy plumbing tool.